Lessons From Seattle part 2: Local Transit
November 12, 2011 4 Comments
Continuing my with my thoughts from my recent trip to Seattle, I want to discuss local transit within the Downtown Seattle area. My last post centered on Airport Transit, you can read it here.
Seattle doesn’t have a comprehensive regional rail transit system like the ones in New York or Chicago or like Metro is building here in LA. The city does have a number of good options for local transit within the Downtown area, though.
Here, I outline some benefits to the way Seattle has developed a Streetcar, Free Busses, Monorail, and even Parking.
The Seattle Streetcar passed right by my hotel, which was located near the southern terminus. Of course, I had to take a ride just to see how their system worked. The route is pretty straight forward, a north-south route that follows Westlake Blvd. with a short northward section a block over on Terry Ave. At the ends of the line, the car reverses and goes back the other direction, it’s not a circuitous loop. (See a map, here.)
From the southern terminus, the route takes you out of the skyscraper district and into a more low-rise district with some great little restaurants. There were a number of medical and office buildings along the route, many of which filled in after the route was built. They were proof of development along the route.
The driver told me they specifically built along a street with less traffic (and less development) so it wouldn’t get stuck in with the mass of cars on neighboring streets. It has contributed to development along those lesser used streets, and has made the streetcar a more attractive transit alternative. In LA, one of the routes being considered will take the streetcar east on 7th St. I love this idea for the nostalgia of streetcars running down that street, but I worry it will get stuck in traffic and I think the routes along 9th may be better for this reason.
One of my favorite sections of the route was a short segment along Lake Union where the streetcar has its own right of way. It borders a small park, and easily runs past the traffic. I wish there was a space like this for the route in Downtown LA, but the simple fact is there isn’t. Any separate right of way would have to be created as a streetcar or streetcar and bus only lane on the street.
Something that stuck out as a great idea was that individual stations were sponsored by local businesses. The station announcements on the car would say “Approaching Terry and Thomas, station sponsored by…” I think this a great idea for the Los Angeles Streetcar, and announcements could say something like “Approaching 11th and Figueroa, station sponsored by the LA Kings, whose next home game is tomorrow night” or “Approaching Broadway and 8th, sponsored by Broadway Bar, the perfect place for drinks before and after local shows.” This could help pay for the operations while also highlighting great destinations along the route!
Within the Downtown area, local busses are free during daytime hours. I’ve always thought this is how local, circulator transit should be. It was the first major thing that stuck out to me when I visited Baltimore last year. I had been traveling for 30 days to a number of different cities, and I remember sitting on a free bus in Downtown Baltimore saying “Why don’t all cities have this!?”
Of course, you have to have money to pay the operating costs, but this would be a great idea for a local circulator system in LA, like the DASH busses. Free local circulators get people out of their immediate area and into other parts of the neighborhood. They’re not used for long trips, but help business people go to lunch in a different part of the neighborhood or tourists see the other half of the town. Free, local circulators expand the pedestrian footprint in a neighborhood and open up many more options for businesses and customers to connect.
The monorail is not a regular method for local transit around a large area — it’s often more of a tourist attraction (like San Francisco’s cable cars), but it’s certainly worth mentioning. The Seattle Monorail was built to take visitors from Downtown Seattle to the “Seattle Center,” where the Space Needle, museums, etc. were built north of the Downtown area. There are no stops along the route except for the points on the ends.
In LA, this would be great for a destination such as Dodger Stadium. It’s been a topic of discussion for years, because there is no reliable transit to Dodger Stadium. The stadium is out of the way and not near a potential route for any sort of regional transit. The Dodger Stadium Express bus sits in traffic along with the cars entering and exiting the stadium. A gondola, monorail, or other point-to-point system is probably the best option. The gondola has been mentioned before. Whatever the system is (gondola, monorail, cable car, bus-only lane, etc.), it needs to be able to handle a large hill (I don’t know if a monorail can do that) and should probably go from the Chinatown Gold Line station up to the stadium. It would only run during games or other events.
With these options for local transit, Seattle is still (as most American cities are) a “car city.” There are options for local transit, but most people coming into Downtown Seattle from the surrounding area do so by car. One thing I noticed, however, is that there were very few surface parking lots.
This doesn’t mean there wasn’t parking available, because there was. One of the huge issues when the Pacific Place shopping center was built was parking. They built a huge underground parking garage, that is now operated by the city with fairly low rates. This parking garage is not used just for the shopping center, but also for general visitors to Downtown, and they even advertise specials for parking for sporting events at CenturyLink Field (a short light rail ride away).
In addition to the underground parking garage, I noticed a few huge parking structures spread around the Downtown area. Not to say that these completely eliminated surface parking, because there were still lots, but the lots were not scattered all over the Downtown core, breaking up the urban fabric.
One thing I’ve said we need in Downtown LA is more consolidated parking. I would be completely ok if a developer build a huge parking structure (they should put ground floor retail in too!). I’d hope we could then develop many of the surface lots we have into true street-activating uses.
I was surprised and encouraged at Councilmember Huizar’s recent “The Future of Your Downtown” forum when consolidated parking was brought up a number of times by the panelists as something that is important and in the works!
Downtown Los Angeles is coming a long way, and we’re already working on a lot of these things. With some careful planning for all types of transit (bike, pedestrian, streetcar, bus, light rail, car, and maybe even a monorail or gondola), Downtown LA will become one of the best urban cores in the country.