A couple of weeks ago, I twatted from a subway platform while waiting for a train in Downtown Seattle. Moments later, one of our fellow Puget Sound residents twatted:
“We have a subway?”
So much for Sound Transit’s PR Department. Oh well, allow me fellas …
The answer is yes, yes we do.
Now, given that it’s light rail, there is some debate over whether our system is a proper “subway” or not, but in my mind, it is very clear-cut.
There is a train in Seattle which runs underground through very densely occupied areas, making many stops along the way. In most cases, in order to reach the train, one must descend into a tunnel via escalator, stairs, or elevator. Once on the train, travel times are very predictable as the train is in no way impeded by street traffic above. The train’s speed is on-par with most other underground rail systems throughout the world.
If that’s not a subway, then I don’t know what is.
The current train that runs from SeaTac Airport to Westlake Park is in the process of expanding to Capitol Hill, the U District and other neighborhoods, and it should be completed by 2016. This will essentially link all of the city’s most densely populated areas together with a subterranean rail line, and it will finally put Seattle into a more cosmopolitan category transit-wise.
Of course, I am very excited about all of this. I’ve been a lifelong transit rider since the day I was born (I didn’t bother to get a permanent driver’s license until I was 32 years old). As a matter of fact, transit has always been the primary consideration when I look for a home.
I grew up in DC and NYC, and the trains were my lifelines. Even when I moved to auto-obsessed LA, I rented an apartment directly above a Red Line station in Downtown Los Angeles. For 5 years in that town, I did not drive on a frequent basis. Rather, I rode the train back and forth to Hollywood and Mid-Wilshire, and when I went to the beach, I threw my bicycle on the front of a Metro Rapid bus.
When I moved to SeedyTown for 5 years, again, I was very careful to make sure I got a place within walking distance to the Monofail.
People thought I was nuts, but trains and buses are my comfort zones. They always have been. These are the ways I learned to get around from infancy. It’s why I sold my car last week.
When the Seattle Subway (it’s called “Central Link”, a name I’m not thrilled about) is fully built out, there is a very good chance that I will personally be the most prolific rider of the system. Hell, in its current state, I probably use it more than most people.
Take last week, for example. I rode the subway from its northern terminus in Westlake Park to its southern terminus at SeaTac, then turned around and went back again. I sat across from a lady who was on the nod the entire trip (score one for PNW dope). Her body movements were almost hypnotic, rocking in counter-motion to the train’s inertia. Like me, she rode from one end to the other, and back again.
Unlike my companion, however, I was not using the train as an opium den. Why did I ride it back and forth?
Because it’s there.
I’ve similarly ridden every single inch of the NYC subway system, every yard of the DC Metro, and the totality of the LA System. When I visit a new city, one of the first things I do is hop on their subway system (assuming they have one), and I often dedicate a day to riding as much of it as possible. Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore, Philly, San Francisco, Portland … I’ve ridden them all.
You see, in addition to being the overall greatest human being on god’s green earth, I’m also a transit nerd. I have an odd fascination with urban rail, but unlike auto-erotic asphyxiation or chicks with dicks, it’s a fetish that keeps me out of trouble.
Last month, when Sound Transit distributed a memo to my building warning residents of construction noise associated with the Capitol Hill subway tunnel, I was the only person who reacted with excitement instead of annoyance. While everyone else groaned, I remember saying, “Cool, that means they’re making progress”. As far as I’m concerned, they can bounce me out of bed all night long for a new subway route.
Now, while I’m stoked about what’s happening with Seattle transit, I would be remiss if I did not address one lacking issue, and that is the subway’s fare system.
The subway relies on sort of an “honor system” where you tap your card on a reader before you get on a train, and again when you get off. This can be sort of messy and awkward.
Shortly after pulling out of the I.D. Station last Friday, a transit cop tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Do you have a fare card?”.
Me: Yes, of course.
Cop: May I see it?
Me: Uh, sure.
I pulled it out of my laptop bag, held it in front of me and he simply replied “Okay”. He walked on to the next lady, asked for her card, but she was much less polite than was I. Not only was she less polite, she was somewhat hostile:
“You guys do this to me every time, why do I bother swiping my card if I have to keep it out to show you?”
It was a good question. You see, ORCA cards are just blank cards. They do not have any identifying information on the outside, nor do they display a balance or expiration date. Theoretically, you could use a drained fare card to flash at a transit cop every day while never paying a fare.
You’ve heard of security theater? Well, this is subway fare theater. It seems to be more of a deterrent/submissive thing than a valid method of fare collection. I’d prefer they just install turnstiles or gates. Sure, it would cost more in the short-run, but fare evasion would drop, security would increase (right now, anyone can stand on the platform and panhandle without paying a fare), and in the long-run I think it would pay for itself.
One other minor problem I have is legroom in the seats. I am 6’3″, and I have to occupy two seats across, because putting my legs in front of me is very uncomfortable. I look like a clown in one of those tiny circus cars … ridiculous. I have to lodge my knees against the top of the seat in front of me, and my feet cannot even touch the floor. When the train is full, I will be forced to stand, because the seats are built for midgets. Small nuisance, but if you are taller than Tom Cruise, consider yourself forewarned.
In any event, yes Seattle, you have a subway, and it’s about to get a whole lot better.
Leave your cars behind, thumb your nose at the increased parking rates, and experience a city the way it was meant to be experienced. On foot and on your own terms — without a ticking meter counting down like a Doomsday clock.
Now that you have a subway like all first-tier cities, please support it.