This is a report on the public transit system in Seattle, Washington. It covers a visit to Seattle April 6-10, 2008, which I made in the company of my friend Claire. We mostly rode METRO buses and the Seattle Streetcar. We also took a trip on the Bainbridge Island Ferry and rode Kitsap Transit.

This is not a technical transportation policy study, but just my personal impressions as a transit rider.


Seattle, Washington is a major west coast metropolitan area and US seaport, located on Puget Sound. The Seattle skyline is famous for the Space Needle.

Here is the Visitor Website

Historically, Seattle was the jumping off place for people bound for the Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle today is the corporate home of Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks.

Seattle in 2008 is prosperous and clean. There is much construction.

Seattle’s METRO buses, colored in forest shades above an orange stripe, provide great public transit for a vibrant city.


Claire got to Seattle via Alaska Airlines. Since I dislike flying, especially since the introduction of post-9/11 security measures, I booked on AMTRAK, leaving the preceding day. That turned out to be a mistake. A spring mudslide in the mountains of Oregon had closed the tracks, so I rode a crowded bus from Sacramento to Portland. Instead of spending a pleasant night in a private sleeper compartment, I sat up awake most of the night, listening to the snores of my fellow passengers.

Part of the bus trip was pleasant, going through the green hills of Oregon. In Portland, I had time for a little tour of downtown, walking in the rain. I saw the MAX lite rail go by and remembered my previous transit-oriented visit there in 2006 The train from Portland to Seattle was full, but it was a pleasant ride, along the waters of Puget Sound.

My train from Portland arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station about 6:00 PM on Sunday April 6. Claire had already arrived at SEATAC and ridden the METRO line 195 bus from SEATAC airport to downtown and had connected with the 49 bus to the bed & breakfast where we were staying, which was in the Capitol Hill district.

I was less successful in my initial contact with transit. I was exhausted and groggy, and I suppose I should have just taken a taxi from among those waiting at the station. But I wanted to use the buses, so I climbed up the stairs to street level at Jackson and 5th. Before leaving, I had gone on the Internet and used the trip planner on the METRO website to identify buses between the train station and Capitol Hill. I had found the stop for the 14 bus, which appeared to let me off near the bed & breakfast. Then Claire called me on my cell phone and told me that we had a different address, and that the correct bus to take was line 49. I found the stop for 49 across the street, and waited quite a while for a 49 to show up. In my tired state, I failed to read a notice posted among the schedules at the stop, which said that 49 line doesn’t actually stop there. I should have taken a 7. The notice said that on evenings and Sundays, the 7 line morphs into a 49 and then goes where I needed to go. Giving up on the 49, I eventually hailed a cab.

I didn’t find out what I’d done wrong until the next day.

Claire made me a nice breakfast the next morning. Having had a good night’s sleep, I had rebounded from the previous day’s trials, and was ready to ride buses.

Riding the 49 Downtown

It was Monday morning, April 7. I saw a line 60 bus go by in front of the bed & breakfast, but I didn’t know where it went. I went out to find a 49 stop to go downtown.

As I waited, I saw numerous “First Student” school buses go by. There was abundant street parking, with pay-to-park machines that took a credit card. The minimum fee was 25 cents; the time limit was 2 hours.

The first bus to arrive to arrive, on-time at 8:41 AM (from the schedule on the pole), was a big articulated electric bus. It was full of standing commuters, so I decided to let it pass. I caught the next bus, also on-time at 8:56 AM, and had no trouble getting a seat. It turned out that I’d skipped the last “peak” bus of the morning.

Here are some pictures of the kind of bus I rode (roll picture down to view).

Fare Structure

METRO has a rather complicated fare structure, involving zones and peak/off-peak time ranges.

Fares had just increased on March 1, 2008, and another increase was scheduled for July 1, 2008. I report the fares effective when we rode, during April 2008. Current fares are available on the METRO Website.

Fare Zones

There are two fare zones ringing the downtown. In the core of downtown, transit is free between 6 AM and 7 PM.

Adult fare within one zone was $1.50 off-peak and $1.75 peak. Corresponding senior fares were $0.25 and $0.50.

For two zones, the fares were respectively $1.50, $2.25, $0.25 and $0.50.

METRO offers monthly passes and even a a one-year bus pass; for seniors, it was $66.

Visitor Pass

One smart thing I did before we left for the trip was to send for “visitor passes” for both of us; these came in the mail before the start of the trip. A visitor pass may be used as a day-pass, for a whole day. A pass is a scratch-off card. One scratches off the calendar date desired for travel. One then displays the scratched card to get free transit during all of that calendar day -- all zones, peak or off-peak.

The visitor pass is a great idea. The only complication was knowing when to show the card. On the side of the fare box at the front door of a bus, is a notice cars which says whether the fare is free (downtown), peak or off-peak, and whether one should pay when boarding or when getting off. The general rule is to pay when boarding inbound to downtown, and pay when getting off when heading away from downtown.

In the free zone, or where one pays when getting off, riders may board through the back doors.

Claire and I always had our visitor cards in hand, ready to show. It worked out just fine for us. We made sure we’d scratched to show the current day’s date each morning; no driver ever questioned our cards.

Displaying the visitor cards clearly branded us as not local. People were very helpful when we were confused or asked questions.

So I rode my first bus into downtown Seattle on that cool and windy Monday morning.

Right away, I saw two things I liked about the METRO bus. One was that the signal for the stop made a sharp bell-like ding!, instead of a beep or some other electronic noise. The other was that the signal was generated by pulling a traditional cord, easily located above the seats, instead of pushing a hard-to-find button. Also, for standees, many of the buses had hanging straps in addition to grab-bars.

Most riders on that rush-hour bus used a pass, which the swiped through a slot on top of the fare box.

I saw a gadget that looked like the Bay Area’s TRANSLINK reader, but I didn’t see anyone use it while I was in Seattle.

Most of the seats on the bus were front-facing pairs. There were some side-facing seats in the front. Some seats were high over the wheels. It looked like all METRO buses are made by New Flyer (Winnipeg, Canada).

Bus Shelters and the Transit Tunnel

I got off at 9th and Pine. I took some pictures of bus shelters (roll picture down to view). They are very nice, with full protection from the wind, and clear panels so it’s easy to see people inside.

Nearby, I spotted an entrance to the Seattle Transit Tunnel. From the street, I could look down into rows of buses and the entrance to a tunnel. About a year ago, Seattle finished construction of bus tunnels for the express buses. The bus-only tunnels keep buses running fast, and off the streets for most of the routes, especially the express lines.

METRO buses are a mixture of 40-foot diesels and 60-foot articulated electric. Maybe half of the buses I saw were articulated. Many of the buses in the tunnel were labeled “hybrid” (diesel, electric).

Nearly all the buses in Seattle are operated by METRO, the system which covers Seattle and all of King County. Some were labeled “Sound Transit”.

There are train tracks in the tunnel. In 2009, a light rail system will begin service.

There were uniformed men patrolling the tunnel station, with shoulder patch “Olympic Security”. Up on the street I saw Seattle Police patrolling on bicycles.

I walked down Pine, following the numbered streets: 9th, 8th, 7th, … towards the waterfront, looking at the city scenery. I visited a bookstore. I decided not to buy any Seattle tourist guidebooks. On transit trips like this, I like to just let things happen.

I passed another entrance to the bus tunnel, under the Macy’s department store. Signs announced the opening of light rail service in 2009.

Finally, about 10am, I ended up at the Pike Place Market, a famous Seattle landmark. I strolled around the shops and looked at the metal statue of the pig. I was pleased to note the availability of public toilets. I rested for a while on seats in an enclosed area, where I could look out over the harbor and watch the ferries and the freighters.

Then my cell phone rang; Claire wanted to know when I’d be back. I walked over to Pike Street and boarded the 49 bus. I was pleased to hear the driver call out the stops as the bus came into Capitol Hill district, so I got off at the right place, about 1 PM.

Claire had found out the location of a Whole Foods store. We walked to where we could board an 8 bus, which took us to the store at Westlake. It was large and well-supplied with good things to eat. It was in a very urban neighborhood, but I was surprised not to see a huge parking lot. We found the parking later – the entrance to the underground garage was around the corner.

Before we entered the Whole Foods store, we were surprised by the appearance of a bright red streetcar, running on tracks right in front of the store. This was the “Seattle Streetcar”, which had started service in January 2008 between downtown and South Lake Union. We didn’t ride the streetcar just then, but we would ride it a lot later on.

Move to Downtown

At this point, we decided to leave the bed & breakfast place and go to a hotel closer to downtown. Claire found us rooms at the Sixth Avenue Inn, at Westlake and Virginia. This was about a block away from the downtown end of the Seattle Streetcar, and also on several bus lines. It was even within walking distance of the Monorail.

Day 2

I was up early the next morning, Tuesday, April 8. At about 7:30am I was standing at 6th Ave & Denney Way, watching the commuter traffic. I got some pictures of a lot offering “monthly” parking with a view of the Space Needle. Seattle has great transit, but there still are plenty of people driving cars.

Riding the Streetcar

We rode the Seattle Streetcar to Whole Foods Market for breakfast. There was a ticket dispenser at the streetcar station, and a machine for validating the ticket on board the streetcar.

The streetcar driver accepted our visitor passes. A sign aboard explained that proof-of-payment was in effect. We never did see a fare inspector on the streetcar.

There were two cars in operation – one red, the other purple. The cars were in two articulated segments. There were 4 doors on each side. The doors in the middle were wider than the doors at the ends.

The operator sits in a compartment at the front end of the train. When the streetcar pulled into our stop, which was the end/beginning of the line’s downtown end, the driver walked to the compartment at the other end. The streetcar does not turn around. There is a place along the route where one streetcar can pass another.

Here is a picture of the interior of a streetcar.

To signal its approach, the streetcar gives off a characteristic “riing-riing”.

A rider signals for a stop by pushing on a vertical yellow strip on the car wall.

We continued on the Streetcar to the other end, at South Lake Union. This is an area of hi-tech businesses, some of them biotech. These businesses strongly promoted the Seattle Streetcar. It’s a pretty fancy gadget.

The Streetcar was built by a German firm, Hanning and Karl. On one of our rides, we saw two German guys doing a ridership survey.

Near Lake Union, I saw a couple clueless car drivers who stopped and blocked the streetcar, evidently unable to understand that it had to stay on the tracks.

Then we took buses to the U of Washington campus and the University Village shopping center. Near the University, we found a street much like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and had a nice meal. We rode bus lines 70 and 65, both running 40-ft diesel service.

I did not notice any signs on any METRO bus forbidding eating or drinking. The buses were clean. At the stops or on the buses, there was much less graffiti than one typically sees in the East Bay.

Seat Hogging Incident

One of these bus rides, I saw a guy occupying both seats of a forward-facing pair. He had piled a couple grocery bags on the second seat.

The bus filled up, and another rider wanted to sit down in the seat filled with the grocery bags. The guy in the seat balked. “Do you insist on having this seat? I’ll have to move.” The challenging rider shrugged and moved on.

About 30 seconds later, a small Chinese lady just sat down, gently shoving the grocery bags aside. The bag owner didn’t protest.

I suppose the guy could have put the bags on the floor in front of him; they weren’t that full.

Riding Downtown over a Drawbridge

About 2:45 PM, we boarded a 71 express bus to downtown. I noticed a bank thermometer – 48 degrees F. The bus got hung up in traffic, waiting for a drawbridge. The bus took us to the Seattle Center tunnel. We decided to get off there instead of staying on to Westlake. We walked to Westlake.

Riding the Monorail

We decided to ride the Monorail from there out to the Space Needle.

Our visitor passes didn’t work, but the round-trip senior fare was only $2. Departures were every 10 minutes. This was about 3:15 PM.

We got off at the base of the Space Needle and took an elevator ride to the top. There was a great view of the harbor; we could see one of the ferries.

We rode the Monorail back to Westlake. Like the Seattle Streetcar, the Monorail operator walked from the control cab at on end to the cab at the other end. The Monorail has only the two stops – downtown and Seattle Center -- the needle.

From the Westlake transit center, we walked back to the hotel. This was about 4:30 PM. We ate a light supper at an Internet Café, within walking distance of the hotel. We were able to check our emails.

After taking a little nap, I spent some time staring out the window of my room. I had a great view of passing buses and the streetcar. I tried to figure out if there was a color code on the buses. All of them had a dark color on top, and orange on the bottom. I thought the purple might be for electric and green or dark blue for diesel, but I couldn’t see any consistency. I think the color scheme may have more to do with when the bus entered the fleet.

Just after 5 PM, I saw one of the electric buses lose contact with the overhead wire. The operator handled the situation smoothly: he got out and used the ropes at the rear of the bus to steer the big contact bars back onto the wire. I'd seen this maneuver done with San Francisco MUNI electric buses.

I saw green city vehicles with the circular City of Seattle logo. I saw a white Prius, labeled “SDOT” – Seattle Department of Transportation(?)

That evening, we took in a performance of the musical “Cabaret” at the 5th Street Theater, which was within easy walking distance. After the performance, we got a nice “asian fusion” late dinner at the “Dragon Fish” restaurant. All of this was accomplished on foot; maybe we could have used some buses, but we didn’t feel the need to figure out how to do it.

Riding the Ferry

The next day, Wednesday April 9, we decided to try out the ferry boats.

We walked down to Alaska Way, which runs along the waterfront. We passed the Seattle Aquarium, and Ivar’s Fish Restaurant, which I remembered from my trips to Seattle back when I lived in Alaska.

We asked for round-trip tickets to Bainbridge Island, and found out that the return fare is free. We boarded the ferry about 10:30 AM. It was a huge ship, with plenty of seats and a restaurant and convenience store. The weather was cool and windy, but the scenery was beautiful.

The ferry's propellor surged up green ocean water of Puget Sound around the dock as the ferry arrived at the landing near the town of Winslow.

Kitsap Transit

Two Kitsap Transit buses were waiting. One went to Poulsbo.

We boarded the “100 Winslow” which took us downtown. Our METRO passes were not valid here, so we paid the $1.25 cash fare. The driver said that the bus continues on from Winslow to a park-N-ride.

We ate lunch in a veggie grocery which had a small restaurant. Talking with the staff, we found that one of them was a transplant from Berkeley.

We then walked back to the ferry landing. The area had a small-town atmosphere. We saw professional offices. It looks like quite a number of people live in Winslow and take the ferry in to Seattle. I wouldn’t mind living there.

We talked with a guy running a bike station at the ferry terminal. They had racks for hanging up bikes, and had a few bikes available for rent. He told us that the newer Kitsap Transit buses were 40-ft Gilligs. He said that for the last 4 years, there had been maintenance problems with their buses, but things seemed better now. There was a big (paid) parking lot for cars near the ferry landing.

Somebody on the ferry told us we could take a 18 bus from Alaska Way out to the Seattle Center. We wanted to ride the “Duck Tour”, which gives a ride on amphibious vehicles on the streets and in the water. Unfortunately, we arrived in time for the last trip of the day, but the duck was full.

Seeing our disappointment, a guy suggested we go downtown and take the “Underground Seattle” tour.

Underground Seattle

The Underground Seattle walking tour turned out to be lots of fun. The tour starts from an old bar at Pioneer Square, and goes down into tunnels under today’s city sidewalks. We passed the lower parts of old buildings, some dating from the great 1887 fire, when Seattle went through a major rebuild of downtown. Modern Seattle sits on top of old Seattle. At one point, the tour guide pointed at a window underground, which now shows pipes and old walls; we were told that in the old days, we would have been looking out at street level, at passing horses and wagons.

Before going underground, our attention was called to small glass chunks in the sidewalk. Underground, we passed under these places and could see light coming through the old fogged glass. The guide had the whole tour group shout loudly: “Hello! Help!” No reaction from above. Street noise is fairly loud, and people don’t expect to hear voices coming from under the sidewalk.

The end of the tour brought us out into daylight under the bar where we’d started. We ate a meal at a downtown restaurant, and walked from there back to the hotel.

Heading Home

The next morning, were to fly back to the Bay Area. We left the hotel and walked to the Westlake transit center. A friendly transit worker directed us into the tunnel, to where we could board the 195 express bus for the airport.

Signs in the tunnel told us about the light rail under construction. In 2009, there will be light rail service to the airport.

We were pleased with the bus service. Our day-passes were accepted. The big diesel bus made a fast trip to SEATAC, which is located between Seattle and Tacoma. We were dropped off near our terminal.

That was the end of our trip.

I was impressed with the city of Seattle and Seattle transit. The city is very clean and obviously prosperous. Car traffic is heavy, but a great deal of effort has gone into providing transit as an alternative. The tunnel is impressive. Express bus and light rail service is being built. We were told that the Seattle Streetcar route will be extended.

end of report - Seattle transit trip

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