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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.