The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City

Sound Transit Roosevelt Station facade
Image via Sound Transit.

By Katie Wilson

Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you. Cars whiz by, spewing exhaust and, if it’s especially wet, plowing up great sprays of dirty water that don’t respect the boundaries of the sidewalk. Biking on most streets is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes so long to cobble together a bus trip from here to there, it’s almost faster to walk. Seattle has been making progress on its multimodal infrastructure, and some streets are safe, beautiful and well-designed — but take a wrong turn, and very quickly you can feel like an unwelcome stranger in your own city.

That’s what made the opening of three new light rail stations earlier this month so thrilling. An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I biked and walked past that construction site at NE 43rd St. in the University District so many times over the past few years, it began to feel like a permanent feature of the neighborhood. I almost forgot it was ever going to open. Then, suddenly, it was October 2 .

Now I could leave my Capitol Hill apartment, walk for ten minutes, board the train and be whisked away to the heart of U District in what felt like a heartbeat — no bus transfer, no hike through campus. Wandering the streets around the U District station that afternoon, you could feel the neighborhood being transformed. What had been a dead end was now a hub, a portal. People streamed in and out of the station. They bought lunch, sat at picnic tables, conversed. A new place had been created.

An event like that transforms the topology of the city, drawing close together points that were once so distant as to feel totally disconnected. For people who don’t drive, it makes the city feel more like home.

I probably wouldn’t have ridden the train on that first day if it weren’t for Pauline Van Senus, also known as the Transit Fairy. While the rest of the Transit Riders Union floated off into the Zoom-o-sphere during the pandemic, Pauline doubled down on the physical world, pulling weeds and picking up trash around transit stops. She wasn’t about to let such a momentous transit occasion slide by without TRU members marking the occasion, so a group of us met at the Capitol Hill station that morning and rode up to Northgate together.

“It’s like 14 minutes to get to Northgate from downtown,” said Pauline. “Even if I-5 was wide open, that would be hard to top. And it very seldom is wide open; it’s usually backed up.”

Train speeds that beat the pants off driving—that’s the kind of transit system that entices people out of their cars. In our era of climate crisis, it’s what we desperately need.

For Jim MacIntosh, who lives in Magnolia with his family, the new light rail extension shaves a good twenty minutes off the trip up to Northgate to visit his mother. That trip used to require traveling all the way downtown. “Now I can take the 31 right to the U-district station, and then just hop on the light rail, and it’s two stops and five minutes later we’re at Northgate,” he said.

We need more funding for transit, and we need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use late-night runs.

Jim says he’s thrilled that our transit system is starting to feel more and more like a real metropolitan subway system, the kind he remembers from visits to London and Vienna, Washington D.C. and New York City.

“What we have is maybe not quite the level of New York, but it’s a start,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to add mobility, especially for those that choose not to drive or don’t drive for whatever reason.”

Jim doesn’t drive because he’s visually impaired. He predicts he’ll be making the trip north more often now — and it’s not only about the time savings.

“It’s just a more pleasant run,” he said. “The light rail trains are smooth. You don’t have the up and down motion that you have in a bus, and the swerving where buses have to get around cars or every time they pull into a bus stop. When the bus moves, a person standing there is thrown off balance, so they have to grab onto a pole or something. On the light rail you don’t have the sudden motions back and forth.”

Another benefit is reliability, which makes a huge difference for people commuting to work. Elizabeth Bauerle is a laboratory employee at UW Medicine, and also serves on the University Transportation Committee as a representative of her union, SEIU 925.

“Of the 12 people on my shift, eight live in Lynnwood, and four of them do not have cars or access to a primary car,” she said. “The [Sound Transit Route] 512 would get so bogged down in commute traffic between Northgate and downtown, we would catch the same bus every day of the week, and by Friday we’d be 20 minutes late. The train being off the street makes such a difference.”

Now, she’s always at the lab door right on time. Some of her colleagues who used to drive to work have started riding the train, too.

But getting to and from the new stations isn’t easy for everyone. Some riders have seen their most convenient bus stop or even their whole route evaporate without being replaced by a reliable feeder, while others may find the additional transfers physically challenging. Especially with bus service still depressed below pre-pandemic levels, transit deserts are a real problem.

In fact, many of those same workers have trouble getting home after their shifts end late at night. “We all have the last mile problem,” Elizabeth said. “One of my colleagues lives a mile from the Aurora Transit Center, one lives a mile from the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center. I live a mile and a half from the Lynnwood Transit Center.”

Even if trains are still running when they leave work, there aren’t any buses to catch when they arrive at Northgate. Unable to rely on transit, they’ve had to arrange carpools home from the UW with colleagues who drive.

“As someone who lives close to a Park & Ride and has access to a car for the last mile, I’m really impressed with the connections,” says Elizabeth. “But [the transit agencies] really do need to work on their late-night connections, because they’re not there. To not have any buses leaving from Northgate after 11:30pm to serve North King County is kind of offensive.”

Of course, the inadequacy of nighttime transit service is a perennial problem, not a new one—I know that well from my decade of work with the Transit Riders Union. Ultimately, the solution has to come from two ends. We need way more funding for transit service, including nighttime service, on the tried-and-true theory that “if you build it, they will come.” But we also need changes to zoning and land use regulations that encourage greater housing density, so that neighborhoods near the light rail line can accommodate more people who will actually use those late-night runs and better bus service feeding into the stations.

So, the new stations haven’t quite catapulted Seattle to the status of a 24-hour city with world-class transit. But it’s a real qualitative shift in the transit rider experience, and it only gets better from here, with East Link service opening in 2023.

“It’s clear from the public reaction that they really love it,” said Pauline. “Over the next two years when the whole Eastside opens up, then you’re really going to see things start to take off.”

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle-based organization advocating for improved public transit and other progressive urban issues. 

11 thoughts on “The New Light Rail Expansion Makes Seattle Feel Like a Real City”

  1. The North/South divide is real. I live in the car-dependent suburbs of the North and until now, Seattle ended at about 50th St. Now it will be a lot easier to access the city from Out Here that it was without the hassle of using a car. Cars are fine north of that line but not so much south of it.

    And it’s not about “just because it is not the city that they think it should be” but about it not being the city it could be. Making it more inclusive and accessible (maybe even affordable) shouldn’t mean removing any charm it has. Rather than ask if the writer lives in Seattle, ask if they can afford to buy a place to live, to invest in the city they call home or are they paying their locally-earned wages to some rentier who might live in Spokane or San Francisco?

  2. Kate,

    Are you from Seattle?

    Seattle has been and always will be a “real” city. It would continue to retain the cities charm and unique and lovely charm if people would stop trying to say it is not a city, just because it is not the city that they think it should be.

    Leave Seattle Alone. If you don’t like it, move to Spokane.

  3. Typical Seattle, nothing counts until it hits the northend. We’ve been a “real city” down here in the Rainier Valley for a long time.

    1. The north gets grade separated train, the south gets train on surface. That’s typical Seattle too.

      Queen Anne, Fremont, Ballard, Belltown, First Hill, West Seattle… those are not yet part of the city. Many of them won’t be serviced by ST3 (2040), probably not by ST4 either (if that happens, probably target 2060)

  4. So when the light rail was in the south end it “didn’t feel real” because you don’t bother with the south end? Take a trip to Columbia City some day, you’ll probably like it more than you think.

    1. Planning on it, now that I can get there by rail. I go through the south end when I return from the airport but am not usually in any shape to explore. So I know it’s there.

  5. “Anyone who’s ever been carless in Seattle knows the feeling that your city wasn’t really built for you.”

    Actually I’ve been carless in the Seattle area for 28 years now and I can safely say I do not know that feeling. The new light rail expansion doesn’t change Seattle’s feel for me one bit.

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