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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.