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 the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.