Springtime thoughts on Seattle, Rhode Island (and Calgary)

Spring break! Woo!

What do I do on spring break? Apparently I travel places and look at their transportation networks.

Amongst other things! Last year I went to Calgary to visit a friend living there for the year (and to go skiing). This year it was Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah, to see friends (and to go skiing). And then I came back to Boston (Thanks to TG for the UG) and spoke at a conference in Rhode Island (where another speaker talked about Seattle). My only regret was not spending the $10 in BART fare to get to the In N Out in Millbrae during my layover there (but I did get BART to call me brilliant). Next time.

In any case, since Yonah came back from Canada tweeting about things, I am going to write up some thoughts in a blog post (old school, I know).


I visited friends last year in Calgary, because they were only there for a year. After a day at Canmore and Lake Louise (Advice: “remember that you’re skiing and to look away from the amazing view every so often.”) I browsed my way around the city itself (after visiting November Project, of course), particularly interested in how a relatively new city in the Texas of Canada has such high transit use. It helps to have no downtown freeways and a progressive parking fee scheme (and high parking prices), and bus service which has grown along with the C-Train. (Much detailed here, by Yonah.) The C-Train is the stand-out service, carrying more than 300,000 passengers daily, with the routes converging on a single, at-grade segment downtown.

Outside of the city, the trains run in highway medians and rights-of-way with full signal priority, but downtown they don’t. With level boarding and four-car trains, the trains are able to move in sync one light cycle every stop, allowing 30 trips per hour per direction, carrying 24,000 passengers. Each four-car light rail train carries as many passengers as an eight-car L train in Chicago, and after 35 years, the system has reached capacity. A third line is planned to be built in a subway under the city (Edmonton’s also-successful light rail uses a subway downtown).


One bus came two minutes before
it departed … but these arrival signs
sure are nice!

Before going to Seattle proper, I found myself in Bellingham for a cousin’s bat mitzvah. While I didn’t have the chance to ride the local transit network, I did note that it had a 15-minute network, not bad for a town with under 100,000 people (albeit many of them college students). Then it was off to the main event. The only city in the US to grow transit ridership in the last year. The 206. Seattle.

What has Seattle done right? They invest in transit, most recently voting on a 20-year, $50 billion package to expand to build 110 miles of light rail which will carry 600,000 passengers, building a system that may carry as many passengers daily as the CTA, WMATA or MBTA’s rail systems. This isn’t a streetcar (they have one of those too, although it’s dubious how effective it is) but a heavy-duty system where three-car trains match the capacity of bigger-city subway trains. I rode most of the line four times, each including the section along MLK south of downtown where it runs in a center median on a city street. Despite a top speed of only 35 mph, it is given nearly full signal priority: in the trips I took, accounting for 15 miles of travel and 48 grade crossings we only had to stop for a signal twice; the other 96% of the time the train was lined through the crossings at track speed. Imagine what that would do on, say, the B Line in Boston. 

The Link is ready to go north.

Yet Seattle seems to have learned that for a high-capacity, trunk line, grade crossings don’t really make sense, so new lines are mostly in private rights of way. The extension to the University of Washington is in a 3.2 mile, $1.7 billion dollar tunnel which was completed on time and under budget. It dead-ends at the U-Dub for now, but is planned to go further north (there are bizarre garage doors at the end of the platform) and Seattle may run in to the same issue Calgary faces: a single segment of line nearing capacity. But that’s a good problem to have. And Seattle has found a sweet spot and is building tunnels at a cost of about $300 million per track per mile, stations included. At that rate, the North South Rail Link in Boston would cost about $4 billion.

So many bus lanes!

But it’s not just heavy construction. I follow Dongho Chang on Twitter (you should too!) to see a constant barrage of bus and bicycling infrastructure in another city. Seattle does overnight things which seem to take years in Boston. I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but Seattle is a fast growing city which seems to be planning for the future, not one ignoring growth until it’s too late. What does this get you? Bus lanes seemingly anywhere there’s a long traffic queue to jump by. As I’d coincidentally learn in Providence, an investment by the city in transit such that the number of people living within a 10-minute walk of a bus which comes at least every 10 minutes will rise from 25% to 72%. And this in a city barely half as dense as Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. But when the buses aren’t always overcrowded and/or slow, and when they have priority lanes to get them by traffic queues, people use them. The light rail is nice, but most Seattle commuters ride the bus.

See, adding a protected bikeway isn’t that hard.

Are all the roads wide enough there’s plenty of room for bikes and transit? Hardly. The roads are no wider than many of the main streets in Boston. Spring Street a road with parking, a bike lane, two lanes of traffic, and a bus lane. It used to look like most roads in Boston (Beacon, Tremont, etc): three lanes of traffic and two parking lanes. Now: two lanes of traffic, a bike lane and a bus lane. Bike lanes get real protection. It’s not rocket science: if you make transit fast and biking safe, people will use them. The point is not to abolish the use of cars, but to make other options more competitive.

Then there’s land use. Seattle is not a very dense city, but it’s growing quickly. From 1980 to now, Boston has grown from 562,000 to 673,000, gaining 20%. Seattle has gone from 494,000 to 704,000, gaining 40%. So the new light rail line? The surrounding area was rezoned. It’s sprouting four-to-six story buildings with reduced parking requirements. Land use, housing and transportation go hand-in-hand. I’m sure what Seattle is doing isn’t perfect, but at least they’re trying.

One thing I did notice were the dockless bike share bikes around town. I’m not sure what to make of the dockless systems: I’m used to Hubway in Boston (although I’ve been using it less and my own bike more, partially because they moved the nearest rack about 50 meters further from my house, which matters for short trips!) and not knowing where a bike might be could be troublesome. I’d also wonder how well the bikes work in a hilly city like Seattle. The jury is still out, it seems, and the ridership numbers aren’t huge given the number of bikes, but the up-front costs are certainly lower, and I’ll remain interested in which model works best there and elsewhere.

Oh, and it has an all-night bus network, too. And this bus driver, who writes this blog. And there goes my evening.

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, I saw a presentation about Seattle.

I stepped off a plane in Boston and got on a train 9 hours later to Rhode Island to be a panelist talking about regional rail in the, well, the region. I traded $4 for an hour of sleep and took Amtrak down and then a plodding MBTA train back, illustrating how messed up the Providence Line is (big idea: Strava, but for transit). The panel was a good discussion and was well-attended; it’s hard to remember what was said when you’re saying some of it, but I think there is still a lot for people to learn about how the rail network works (and doesn’t work) in the region. I did get to poll the audience and as usual, they underestimated the percentage of people using Commuter Rail to get in to Boston. We talked about level boarding, electrification, and all the things the T really should be doing between Boston and Providence.

Just as interesting was the afternoon panel, and some of the remarks at the start. The governor talked about tearing down the 6-10 Connector and replacing it with bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure after the community said it didn’t want a bigger highway (hear that, MassDOT?). The state also has a transportation master plan that looks like more than the Commonwealth’s laundry list of projects thrown in to a blender and spit out. So, something to learn from our neighbors to the south.