Seattle was the most recalcitrant city in America about rail transit — even after we built some of it in 2009. But that has suddenly ended, with the opening of connections to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington.
Nine years ago, I wrote a column predicting, unambiguously, “Light rail: We will love it.”
At that time we were stubbornly the last big American city served solely by buses. So I figured if we ever got some true rapid transit, speedy and efficient like our little brother Portland has, we would flock to it.
Reality turned out to be more complicated. Seattle not only didn’t love light rail. At first we barely noticed it.
We finally opened a rail line seven years ago, in 2009 — after debating it off and on for half a century. But six months in, the 14-mile line, built for $2.3 billion and years late, was carrying only about 14,000 riders a day.
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There are bus routes with that many passengers.
This was awkward for rail evangelists like me. Ridership did steadily grow, to about 35,000 daily last year. But still the line from the airport to downtown was marginal in the city’s psychology. Seattle remained a bus city. The financials weren’t so hot, either, as fares covered only about 25 percent of the operating cost (the conservative goal had been 40 percent).
Light rail wasn’t a dud. But it hadn’t become a central feature in the city.
It sure feels like that has all suddenly changed.
The other morning I was out at the new light-rail station at the University of Washington. Not only were the trains standing room only both coming and going, even with school on a summer schedule. But the station itself was suffering from a severe parking shortage.
I don’t mean car parking, but bike parking. Near the station entrance, 170 bikes were piled up in bike racks, mostly by commuters who rode the rail downtown.
On Monday, Sound Transit announced that light-rail ridership has just surged 83 percent. That’s not a typo. The use of rail nearly doubled, from about 36,000 per day last May to more than 65,000 per day this May.
The obvious cause is that 20 years after the voters approved it, the agency finally built two stations where people really want to go — Capitol Hill and UW.
Suddenly we have vaulted into the top 10 in the country in light-rail ridership. The cities ahead of us have mostly been running light-rail systems for decades longer, with more track miles and two or three times more stations.
If you measure by passengers per mile of track, Seattle, now at 3,500 riders per day per track mile, has surged into third place, behind only Boston and San Francisco. (This is for light rail only, so doesn’t include heavy rail such as the New York subway.) Plus: In May the trains earned 51 percent of their operating costs back in fares, a doubling of the rate from last year. That’s a major rider endorsement of the system.
What is going on?
The transportation planning answer is that Capitol Hill and UW were considered the two most desirable mass-transit markets in the nation that weren’t already served by subway or rail. So putting train stops there was a no-brainer. (This makes it even more of a head-banger that it took us so long to do it!)
But there’s something deep-seated going on, too. Back in the early days when we were debating this system, I wrote a story about Seattle’s cussed resistance to rail, unique among all big American cities. That 1995 story was titled “Late for the train: Why Seattle always lets commuter rail pass it by.”
We want to stay small, people said then. Trains are so Chicago or New York.
“People are pretty well satisfied with the lifestyle we have here,” one Boeing engineer told me. “Nobody could actually see themselves using the train … There was a hope that other people would ride it, but that’s about it.”
A tipping point has been reached, it seems to me. The train is no longer an academic urbanist talking point, or something like broccoli that we know is supposed to be good for us. The recalcitrant city now is embracing rail with a zeal that seems to have startled even Sound Transit.
It took damn near 50 years of arguing about it. But we finally love it.