Lessons From Seattle part 1: Airport Transit
November 3, 2011 2 Comments
I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately (for work and otherwise), but have been making use of the trips to observe things in other cities. I think there’s a lot LA can learn both in terms of what to do and what not to do.
I spent a few days in Seattle and there will be a few posts based on that city. First up: Airport Transit.
Airport Transit – LINK Light Rail
Far and away, the best part of Seattle’s transit was the airport connection. It may have helped that my hotel was so close to the transit station in downtown, but I got from the airport to my hotel in 40 minutes on the Link Light Rail with no transfers.
Seattle has one light rail line, and it makes the all-important Airport to Downtown connection. Los Angeles has five (soon to be six) and we still can’t make that connection without a shuttle bus and one or two rail transfers, depending where in Downtown you are.
To get to the Link Light Rail, it was quite a walk from the airport terminal, through the parking lot and across a bridge. The path was VERY clearly marked, however, with signs every 30-50 feet to guide you along the way.
A great thing I noticed… there were advertisements for taking transit to sporting events at CenturyLink Field. This may seem fairly normal, but the ads were promoting parking in the airport parking structure and taking the rail from the airport to the stadium. Just imagine this happening in any other city! In most cities, the one place harder to get to and park at than stadiums is usually airports. Of course, this is targeting people coming from further south, but regardless…
The rail vehicle itself was a far cry from those in LA. The fare system uses something called an ORCA Card (equivalent to our TAP), which is fitting because the trains were almost as large as Orca whales. They board from only a few inches above ground level, and the seats over the wheels are elevated a few steps (like the backs of our busses).
The cars have much more spacious interiors, they seem to be wider, taller, and just bigger in general. Lots of ADA seats along the middle of the cars. It doesn’t seem like this translates into increased capacity, however, and makes it feel almost like a huge suburban train rather than a quick or efficient city transit vehicle. It really rocks and creaks as it moves along the tracks.
There was also space for vertically hanging a bike in the middle of the train. I saw someone use it, however it looked like there was only room for one bike and if another biker had gotten on board it would have been already in use.
When returning to the Airport from Downtown, I waited in the station for a while and noticed there were no status updates. It’s nice to have an update when you’re waiting for transit, and this is something (one of many) I think makes our rail much nicer than our busses. Finally, there was an audio announcement that the “next southbound train is arriving in 2 minutes,” but some display screens would have really helped.
In LA, we’ve done a great job getting these screens in stations. Now, we can improve them by converting them to countdown clocks instead of schedules. Also, we need to make sure (for safety and convenience) they are oriented perpendicular to the tracks and platforms.
On my return journey, fare inspectors boarded the train (which operates, like LA’s, on an honor system with both paper tickets and cards). Every single person they checked hadn’t paid, and they had to get off after just one stop to sort out all of the citations and warnings. Riding the subway in LA every day, I clearly see some people pay, but clearly see many others skip the TVMs and TAP readers altogether. Time to lock the turnstiles for real!
Once I got to the airport, there were self check-in kiosks all along the route back to the terminal. Quick and easy way to check in for my flight before getting into the crowded airport check in lines.
Just for kicks, I took Metro from LAX back to my apartment when I got home. I met a visitor from Nebraska at the Green Line Aviation station. He was thoroughly confused and would have been completely lost without me. It took us 70 minutes and 3 transfers (including the shuttle bus) to make the trip.
Unfortunately, the Green and Blue lines are the dirtiest, loudest, most uncomfortable lines Metro runs. My Nebraskan acquaintance was, understandably, out of place and a bit uneasy. I’m a regular transit rider and took it in stride, but there are clear differences in the level of comfort one can have on these lines versus the Red/Purple or Gold lines. It was especially an incredible shock coming from the cleanliness of Seattle’s line.
With the Expo line and Crenshaw line, someday we’ll have two routes for LAX-Downtown transit. Unfortunately, they’ll both require the same number of grade-separated transfers, so I don’t know if the new lines will provide a better option or just another option. I’ve written extensively about my ideas for this, here, so I won’t get further into it now.
Overall, getting between Downtown Seattle and the Airport could not have been much easier. It was a quick, clean, and cheap experience. I believe that the Downtown-Airport connection is one of the most important for any big city, and I hope that LA can find a way to do it well soon. Even with the Green Line to LAX project, I don’t think we’ll quite get there and I believe it will be (and already is) seen as the biggest failing of our Metro system. For all the things we are doing right, and even with improvements, this connection looks to be the thorn in our side.