Monday, July 20, 2009

Free Light Rail

My seven-year-old daughter and I took a ride on Seattle's new Central Link light rail line on Sunday, just to see what it would be like while rides were still free and the line was still heavily used. More of us had originally planned to go, but our family was deep in the midst of a game of Monopoly (the National Parks edition), and we couldn't tear free until time got short. We were also going to a Los Lobos concert at the Woodland Park Zoo later that night, so our options at that point got quite limited. We decided that my wife, one of our friends, and some of our kids would drive to the Zoo to wander around beforehand while I took as many of our kids as wanted to go on the bus to downtown, where we would climb aboard a light rail train and have an adventure.

My oldest son said no way. "Why doesn't someone else go?" he asked. My second son, the one who'd been with me a couple weekends ago when a fight was breaking break out right next to us asked if it would be any different from a bus ride. "Well, yes," I answered. "It's a train."

"Have I ridden a train before?" he asked.

"Yes, several times. Remember when we rode the South Lake Union Trolley? It's sort of like that, but bigger."

"Is it like the Santa Train?" my daughter asked.

"Is it like a bus?" my second son asked.

"Well, it's sort of like the Santa Train," I said
to my daughter. "But that one is old and this one is brand-new. And it's sort of like a bus," I told my son, "but it won't be like your last trip where those people said all those bad words and started pushing each other."

"I don't want to go," my son said.

"I'll go!" said my daughter, brightly. Bless her.

"More than one of you can go," I said to all my children, but the others were already leaving.

So my daughter and I walked down to the nearest bus stop at about 2:30 on a bright Sunday afternoon to wait for a King County Metro #358 bus, which was due about three minutes after we arrived at the stop. A couple other people were waiting, too, one of them smoking. The bus came on time and there were plenty of seats, so we climbed aboard and got two together near the front of the bus. We got off at 3rd & Pike and walked a block to go down to the Bus Tunnel, which will henceforth be referred to here by its new official name of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. No buses were operating in the tunnel over the weekend so as to make it as easy as possible for as many trains as possible to carry as many passengers as possible on their inaugural weekend.

There were a ton of people in line. In fact there were two lines, starting at the far end of the Westlake Center Station Mezzanine and threading something like 100 yards to the other end. After a few minutes in line at the bottom of the escalators from street level, our line moved in a big pulse and then stopped. A few minutes later it moved again and we passed a sign telling us that there would be a 30-minute wait from that point. A few minutes later and the other line moved in a big pulse past us. Various buskers performed between the two lines. One guy did card tricks. A woman juggled two Koosh™ balls and a rubber chicken, which she seemed to drop frequently. My daughter was a lot more interested in peering over the railing to see the top of the trains as they pulled into and out of the station below us. The line moved in another big pulse past a sign that said there would be a 20-minute wait from that point, and we waited some more. The other line moved in another big pulse. From where we were standing we could now see the top of the escalator to the lower level. And then our line started moving and we followed a few hundred people down the escalator to the next train, which was filling up rapidly. My daughter and I sat in the train's very last row, a few more people got on behind us, and we were underway.

A couple women in the row ahead of us seemed to tune in as I explained to my daughter all about how the tunnel worked, where I would stand in the various stations while waiting for my bus(es) to work, the differences in each station's design, plus some indication of what would be coming next. We emerged into sunlight after the International District station and stopped at the Stadium Station, where my daughter proudly pointed out SAFECO Field near the tracks and pronounced that she knew why it was called "Stadium Station". The women in front of us smiled. I told my daughter to watch out for buses in use on the busway next to the light rail line, and we saw several go past. Beyond the SODO/Lander station, which I think was the first one ready for light rail (perhaps not including the ones in the Downtown Transit Tunnel), we climbed the ramp that would take us over the light rail maintenance facility (which I named "pylon land" for her after all the green-and-black pylons there) and then plunged into the darkness of the Beacon Hill tunnel. I noticed that some playing cards were flashing on the walls and tried to show my daughter, but she didn't see them. They weren't done very well, actually, and seemed out of sync, usually showing part of one card and part of another in each frame. The Beacon Hill station seemed very cramped and dark -- Morlock habitat for sure. And then we came into the light for the elevated Mt. Baker station. Which seemed an incongruous name since Mt. Rainier was right ahead of us, looking glorious.

"Your brothers and I are going to that mountain next weekend for a big hike," I told her, pointing to it, "though we're not climbing to the top."

Then we descended to street level for several more stations. I'd already decided that we would go all the way to Tukwila and then come back to Columbia City for some barbeque takeout at a restaurant where my wife and I attended a party last year, which I would bring to the ZooTunes concert for our dinner. At that station I saw a friend of mine who works for Sound Transit and made a mental note to seek her out on the way back.

On the elevated section beyond the Rainier Valley, the train sped up. The ride had been very smooth up until then, if not particularly fast, but with the faster speed here the train had a noticeably rougher ride. I had to ask my daughter a couple times if she was scared, both because of the pronounced fishtailing motion and also because of our altitude, which in places seemed to approach 100 feet above the creekbed below, but she said she was fine.

We stopped before arriving at the final station and at first I wondered why, but then I saw the train ahead of us just pulling into that station. When it was nearly all the way in our train started moving again. And when we got out of the train and into the station, it was hard not to notice the enormous size of the place. Huge high glass ceilings, a giant molecular sculpture with messages on it that might be regarded as inspirational, or at least as promoting Tukwila's civic spirit. Sort of the polar opposite of the Beacon Hill station. And there were probably a thousand people waiting in line for the next train back. I asked my daughter if she would rather wait in line for the next train, or hop onto a bus for a quicker return. She opted for the bus. I checked with the driver of the first bus we came to, which was heading directly back to downtown, so that wouldn't work, but he motioned us to the next bus in line which was a "local". The driver of that bus told us that he could indeed drop us at the Columbia City station, so we hopped on board and a couple minutes later started up.

There were a total of four passengers on the bus.


Yes, I know, this was a tourist day, and people were there to check out the new light rail system and not some old buses (even though this was a cushy Sound Transit bus). My daughter was enchanted by the comfortable near-empty bus, however, since (as she put it) "We had it almost all to OurSELVES!".

The bus took a little time waiting for a couple left-turn signals before we got onto the freeway, but once that was out of the way it flew up I-5 to the MLK Way exit, and then flew up MLK Way itself. Driving this way with help from the signals tuned for fast light rail operation was very quick, but it gave us a view that we wouldn't have gotten from the trains themselves:
the view of the MLK corridor from the street is actually quite ugly; seven lanes of gray pavement and gravel cluttered with the soup of power poles and interconnecting cables, especially when no train is there to focus the attention and mitigate the blight. It looked kind of like a tidal flat of rebar.

We passed a train as we got onto MLK Way, then passed another by the time we'd arrived at the Columbia City where all four of the bus' passengers got off. We walked to the corner of Edmunds St and my daughter pointed to a bicycle cab and asked "Can we ride in it?!"

The bicycle cab had a sign on the back advertising rides for one dollar. How could I resist? So we climbed in and rode the two long blocks to Rainier Ave, and then one short block to Ferdinand Street, where we got off and paid (and tipped) the bicyclist. And there was the barbeque place: Jones Barbeque, looking just as I remembered. We ordered, waited for our order to come up while sipping a pink lemonade together (it tasted of Aspartame, which my daughter loved but I thought was awful), then refilled it with root beer on our way out and walked back to the station. We might've ridden in another bicycle cab, but none was waiting. Maybe no one wanted to lug back 300+ pounds of passengers on that two-block-long slight uphill, I don't know.

By this time it was after 5:15 PM, and the signage at the station described the last train as having departed 15 minutes earlier, but we'd just missed catching another train, and no one told us when we asked them that no more trains would come, so we sat down and waited. A volunteer told us that the friend I'd recognized here earlier had already departed for the day, but promised to pass on our greeting. Sure enough, another train came by a few minutes later and we climbed on -- I imagine that quite a few people that had ridden trains south from downtown earlier that day still had to get home, and it wouldn't have been very good publicity for Sound Transit to strand them in Tukwila with only buses (cushy though they might be) to take them home. This time we were in the middle section of the car, standing, with many more opportunities to chat with our fellow passengers. A pretty festive crowd, actually. One person even seemed to know the barbeque joint where we'd stopped, which is pretty remarkable considering that the bag didn't have any advertising mark on its side, and there's more than one barbeque joint in Columbia City. He even let me know that there's a location closer to downtown, near the SODO/Lander station.

Back in downtown Seattle, I had us get off at the University Street station rather than Westlake, figuring that we could avoid the Westlake crush as well as get a seat on our bus earlier than the Pike/Pine zoo. We were nearly 10 minutes early for our next bus, a King County Metro #5, and that bus was nearly 10 minutes late, so we had a good long wait. But there were plenty of available seats when it arrived, and we had no trouble taking it to the Zoo's west entrance. The ride took more than 20 minutes for a ride of about 5 miles, and the concert had been underway for half an hour (the band was playing "King Louie's Song") by the time we arrived. This bus/train/bus/bike/walk/train/bus option definitely wasn't the quickest way to get around today, and by the time we broke out the picnic at the concert it was barely warm (the containers were getting slumpy and saturated, too), but it was still some mighty fine barbeque.

And the concert was amazing ... I don't know how accustomed Los Lobos is to playing to 5000 blissed-out liberal-arts-educated white people in the sun, but they seemed to take it as their personal mission to get us up and dancing, and by the time the sun had set over most of the audience and they'd gone to a set of Mexican polka-flavored traditional salsa mixed with extended three-guitar electric funk-rock-folk goodness, everyone was on their tiptoes, with a lot of their kids on their shoulders, rocking out. I only wish that Dave Alvin had been there to get up with them. Their finish, when they'd invited about 50 audience members to come up and share the stage with them, dancing away, may have been the most amazing thing I've seen on a rock stage in my life.

Maybe not so very different from when I saw them 25 years ago in East L.A. with my roommate at a free concert in the park, I think to thank their hometown once their first album had been released even though with about a dozen outlandish-haired punks I think we were the only non-Hispanic white people in that audience.

That, and the couple Los Lobos shows I've seen in between, has been (and will always remain in my memory) a great time for all. Maybe excepting the 2 or 3 guys who tried to pick a fight with my roommate at that concert 25 years ago.

The sunset afterwards was stupefying, too. Heckuva day all around.

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