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Seattle’s Link Light Rail – The Start of Something Big

Right now, Seattle is making as serious a commitment to transit as any city in the nation. Recently, Streetfilms got to take a tour of the newest addition to the city's network -- the 13-station Link Light Rail, which opened in mid-2009.

The route is beautiful, swift, and has great multi-modal connections. Service is frequent, with headways as short as 7 minutes during rush hour, and never longer than 15 minutes. And like many of the newest American light rail systems, the stations feature copious art.

Seattle has a lot of car commuters, but in a sign that many are looking for more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of getting to work, the new light rail line will be followed by several more additions to the city's transit network. As Seattle's Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl told us:

[Voters] in November 2008, by 57 percent -- which was a thrill in a recession economy -- voted to expand our light rail system, our commuter rail system, and our buses... to add another 36 miles of light rail in the region. And to add 65 percent more capacity to our commuter rail system.

We'd like to thank everyone who talked to us for this shoot, especially Bruce Gray from Sound Transit, and Andrew Schmid for arranging it all. And of course a big shout out to the intrepid scribes over at Seattle Transit Blog, who cover the local transportation scene with zeal and gusto.

<blockquote class="_text"> [music] </p><p>[0:00] </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [0:24] We're here in Seattle touring the new Link Light Rail line that just opened up in July. It's about 15 ��½ miles long. It's got 13 stations. Two point four billion dollar project that's been about four years in the making. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_2_text"> <cite class="speaker_2" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [0:36] It's a long time coming but I'm really happy that it's finally here. I actually moved to be closer to the Light Rail in anticipation of it opening. [0:44] What separates Sound Transit Link from other American light rail systems is the quality of the grade separation. There's significant stretches of link that are in tunnels or elevated so that you actually get higher operating speeds than you might see in, say, Portland. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [0:59] So far things have been going really well for us. We've been hit, just like everybody else, with some of the down economy, but our ridership is about 15 and a half thousand on weekdays, which is just below what we thought it would be by the end of 2009. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_3_text"> <cite class="speaker_3" >Joni Earl:</cite> [1:14] Our voters in this region in November 2008 by 57% voted to expand our light rail system and our commuter rail system and buses. So we have a long-range plan and then we now have a voter-approved funded plan to add another 36 miles of light rail in the region. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [1:33] Part of the main planning for this whole line is designing better ways to get to and from the stations than driving your car. We don't have parking at any of our stations in Seattle. So we've designed it and worked with the city on access to the stations and also working with the bus lines on having better bus access. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_4_text"> <cite class="speaker_4" >John Mauro:</cite> [1:49] Most of Seattle is car oriented. You know, buildings and large parking lots, especially out in the suburbs. Better lane use makes things more walkable and makes transit more accessible. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_3_text"> <cite class="speaker_3" >Joni Earl:</cite> [1:59] We've got to show people you can get on a train or a bus and it's stress-free. You can multi-task in ways that you can't as you drive. And I just think the connection is ease of use and reliability. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_2_text"> <cite class="speaker_2" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [2:12] I'm a big fan of the frequency. Starting at seven 1/2 minutes on a new line is great. Everybody I meet, who has tried it, is surprised at how much more they liked it than they thought they would. People here really haven't had this experience. They've been riding buses for their whole lives and this is kind of a game changer. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [2:29] Bike access to all of our stations was an important part of the planning. We've got bike parking whether that's racks -- all the racks are covered -- or, it's bike lockers at our stations. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_3_text"> <cite class="speaker_3" >Joni Earl:</cite> [2:38] You look at Sound Transit, our regional transportation authorities, there's biking and walking is in that culture. It's embedded in it. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_4_text"> <cite class="speaker_4" >John Mauro:</cite> [2:46] Sound Transit, when they were doing their light rail, reached out to us. We feed into the process and we give design recommendations. We work on policy. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [2:54] Policy wise, you can put four bikes on each car. Every train has two cars. So we've got hooks for two bikes on each car. Then you can stand with two more bikes. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_5_text"> <cite class="speaker_5" >Tessa Greegor:</cite> [3:03] I think it was fundamental to have the bicycling community involved in these decisions. People that are out there every day, that use the system, and are able to speak for and can really say what the concerns are and what the needs are. [bell ringing] </p><p>[3:15] </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_1_text"> <cite class="speaker_1" >Bruce Gray:</cite> [3:19] What we've seen so far is just the beginning here in Seattle. [3:22] This is the downtown Seattle bus tunnel. We've got a line under construction now that'll go from here to Capitol Hill and University of Washington. Three miles worth of tunnel that'll add about 100, 000 riders with train service that'll run basically every three minutes once we get that line up and running. </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_3_text"> <cite class="speaker_3" >Joni Earl:</cite> [3:36] We hope to be in continual construction of multi-modal transit service in this region for the next 30 years if possible. So we've got a public here that really has embraced transit. [ music] </p><p>[3:49] </blockquote> <blockquote class="speaker_6_text"> <cite class="speaker_6" >Jennifer Babuca:</cite> [3:53] Artwork really makes stations accessible. It's the right thing to do in these types of major works. When we build mass transit systems, we're building stations in people's backyards in places that they go, where their business are. And it really is up to us to make sure that the stations are welcoming, that they're beautiful. [ music] </p><p>[4:17] </blockquote> <br/><br/>
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  • Sylvia Lawrence

    I am so happy that the city and citizens alike are coming into the transit age; it was long overdue and makes it possible to work farther away from our homes and suburbs, save gas, parking fees, wear and tear on cars, stress on the freeways, and a good opportunity to meet new people and arrive at work in a relaxed state. I am a passenger on the Sounder and have taken the Light rail to the airport to pick up relatives. It is all so handy and the people at Sound Transit are the best..they really strive to take care of customers.

  • taomom

    I was able to try out the Link Light Rail when I visited Seattle a couple weeks ago. It was very nice, clean (of course, it's brand new), and easy to use. It took about thirty-five minutes to go from Seatac airport to downtown (University Street.) Without congestion you could probably drive that distance in fifteen-twenty minutes, so it wasn't incredibly speedy, but the fact is up there that traffic is often so bad that that stretch can take an hour by car. I was glad to see quite a bit of newly constructed high density housing right along the light rail line. Unfortunately all that's finished so far is this one stretch of line that doesn't serve all that much of the Seattle area, mostly because folks there voted down funding for light rail nearly continuously over the past three decades. Still, this is a good start.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/vhamer vhamer

    Loving this video! Congrats, Sound Transit.

  • Bling

    I live in Seattle, and I can tell you that people really take pride of ownership in this first light rail "experiment"

  • John


    To be precise, since 1996 we have been voting yes on just about every transit measure we've had on the ballot. While the initial line continues to move forward - construction is working on the line north to Cap Hill and the U District - we also voted, as in the article, to build another significant chunk of track (the ballot measure was ST2). We'll see light rail out toward Lynnwood, south toward Tacoma, and east through Bellevue toward Redmond!

  • Chetan

    Sound Transit is also considering another vote in 2012 or 2016 to expand it further.

  • Jacobo Arbenz

    This upbeat little film is exceptionally appealing, but it is deceiving. It grossly exaggerates reality and glorifies a mediocre and disappointing, not to mention grotesquely expensive experiment in mass transit. I live in South Seattle, about 1.5 miles from a station. Just getting to the station is an ordeal: The city won't allow you to park a car nearby, there are no bike lockers (only an exposed rack in a high-crime area), and a bus to and from the station comes only once every 45 minutes. I have ridden Link light rail about a dozen times, and only two or three trips ran smoothly. The other trips? Trains that stop in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. Trains that creep along much slower than the parallel stream of cars. Trains whose PA system announces wrong station locations in random order, confusing visitors and casual travelers. Trains that get stuck for long periods in the downtown transit tunnel behind disabled buses. Security "guards" in the downtown transit tunnel who stand by and watch as a teenage girl who begs them for help is savagely kicked onto the tracks, then beaten and robbed by a gang of thugs at the feet of the impassive guards. If you want to experience a multimodal transit system that works flawlessly, with startling efficiency and at a fraction of the cost of Seattle's white elephant, go to Barcelona.

  • Chetan

    Seattle has never run a light rail system before. I saw many of those problems, but have noticed that things have been getting better.

    As for your more specific criticisms (stopping to switch drivers away from a station, making trains run at speed limit on MLK way, bad bike parking) you should tell Sound Transit about them to see if you can improve the transit system.

    Also, Seattle's entire light rail system, with the capacity of a 12 lane interstate, costs 1/2 of the 1 mile viaduct tunnel, with 4 lanes. Seattle needs a transit arterial, and while it make be somewhat expensive, it is necessary.

  • http://everyoneforever.org/ Richard Campbell

    I like the directions to the bike parking in braille. Nice touch so to speak but not of much use I suspect.

  • http://www.bicyclespokesman.com Mike

    It is great that they considered bicyclists in the design of the system including access to the stations, bike racks and bike hooks in the railcars. Washington DC's metro system was not as good in that respect and is more typical of most transit systems. See my blog post at http://bicyclespokesman.com/bicycle-issues-for-dc-metro/ for more details. For most of the DC Metro stations, it is impossible to bike to them. The stations have a very car-centric design.

  • the t

    Recent visitor to Seattle here: I loved link! It was fast, clean, spacious, overall just great! But I do have this question: WHAT is up with all the noise! In the 15 or so minutes I waited for my train, there were (I swear!) 9 automated announcements, in only 3 flavors - in other words, I was warned not to stand in the tracks no less than 3 times. And then, despite the "stand clear, train is arriving" admonishment, the whole station was treated to an eardrum exploding blast of railroad crossing bells from the train when it arrived. Other than the perplexing, baffling amount of noise pollution, it was pretty awesome though.

  • Chetan

    All of Link that has been passed by voters so far is grade separated, except for a few miles on MLK way. It's almost like a subway system.

  • Adam O’Neill

    2.4 Billion USDs for 15 Miles with 13 stations and you've only hit 15,000 trips a day? Holy smokes! That would be concerning me for sure.
    In Vancouver we opened the "Canada Line" to our airport and by the end of 2009 we were at 100,000 trips per day. Wow Seattle, I'm worried for your transit ridership.
    I've been on the LINK and it sure is a nice LRT, but it was empty when I was on it...
    I believe in "If you build it, they will come" I hope your not going to prove me wrong. Good luck Seattle! See you at Bumbershoot!

  • Natehc

    Its up to 26,000 now, but Seattle doesn't have large amounts of transit infrastructure to compliment a new line.

    The next phase is projected to have over 80,000 riders for just 3 miles.

  • Free Person

    57 percent of the voters cast a yes vote for light rail. Forced democracy is the easiest way to steal from 43 percent of the votes. I'm sure you've heard of the "free rider" problem where people who don't pay get benefits. This is a "forced payer" system where people who don't want something are forced to pay for it. 

  • Claude

    Darn that evil democracy.
    They should also vote on road construction. If you don't get 100% in favor of the project then we won't build anything. Let's see how easy it is to drive under that system..