What can the UK learn from Seattle’s transport success?

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What do Amazon, Starbucks and the Boeing 747 all have in common? They were all founded in what is now the 15th largest Metropolitan area in United States; Seattle. Despite its location only 59 miles from one of world’s most dangerous Volcano’s, Mount Rainier, Seattle’s population has continued to grow and in 2016, saw population growth of 3.1%, making it the fastest growing major city in the US.

Due to Seattle’s unique Geography, nestled between the Puget Sound to the West, and Lake Washington and the Cascades to the East, the main flow of transport North to South is guided through what is a relatively narrow stretch of land. This invariably has led to high levels of congestion and an inability for Seattle to greatly expand its highway networks. No wonder Seattle boasts one of the best and well used public transport (or transit as the American’s like to say) networks in the US.

Bus boon

Buses play an incredibly important role in Seattle. Roughly 1,800 buses are operated by the King County Metro authority and Sound Transit agency, providing between them a pretty comprehensive network of buses.

The buses themselves are generally high quality vehicles, providing capacious cabins, accurate next stop announcements, and – contrasting with the lighter weight buses that many UK operators use – boast smooth and comfy rides. Many buses are hybrid and Seattle also has something that can no longer be seen beyond the walls of transport museums in the UK – trolleybuses. Whilst the overhead wire for trolleybuses can frustratingly ruin a tourist’s picture, the environmental benefits they deliver for such large urban centres is quite evident. Perhaps it was just the dominant flow of sea air from the Pacific Ocean, but Seattle felt and smelt fresher than many European cities I have visited, particularly London.

Whilst the bus in Seattle provided a welcome improvement over UK examples in terms of on-board passenger experience, in other areas it’s depressingly familiar. The bus drivers, whilst not unfriendly, were not particularly helpful. Fares were quite expensive at $2.75 for a ride, although this did include the ability to hop to another bus within four hours of purchasing a ticket. Punctuality was also not particularly brilliant, with buses missing from the schedule and drivers taking liberty with their break times.

Perhaps this was just an unlucky experience because Seattle has historically taken bus priority very seriously indeed. In 1990, the 1.3 mile long Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel opened. Looking a little like the Washington DC Metro system, this tunnel was not built for rail but for trolleybuses. Such a commitment to big bus infrastructure is rare and was welcome to see, providing light rail like service quality for bus passengers. Fast-forward to 2009, and buses started to share the tunnel with the newly opened Link light rail system – an interesting sight, although catching a bus and Link train together is something of a challenge.

In 2012, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel carried an impressive 52,000 passengers per day, of which 10,000 were on the light rail system. Rather disappointingly, this interesting transport set up will not last much longer. Buses will soon be relegated to street level in order to accommodate planned expansions for the light rail system through the tunnel system.

Linking rail and residential

Tram and Bus v2

With significant population increases to contend with, it is little wonder that Seattle’s transit authorities have turned their attention to developing the comprehensive Link light rail network. The first 13.9 mile long phase opened in 2009 between SeaTac Airport and the City Centre.

The route operates via a number of major new suburban developments. Link rolling stock and operations are an interesting combination between a tram and a train. In the city centre it operates very much like a tram but once it reaches suburban areas, the driver unleashes the power delivered by the 1500V overhead wires, accelerating passengers to 55mph.

The concept behind the Link network is a classic example of transit oriented development. The first route has been designed to take in areas of new residential development, particularly around Othello and Columbia city stations. Within half a mile of Othello station is a diverse population of just under 8,000, with a wide range of social and market rate developments nestled alongside each other. By building the Link network where major urban development has occurred, Seattle’s city planners have helped to facilitate sustainable population growth by placing public transport at the heart of new developments.

Sky trains

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For whatever reason, the monorail as a mode of transport has always suffered a bit of an image problem, forever being associated with a theme park attraction (see Walt Disney World), rather than a serious public transit network. The Seattle monorail is certainly an attraction, but it does also provide a key public transit link, connecting passengers from the Westlake transportation hub to the Space Needle. Whether it’s Disney World, Kuala Lumpur or Seattle, I’m always astounded when I ride on a monorail as to why it’s never caught on in a big way. It is such a fabulous way to travel, and when boarding this monorail at the grand age of 29, I felt the same giddy excitement when traveling across the Seven Seas Lagoon 20 years earlier.

Opened in 1962 to coincide with the opening of the Space Needle, the original vehicles are astoundingly still in operation today. At $2.50, it is not exactly a cheap ride, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable one. Admiring the fantastic views that one can enjoy from a monorail, as well as noting the limited footprint at ground level for monorail infrastructure, I keep asking myself why there aren’t more monorails in the world?

As a visitor, Seattle is a really easy place to get around. As a transport planner, I appreciate its historical commitment to the bus and trolleybus, although I have concerns about its future, playing second fiddle to the new Link light rail network. Link is clearly the vision Seattle’s transit planners have for the future of the city’s mobility, and its deployment is a good example of transit orientated development working. During 2017, nearly 50% of commuters to downtown Seattle arrived via mass transit, aided by the comprehensive bus network, well located Link light rail network and extortionate car parking charges. Seattle then is a great example of a successful transport network that also boasts a huge array of interesting modes; buses, trolleybuses, streetcars, light rail, heavy rail, and of course, the monorail. Perhaps there’s some lessons that transport and city planners in the UK can learn from Seattle’s experience.

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and is on secondment as a Policy Advisor at Urban Transport Group

Five things I learned for urban transport at Conservative party conference

Grayling’s plan for rail

Chris Grayling was expansive in setting out his thoughts on the future for rail at a rail industry fringe…

– He previously thought evolution not revolution was right approach for rail but recent events have shown that this isn’t the case. The system is broken and needs fixing.

– However the rail review will not be about all aspects of the rail industry it will be a ‘validation exercise’ around different options for greater unification of tracks and trains plus a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry as a whole. He would be ‘very surprised’ if this isn’t the approach the review takes. ‘Something like the SRA is needed’ and ‘the DfT should do less than it does now after the review’. He referenced Japan which has vertically integrated regional train companies as one of the models for greater unification of track and trains.

– In the meantime he trusts Andrew Haines to make very sure that Network Rial gets its act together on timetable planning so there will be no repeat of the recent timetabling fiascos

– The rail review will also look at where it is appropriate to extend devo and where it is not. He said extending the Tyne and Wear Metro and Merseytravel taking the Merseyrail infrastructure were good examples of where it is appropriate and gave London taking over south east rail services as his prime example of where it is not appropriate. All of this boils down to that he is pro-devolution where it is about services within the area covered by the devolved authority and anti-devolution where a city region starts to take too many responsibilities for services in the surrounding shires

– The Rail Review will be formally launched following a statement in parliament when parliament returns

Vote leave, vote against HS2?

Grayling said at the same industry fringe meeting that no cabinet minister has said to him that HS2 should be abandoned or scaled back. However it’s clear that there are a number of prominent ‘Leave’ figures, in and out of the cabinet, who have said it publicly or are known to be floating it privately. Grayling’s line was that (as far as any major project of this scale can be completely on target in terms of budget and timings) that HS2 is on course, fully committed and it’s steady as it goes. However it’s clear that completing all of HS2, or not, is back in play as a wider political football. Also there’s probably a stronger political consensus now around Northern Powerhouse Rail than there is around building all of HS2. Some bigger, bolder HS2 advocacy will be required if the case is to be re-made, and re-won.

The devo dimension to Brexit makes a modest come back

One dimension to some Brexiteer arguments was that powers devolved from Brussels should go down to the regions not all go back to Whitehall. This dimension to the argument did make a modest come back in some quarters at the conference (including at some Centre for Cities / Core cities events from CLG Secretary James Brokenshire and George Freeman MP).

It may find fuller voice in a new framework for devolution which Brokenshire briefly trailed as coming out in the autumn at the Centre for Cities reception

Enough to fill the Albert Hall

Although much of what Grayling focussed on at conference was big infrastructure issues he did suggest there could be some better news coming on local roads maintenance (perhaps this reflects that poor local road maintenance is motorists’ number one concern according to recent RAC research)

Love for the Bus

Buses came up much more on our conference stand than in previous years at Conservative party conference and is seen much more through the prism of the key role they can play to improve transport provision more widely rather than the totemic deregulation v regulation argument that used to be more to the fore

Jonathan Bray