Streetfilms: 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, and 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.

  • This looks pretty neat. I don’t agree that vehicle parking is always a bad idea along light rail. Particularly in the suburbs, it’s a useful way to get people to split the trip between driving and transit. Now, that doesn’t mean that the parking has to be free, or waste a bunch of land, or that we shouldn’t also consider bike access improvements and better feeder bus service.

    The ideal is to surround every station with density and have bike friendly streets feed into it. Where that isn’t politically possible, parking garages are a good second choice. I know people who have taken light rail in LA because, and only because, they had the option of parking their car at the station.

  • Spokker

    The Link light rail system is pretty fast for light rail too. 28 MPH average. Not bad.

  • Aw Chewie, parking garages are a really shitty idea. I live and work by the Gold Line stations in North East LA which were designed with just his attitude. Compared with the car parking free South Pasadena (“Mission”) station, these are lame New Jersey Park-and-Rides. No retail outlets gaining foot traffic, no attendant residential development, etc.

    I view large parking garages next to light rail stations as a dismal failure. Rail’s function is not only as a people mover, but as a way of de-car-ing a community to let commerce and civilized life flood in. Poor design can stifle all of that (as it has with the NELA Gold Line stops).

  • Well, what about the Del Mar Gold Line station? That’s a residential over retail TOD with public underground parking, a large bike parking area, and public open space.

    I think it’s better to put in density than parking, but in some places people shout down the density, so you might as well put in some parking and increase ridership. There are lots of people trapped in areas with bus service so bad and streets so bike unfriendly that denying them a chance to park is effectively denying them a chance to use rail at all.

    Better that people drive five miles and take a train for twenty than that they drive for twenty five.

  • @Chewie – Better people get to the train station by biking or taxi-ing five miles, or walking one mile than drive at all. The biggest toxic spew is that first mile. Let’s get those trapped people out of their cars. Let’s create spaces conducive to that.

    The trick is that once you spend a great deal of money and dedicate significant space to surround a rail station with parking, you’ve created a place with a scale that’s no longer conducive to walking and bicycling. The scale becomes conducive to driving. Folks on foot have to walk further to get to destinations spread out by excessive parking requirements. Drivers are rushing to find their parking space, not looking out for cyclists and pedestrians. Better to create walkable places at the transit station and encourage people who have cars can leave them at home.

    As you cite, the Del Mar Gold Line Station is relatively well-done – certainly compared to bombed-out-parking-craters like NoHo and Universal City Red Line stations where there’s huge swaths of surface space dedicated to parking cars free-of-charge to drivers. Those parking lots eat the space that could be walkable housing, retail, parks, etc. As long as we dedicate huge amounts of money and space to subsidizing cars, the those trapped folks you refer to will remain trapped in their cars. I don’t know all the details, but I expect that even relatively-good transit-oriented-developments like Del Mar could benefit from less parking (which, if done right, would make the housing there more affordable, and the street and commercial space more vibrant.)

    You mention that the “trapped” folks have bad bus service and bike-unfriendly streets… perhaps some of that could have been remedied if instead of transit agencies (and developers, owners, etc.) sinking $15K-$30+K into each parking space, they instead direct that money into … geee… bus service and bikeable streets?

    In my opinion here are some solutions – all based on Don Shoup’s work:
    – charge market rate for that public parking, including at transit stations
    – use the parking revenues to enhance walking, biking and transit
    – for housing and commercial development around transit (and all over), de-couple the cost of parking from the cost of other space (so if a family moves into a condo, they can decide if they really want to pay $30+K for each parking space.)

    I don’t think we’ll get to zero parking soon… but if we charge market rate for parking, and if we dedicate scarce public subsidies to modes that we actually want to subsidize… then parking needed will shrink to a more manageable scale… and we’ll have great livable places that we all want to walk and bike in!

  • @ Joe

    I agree with most of what you said.

    Car parking at transit stops, when it exists, should not be free to drivers. At a minimum it should cover its construction, maintenance, and opportunity costs, and the extra revenue should go back to the transit agency to pay for better service frequency or something similar.

    NoHo is a good example of a parking arrangement that wastes a lot of land. It could easily be a parking structure and a public plaza, or more housing instead.

    The better the transit system gets, and the more density there is around transit, the more feasible it becomes to cut cars out of the equation entirely. I just want to make sure we don’t reach so far so fast that we undermine what I think is our common goal.

  • and I finally watched the video (just after writing my last comment essay) and it’s very cool: they worked with cyclists, they have space for bikes vertically stored on the train, and they planned all their stations with no parking.

    Psssst – L.A. Metro – check out Seattle for some good ideas that we could do here!

  • roadblock

    the thumbnail on the screenshot in that movie says it all. Destination “AIRPORT” how the dummies who plan our transit in LA managed to make the green line swerve AWAY from LAX is one of the mysteries of our time. Who blocked the greenline from hitting LAX?! The Taxi Lobby? Waxman? who?!

  • MG

    @roadblock – It is funny how this newly opened, single light rail line in Seattle is already much more useful than the decades-old Blue/Green line combo.

  • @roadblock – Good spot right there on the thumbnail… For the culprit, look no further than the rest of the comments… it was, of course, the folks who make money off the oceans of PARKING at the airport.

    @chewie – Yes – glad we agree – don’t overreach, focus on common ground and common goals… and charge for PARKING!

  • The Del Mar station TOD applied for and got variances to reduce the parking they had to provide to those who live there. I think they got it down to one parking space per unit. I remember talking to someone from the City Council at the Pasadena Green summit thing two summers ago about it, and she felt that the restricted parking experiment had been a failure, because all the residents just ended up applying for and getting on-street parking permits from the City, which generated complaints from the neighbors, etc. etc. NIMBY crap. I don’t know what they expected to happen though… they only charge $67/year for a parking permit, and everyone who bought a place was probably like “Well, who cares how many parking spaces it has, if I can get a basically free permit for the street?” This doesn’t seem like a surprising outcome to me. This kind of “restricted” parking provision isn’t really restricted at all, and isn’t going to select for people who just don’t need as much parking, or provide any meaningful economic incentive not to park. It’s just moving the burden from the developer/owner (who normally would have to pay for the 2.5 spots per unit, or whatever it is) to the public sphere (the City street). Which is really exactly what we don’t want. They should have prohibited anyone living at those addresses from being eligible for on-street permits.

  • Also the car rental companies had an incentive to keep the Green Line out of LAX. If you get off a plane and there’s a train there, spending a ton of money on a rental car doesn’t seem like such a good idea. The low visual profile of transit at the airport sends the wrong signal. It’s hard to think of how to change it at this point though.

    Sending the Crenshaw Line into LAX would probably makes the most sense, but the latest plans I’ve seen don’t call for it. I’ve heard talk about a second branch of the Green Line, but that wouldn’t really make sense unless it continued farther northwest, which I wouldn’t object to. For now the FlyAway and the free shuttle from Aviation station get the job done.

  • roadblock

    THE PARKING LOBBY!!!! makes total sense. I would bet that it was more than them, I’m sure other lobby’s chimed in too… AAA? the hotel lobby? Is there a way to track that and sue these people? Couldn’t a case be brought for causing environmental The city should have bought the land from them and made the new found space into a park or a zipcar location…

  • Clarence

    I will say, I do like the idea of no parking at most stations. But it would be good to have s-o-m-e parking at stations that are the final stop or maybe anywhere it was especially difficult to get bus service.

    Of course the final stop on this rail is the airport. Which does have parking, but I am sure no one is driving to the airport and paying for parking to get on the train.

    And let me say, it is too bad the train does not go to the LAX. I was sad when I visited to learn that. Still that cheap bus from LAX to Union Station was fairly quick when I took it.

  • Seattle Link feels more like a heavy rail system. It better, since it has a heavy rail-ish price tag – $172 million/mile (compared to, say, the $70 million per mile for the Portland ClackMAX extension). It feels very fast, whereas Portland’s light rail feels incredibly slow. The difference is like riding the Blue Line speeding through South Central vs. the Gold Line creeping through Highland Park. Evening service, at 10 minute headways until 10 p.m., is excessive and should be cut, and because of the weird way that Seattle and the Puget Sound region does service changes (all changes are done simultaneously region-wide), they were running parallel express lines to the Link for 9 months after Link Light Rail opened, another waste of money. An enjoyable system, although not that fiscally sustainable at current service levels.

  • Good points Joe Linton about the huge swaths of parking at the Universal City and NoHo Red Line stations. That is going to change as Universal Studios will build a multi use structure on the Red Line parking lot across the street from the studios. They are going to relocate the studios from NBC Burbank there. The North Hollywood Red line station parking lots will also have multi use structures built on them as well according to Metro.

    The Sepulveda Orange busway stop also has a huge parking lot. That according to a passenger was a drive-in theater at one time. It’s wasted space as Metro is unlikely to fill it with cars on any given day in the next few decades.

    A reporter for the L.A. Times sat outside of a couple of new residential buildings built next to the Red Line and found that most people still drove their cars to work rather than taking the subway. The convenience, time saving and mobility that a car gives is hard to beat for most people.

  • Seattle’s Link light rail covers 15.5 miles and cost 2.4 billion dollars. Compare that to the 14 mile Orange line bus rapid transit that cost about 330 million dollars to build. The Link costs about 7.2 times more to build than the Orange line and it takes much longer to get a rail line constructed than a BRT line. The Orange line runs slower but you could build seven of these for the same money as what the Link costs. That means at the current passenger load of about 22,000 passengers per day for the Orange line times seven is about what the Red line daily ridership is. More bang for the buck with a BRT line.

  • “[M]ost people still drove their cars to work”
    —–

    That doesn’t necessarily mean TOD isn’t working. There are only a few places in America where a majority of workers go to work on transit. The exact percentage is important. Also, it’s important to remember that there are trips besides the trip to work (like being able to walk to a store in the TOD) and people besides those who have jobs (many young people, the retired, unemployed adults).

    The overall transit commuting rate in the city of LA is about 10% so even if it jumps to 20% at a TOD that would be a dramatic change. Of course I’d like to see more, but LA’s rapid transit system is still under construction.

  • Erik G.

    @calwatch

    The express bus you reference, King County Metro 194, ran only until February 7th, which was about six weeks after Sound Transit LINK opened its current final leg from Tukwila’s International Blvd. Station to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in December 20th. Remember that KCM 194 ran express from Downtown Seattle to the airport and then continued making limited stops to Federal Way. Ending KCM 194 before Dec 20th would have forced its users to take LINK to Tukwila, take a shuttle to Sea-Tac and then continue south from an airport drive bus stop that was not built to be a terminus/transfer in the manner that the new airport LINK station’s bus plaza is designed to be.

  • Erik G.

    @Joe Linton

    The Seattle area could also demonstrate to LA Metro and the “Munis” how to implement a regional fare policy as well as a RFID Smartcard system.

    But then I suppose even Pyongyang, Port-Au=Prince or Monrovia, Liberia does a better job at fare policy than the twits behind TAP!

  • I agree, the ORCA card (using Motorola technology) was great, although there were issues with my companion using her card on the ferry (it wouldn’t recognize the credit added on that day).

    As far as the King County Line 194, they could have easily terminated it at the Tukwila/International station for the duration that the train ended there. Our MTA, of course, gleefully terminated its lines in the Eastside and slashed service on the 30 well before the Eastside Gold Line opened service.

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Seattle area voters will vote this November on a $53 billion transit expansion package. But along with new light rail lines stretching across the region, Seattle will also be getting a publicly owned parking empire. In total, the plan calls for $661 million in spending on parking at transit stations. At an astounding $80,000 per stall, that will fund 8,300 parking spots. Zach […]