I spent two weeks travelling in and around Seattle without a car. Here’s what happened

Pioneer Square station, Seattle. Image: Steve Morgan/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re looking for a West Coast American city with a countercultural heritage, without the hipster reputation of Portland or the cost of San Francisco, you could do worse than Seattle. Nestled between two mountain ranges and sitting on an isthmus in the Puget Sound, the Emerald City is well known for its tech industry and musical heritage, as well as being the setting for Frasier. It’s also got terrible traffic, which has led in recent decades to the development of public transit – which also goes down well in an environmentally conscious part of the world.

But how does it compare to the British public transport experience? I decided to find out. For two weeks I attempted to get around the Seattle metropolitan area, as well as day trips to Portland and Vancouver, without hiring a car. Here’s how I got on.

Link Light Rail

The Link turned ten this year, and is most comparable to the Manchester Metrolink, but is segregated from traffic and with a range of surprisingly grand underground stations. At present it operates one line from SeaTac airport to the University of Washington, but expansions across the metropolitan area including West Seattle, Tacoma and the northern suburbs are at various stages of planning, with projected completion in 2041.

The light rail, like most Seattle transit, takes the Orca travel card, which costs $5 to buy. Fares range between $2.25 and $3.00 depending on distance travelled – reasonable, especially for travel to and from the airport, which could easily cost ten times as much by taxi.

I used the Link pretty much every day. While my hotel’s location of Capitol Hill was just about within walking distance of Downtown and the University District, they’re not trips to make regularly unless you enjoy shoe shopping, so the Link served nicely.

Tapping in and out works just like on the London Underground, except that there are no ticket barriers, and I never had a fare checked – meaning that, if you’re feeling daring or tight, fare dodging seems remarkably easy. If I was a cynical planner, I might see this as a way of encouraging people to acclimatise to public transit, before introducing tighter security once the network expands. The trains are spacious, fast and quite pleasing to look at, and I was a fan of each station having its own map icon, although at least one escalator was out of order at every station I visited.

Amtrak Cascades

America’s relationship with its railways is a troubled one. Rail was at the heart of the USA’s economic boom years at the turn of the 20th century, and their nationalised passenger service, Amtrak, operates some gorgeous trains covering some stunning routes – but coverage outside the densely populated northeast ranges between poor and dreadful. Four states have no coverage at all, while most operate along only a single line, which often cuts out major population centres or fails to connect them sensibly.

The Cascades route. Image: Amtrak.

As such, intercity trains in the USA are a leisurely form of travel, not the glorified high speed vehicles we’re used to. Seattle’s King Street Station, which hosts regular departures for Vancouver, Portland, Los Angeles and Chicago, carries around 667,000 Amtrak passengers yearly, which puts it on a par with Chorley, Lancashire. Portland’s Union Station manages 597,000 – slightly fewer than North Berwick. Even New York City’s imposing Penn Station – America’s busiest – only just beats the original York, with both handling around 10 million passengers per year.

But booking this trip left me pleasantly surprised. Tickets on the Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, Oregon were fairly reasonably priced at $80 (£64 – thanks, Brexit!) for an eight hour round trip, with five departures a day. The Coast Starlight, which carries on to Los Angeles, is slightly cheaper, but with only one departure per day, it’s also less flexible.

A similar length of journey in the UK (from, say, Birmingham to Glasgow) goes for around £70, so taking into account the higher salaries in the US, this makes the train a good option, despite the chronic underuse. Being unencumbered by 19th century tunnels and bridges allows for larger, more comfortable trains, too, so although the journey took longer, I could sit back and enjoy the views (and the free, if patchy WiFi).

The trains here are hardly speedy – it’s usually as quick or faster to drive – but there’s something magical about the experience that you don’t find on the Pacer from Doncaster to Hull.

Washington State Ferries

Having grown up in the middle of England, I’m unused to crossing water, so ferries still conjure up a childlike thrill. The roughly hourly journeys from Downtown to the picturesque Bainbridge Island or the old naval town of Bremerton are an $8.50 return fare, and the journey to the former takes about 35 minutes.

I was pleased to discover this is a legitimate commuting option for islanders with jobs in the city, with a monthly pass running at $109. Cheaper and more fun than getting the District Line every morning.

The ferries are modern and generally run way under capacity for foot passengers, allowing you plenty of room to roam around the deck and take in the quite impressive views.


Buses

Seattle has a well-used and refreshingly large bus fleet, mostly operated by King County Transit with SoundTransit running some commuter lines. They vary between electric buses running on the same overhead lines as the Streetcar, and the more traditional sort, but are mostly bendy buses, which is a fun novelty.

The American grid system makes bus travel gratifyingly easy, as they’re usually easy to spot well in advance of arrival at the stop, and understanding unfamiliar routes is usually simple. Fares are slightly lower than the Link, though not typically so much cheaper as to justify choosing them over the light rail to the same destination unless you’re on a very tight budget.

You begin to hit trouble when leaving the metropolitan area. Buses in Washington State are mostly municipalised, and most counties that fall outside the SoundTransit remit don’t have the same infrastructure - so if you’re heading away from the city, you’ll quickly run into slower, more infrequent services which don’t take the Orca card. Try to reach Mount Rainier or the Pacific Ocean on the bus and you’ll quickly realise your folly.

Sounder Commuter Rail

Full disclosure – this was the only form of public transport I didn’t get to ride. Not for lack of trying, as the prospect of double-decker trains is inherently exciting, but because the timing just doesn’t work for tourists.

 SoundTransit run just four early morning and early evening services per day in each direction, with one line to Tacoma in the South, and another to Everett in the North. As a result, if I took an hour to catch the evening train to Everett, I would have had fun trying to find my way back.

If you live in the outlying metro area and work in Seattle, I’m sure it’s great to commute for under $5, and for reducing morning congestion on Interstate 5, it’s essential. Ridership numbers bear this out – the Sounder services carry 18,000 riders per day, dwarfing Amtrak’s numbers in the region. But when they say commuter rail, they really mean it.

Seattle Monorail

The famous Monorail is a tourist attraction more than a useful part of the infrastructure, only covering a kilometre of Downtown Seattle. At $3 a pop, though, it’s worth at least one ride. If for some reason you need to access the tourist attractions from Downtown every day, but lack the wherewithal to manage the 19 minute walk, you can buy a monthly pass for $45.

 

The monorail. Image: Klaus with K/Wikimedia Commons.

Seattle attempted a highly ambitious monorail network around the turn of the Millennium, before concluding after eye-watering public expense that it was a stupid idea, and settling on building the Link instead. Given the experience on offer here, that was probably a wise decision.

The monorail’s rolling stock was built in the early 1960s and as such isn’t a comfortable ride. The journey is very quick, but bumpy and loud, and offers few views you couldn’t get from ground level. It wins a begrudging extra point for the adorable Monorail Man statue at the Space Needle station.


Seattle Streetcar

Speaking as a resident of Sheffield, trams are good. The Streetcar is a recent introduction (the first line opened in 2007, the second in 2016) and provides a slower, less spaced out equivalent to the Link for inner-city travel. Think of it as the Sheffield Supertram to the Link Light Rail’s Metrolink.

Unlike the Link, the streetcar is integrated with traffic, but it still runs on Orca, and connects nicely with various Link stations and the King Street railway station.

While Capitol Hill to Downtown is just about walkable downhill, I wouldn’t recommend it for the trip back up, which is relentless. For that purpose, the streetcar is reasonable if you’d rather remain above ground instead of taking the Link.

The problem is that it doesn’t serve much purpose given the extensive bus network. It’s significantly slower than taking the bus, as was elegantly demonstrated when it nearly caused me to miss my train to Portland. Being integrated with traffic is not a good idea for trams in American cities, and whenever I rode the Streetcar, I never saw it at more than a quarter of capacity.

Long-distance bus

Coach travel in the UK is best avoided if the train is a possibility. Perhaps I’ve been scarred by surly drivers, long traffic jams, and malfunctioning air conditioning, but an industry that sustains itself on the desperation of students in long-distance relationships is not one with passenger comfort in mind.

However, getting the coach from Seattle to Vancouver is only slightly slower and saves a significant amount of money compared to taking the train – the reality of a country so built around roads – so I tried out the novelty of crossing the border by land. The half hour this took each way might be a lesson to those who think a land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would work out fine.

While trains and planes are more efficient, entering British Columbia by road gives you a sense of the vast scale of the place. The Vancouver and Seattle metropolitan areas are roughly similar in size and population, but a combination of steep hills and being built on a narrow isthmus makes the Seattle area feel smaller (though still, by comparison to a British city, massive).

The four hour journey on Greyhound’s budget line BoltBus was perfectly comfortable, though the WiFi didn’t work and everyone seemed too polite to ask about it. I do wish, though, that they had asked someone before using the logo of the British Union of Fascists on all their vehicles.

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.