Taking Light Rail to SeaTac Airport

When it came time for my return flight from Seattle to San Francisco, I thought it might be interesting to try public transit to the airport. I was staying with a friend on Capitol Hill, just northeast of downtown, and a short bus ride to the Central Link light rail that runs to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, about ten miles south of the city.

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The first step of the journey involved taking a seven-minute bus ride down the hill to the Westlake station at Fourth and Pine Streets. The bus stop was just a block from my friend’s house and a handy free iPhone app called OneBusAway (developed by the University of Washington) let me know exactly when the next bus was coming, minimizing my waiting time. The ride ended up being free because one of the other waiting passengers had accidentally been given two transfers on his connecting bus, so he gave one to me. Normally, it would be a $2.25 ride.

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The Westlake station will be the northern current terminus of the light rail line until 2016 and announcements on the bus made it easy to tell which stop to alight at. Going down two flights of escalators, I found a small ticketing lobby with easy to use self-service ticketing machines. The machines take both cash and cards. “Orca” is the name of the multi-modal fare card in the Seattle area. It stands for “One Regional Card for All” and is, of course, the proper name of the killer whales found in nearby Puget Sound – clever.

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From the ticketing lobby I descended another level to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. This 1.3-mile tunnel opened in 1990 and provides a convenient, congestion-free path for buses and light rail trains through the heart of Seattle while also providing passengers protection from the elements while waiting. It seems to be a useful piece of infrastructure.

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My adult ticket – $2.75 one-way to the airport. Travel time to the aiport from downtown is 36 minutes, not much longer than what a trip by car would be, without the worries of traffic – and in Seattle, there is usually traffic.

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Signage in the station was clear – different bus lines stop in different sections of the platform – and there were staff members present to answer questions. Frequency of the light rail runs from every 7.5 to every 15 minutes, depending on the time of day. I had less than a five-minute wait before my train arrived.

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Many passengers boarded at this first station, including several who were clearly going to the airport. Average weekday ridership for the 15.6-mile route is about 25,500, growing at a steady but modest pace.

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The two-car trains have a capacity of 74 seated and 126 standing passengers, although it would be hard to imagine that many people standing in this train, especially with the number of people bringing luggage aboard. With the airport as an important destination, there is a surprisingly small amount of storage space for luggage.

Leaving Westlake station, the line passes nine stations at a pretty quick rate, stopping at a station every two or three minutes. The final two stations, though, are much further out with nine minutes between the tenth and eleventh stations. This is a long distance for light rail to run with no stops and as far as I can tell, the route includes no provisions for in-fill stations to be added. 

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Two minutes afer leaving the second-to-last station, you pull into the SeaTac Airport station. This neatly organized station has a view of the north end of the airport terminal and signage directing you to the airport is clear. Unfortunately, it is an open-air station and I imagine that it gets very unpleasant waiting for a train in the winter. It looks, though, like the usually have an outbound train waiting in the station so passengers do not have to stand out in the elements for long.

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A view of the airport light rail station, which is built northeast of the parking garage and is connected via a pedestrian bridge and walkway that is partially protected from the elements. Sound Transit, the light rail operator, says it is a four-minute walk to the airport terminal. That would be a brisk four minutes, especially if you have luggage, and would only get you to the northernmost corner of the terminal. For most people, especially those not flying Alaska Airlines, ten to fifteen minutes would be a better estimate.

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View of the hometown airline, Alaska Airlines, from the light rail station.

I’m a fan of public transit and am glad that one more city in America has made its airport more accessible via transit. The Central Link light rail is convenient to use, reasonably comfortable (of course it was unseasonably pleasant weather when I rode it), and offers a good return on money for time. If you live anywhere near downtown (or along the light rail route), it is a compelling alternative to a taxi or private car. Of course, not everyone in Seattle lives near the light rail, which is always the challenge of public transit. Still, my overall impression of the Seattle light rail is a positive one.

 

Singapore Light Rail and New Urbanism

During a March visit to Singapore, I decided to ride the subway out to the nether reaches of the island to visit the light rail lines.  Singapore has three light rail lines that form four loops connecting to stations in the rail-based public transit network.  They were built with the express purpose of serving master-planned housing estates, giving residents a door-to-door rail service that allowed them to get around without increasing road-based traffic.

The light rail itself is clean and efficient, with the automated cars running regularly on elevated tracks that weave between housing towers.  Below is a video that overviews my experience on the system, including a startling discovery I made about how technology is used to solve a perhaps unforseen privacy problem.

Matters of urban planning and design have always interested me and for a short while in university I was an urban planning major.  Examples of transit-oriented land use, like the developments that surround the light rail lines in Singapore, make me think about ways that similar lessons could be applied in the United States.

Suburban Sprawl

A country with a plentitude of land, since World War II development in the US has been oriented towards the automobile, resulting in more and more sprawl and fewer and fewer neighborhoods where one can walk from home to anywhere useful.  With rising fuel prices and ever-increasing congestion on the roads, it amazes me that there has been continued resistance not only to public transit, but transit-oriented development.

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There are a few examples in the United States of what is sometimes called “New Urbanism”, a design philosophy that promotes more walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods that include mixed use buildings – shops, businesses, and residences in the same general area.  Not unlike traditional older neighborhoods in an urban environment, there are small shops on the main streets, some apartments overhead or in the surrounding blocks, and then single-family dwellings set further back.  Orenco Station, a neighborhood in the Portland, OR area is a good example of this type of planning.

(Comparing the “suburban sprawl” photo earlier in this entry with the master plan for Orenco Station, you’ll notice that suburbia has a lot of dead-end streets, which means there’s always a long way to go to get out of the neighborhood.)

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Some defining elements of this new style of development include:

  • The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  • Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly ¼ mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
  • There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  • At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  • An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  • Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  • Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.

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As I look at these design elements, I see of list of things that have a whole lot of “pros” and very few, if any, “cons”.  While the US will never go the route of Singaporean style land use – there’s no comparable acquiesence to the wisdom of the government, for starters – it does seem that a more comprehensive approach to land use would benefit the United States and our quality of life in the decades to come.

Further reading: Interesting blog entry titled “Five Causes of Suckiness in American Architecture“.

 

Fire and Light Part 2

While I eventually stopped burning rubber cement to illuminate my photos, my interest in light, movement, and extended exposure didn’t wane.  For some shots, it was a matter of holding the camera steady by hand, without the use of a tripod, just long enough for a slight sense of motion.  For other shots, a tripod was still necessary.

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This photo is actually upside down.  It is the reflection in the mirrored ceiling of the pedestrian tunnel that connects the two concourses of Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The focus is on the reflection rather than the neon tubes of the light sculpture.

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Christmas lights in suburban Kansas City.  I printed this up and used it for handmade holiday cards one year.  Same effect as the Golden Gate Bridge photo in the previous entry, except I was rotating the tripod almost the entire time.

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This photo was shot at a county fair in Oregon the summer of 1988.  I was there as part of a family reunion on my mother’s side and there was a fair near the town we stayed in.

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A Flying Tigers B-747 takes off on runway 1R at San Francisco International Airport.  Instead of moving the camera, as I did in the Golden Gate Bridge and Christmas photos, the camera remained fixed on the tripod while the plane moved.  The Flying Tigers logo is visible because the plane pulled into position at the threshold of the runway and stopped for about fifteen seconds before releasing the brakes and taking off.  The red dots above the line of the fence are from the strobe light on top of the plane, which blinked as the plane taxied.

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In March 2001, I shot this photo of Tawn on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  This was a handheld shot with an exposure of about 1/15th of a second.  I used a flash so that the image of Tawn would be fixed and sharp but the background and the railings would have a sense of movement.

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That same evening I took this picture at the base of the Eiffel Tower.  Thousands of strobe lights were flashing at 8:00 pm and I shot the exposure at about a half-second handheld while the strobes fired.  This picture captures exactly how this first trip to Paris felt for me.   

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I even experimented a bit with extended exposures in Bangkok before I moved here.  This photo was taken in the same alley I visited for last month’s entry about the Old Market in Yaoworat.  This picture from that entry must have been taken within a dozen meters of the above picture.  Funny that some seven or more years later – probably closer to nine! – I went back to the same alley and took more pictures.  I particularly liked how the sky was still purple in the background.

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This shot was taken the same evening in the same area, along the main road that cuts through Yaoworat (Chinatown).  I found it fascinating because the neon signs look like something out of the sixties or seventies, so I added a slight sepia tint to the photo.  I also liked that I captured someone else photographing the same view.

As I responded to one comment in the previous post, my current point-and-shoot camera, a Panasonic Lumix LX3, has a lot of manual controls.  I should experiment with it a bit and see what sort of extended exposures I can take.  Maybe moving to digital hasn’t cost me the opportunity to explore my artistic side.

 

Fire and Light Part 1

In high school I started learning about photography, buying a Minolta 35mm SLR camera and learning the techniques of exposure, composition, focus, etc. from a few friends who were very skilled.  In those days, of course, there was the expense of buying film and paying for developing and it wasn’t unusual for a roll to produce only one or two interesting images.

One of my interests was extended exposures: leaving the shutter open for a longer than normal length of time in order to capture multiple layers of light or a sense of motion.  This is a tricky technique because more often than not the pictures don’t turn out very well.  Additionally, a tripod is a must because taking these pictures by hand will result in too much blurring. 

As I was pouring through the scanned images from those years, I thought I would share a few with you. 

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This shot was taken from the Marin Headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Taking an extended exposure (manually locking the shutter in the open position so the frame of film was exposed for probably 20 seconds or so), I rotated the head of the tripod to produce this streaked effect.  Basically, I took the photo of the bridge, unmoving, for about 15 seconds and then slow rotated the tripod to the left for another 3-4 seconds to create the streaks.

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A few steps away from where I took the bridge picture is a set of old concrete bunkers, part of the extensive fortifications that lined the Marin Headlands.  Working with my partner in crime, Denise, we did a series of these extended exposures, some lasting a few minutes, that featured multiple exposures of us in different positions in the frame.  This took some planning and the roll was filled with failures.

The technique involved having the model stand or sit in one location and then the photographer would fire a hand-held flash at them to get the exposure.  Then we would move to another location and repeat.  We also set a small, controlled fire inside one of the buildings, putting a strip of rubber cement on a piece of foil and then lighting it.  While the flame looks large in the picture, that is only because of the cumulative effect of the extended exposure.  In reality, it was a very small flame.

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This photo features me and didn’t make use of the fire.  We did another series at the Rodin Sculpture Garden in Stanford, setting a little rubber cement fire in front of the “Gates of Hell” sculpture to create an interesting effect or flames and shadows.  Unfortunately, campus security arrived before we could get a decent exposure.

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This photo was the interesting result from an evening shoot taken at the beach.  Denise brought a trumpet with her, something I don’t think she could play but it made for an interesting prop.  We took this photo nearly an hour after sunset and to our eyes the sky was fully dark.  But over the course of an exposure that lasted about two minutes, the faint light in the west built up, adding this dusk effect.  To get the lines, I used a flashlight to trace Denise as she posed with the trumpet.  The brighter spots are when the light was pointed directly at the camera and thus created a stronger exposure.

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This final shot was made the same year, using my high school friend Allen as a model.  It was taken in a parking lot of the Anaheim Marriott Hotel and it was only a few seconds long, since there was a fair amount of ambient light.  He was holding a book of matches that he had ignited.  I liked the shadow that it produced and there was something Buddha-like in the pose and then the opening in the wall behind him was an interesting contrast.

Lest you worry about all of the use of fire, rest assured I wasn’t a pyromaniac.  Everything was done with a great deal of thought to safety.  Fire was just an interesting medium because with an extended exposure, it provides very dramatic light for the picture.

I’ll share some more tomorrow.