Sunday, July 19, 2009

Light Rail: The Good

The Light Rail opened this weekend. Well, it was open to the public for the first time this weekend -- from 10 to 6 or 8pm both days. Lots of opening day festivities, so it's not really useful as regular transportation until Monday when it starts its normal schedule. Sarah and I rode it twice -- on Saturday down to Tukwila then back up to Othello, then from Othello we took the shuttle back to Beacon Hill -- and on Sunday up to Westlake, then took the shuttle back. Sunday definitely seemed to be the busier day. Here's the really good, really cool awesomeness of light rail (and why we need to build more of it in the region):

Platforms are level with the train, allow disabled riders to board with ease. This is really important for the schedule. When a wheel chair pulls up to a bus, you know you'll be at the bus stop for 5 more minutes while the platform extends, lowers, the person rolls onto it, the platform rises, the person boards the bus and gets strapped in by the driver, the platform lowers and hides again. That's not so on the light rail. Wheel chair users roll right on, with no delay.

Payment is at the station, not at the driver's door. Also really important to the schedule. On a bus, if you have ten people waiting to get on, all ten people line up at the driver's door and pay one by one. I personally can't stand the person who's paying with pennies and dimes, but somehow failed to dig through her purse beforehand. On the light rail, come and go through any door. All ten people board simultaneously, allowing the train to get going sooner.

Stations are further apart. On my bus route, there's a stop about 100 feet south, and one about 10 feet north of where I live. What usually happens is I'm at the north bus stop, and someone else is at the south bus stop. Guess what? The bus stops twice within the 110 foot distance. Everyone on board wastes time, and at the same time gets motion sick if they're trying to read from all the stop-and-go traffic. I want to go as far as I can, without having to stop every other block to let someone else on. With the light rail, the riders are consolidated at fewer stations, so it takes less time to get to the station you want. With the light rail stations an average of one mile apart, the furthest you ever have to walk is a half mile and on average you need only walk a quarter mile to the nearest station. Yes, it's longer than walking a half block to the nearest bus stop, but the advantage is once you get on, you get there faster and with less stop-and-go.

The rails are grade separated for the most part, and get signal priority where they aren't. This means the light rail doesn't get stuck in traffic and there's less stop-and-go making the ride more pleasant. The train only runs at-grade through the Rainier Valley along MLK, but traffic lights detect the train and try to let it through faster.

Quiet. If you've been on the back of a diesel bus, you know why this is important. Light rail trains are very quiet.

No openable windows. No more issues with some drunk idiot getting on the bus in winter and opening all the windows making everyone else freeze just because he got hot running after the bus. No more issues with some crazy homeless guy opening the windows during the summer and letting out all the air conditioning.

Smooth. That's the advantage of running over metal rails. Blacktop distorts from the weight of busses at bus stops, making bumps. And buses are just as subject to pot holes as cars are. Seattle doesn't have the best roads, we all know this. Light rail doesn't suffer the same problem. And a smoother ride means less motion sickness.

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