Can anyone give me a breakdown of the Seattle public transportation system?
February 23, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone give me a breakdown of the Seattle public transportation system?

I'm moving to Seattle tomorrow to start my career on Monday. I live in Queen Anne, and am from NYC, and know its subway/bus system inside out. It'll be a month before I can learn to drive and buy a car out here. Can anyone explain what the relevant routes and schedules are like in my area (esp. with an eye towards getting to Downtown Seattle)? Comparisons with the NYC public transit system would be great too.

Looking forward to living in this wonderful city.
posted by brighteyes7 to Travel & Transportation around Seattle, WA (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm originally from NYC and recently moved to Seattle.

A few things --
  • Before you do anything else, download the "OneBusAway" smartphone app. Live bus arrival information that is reasonably accurate. In combination with Google Maps transit directions, it's pretty easy to find your way around here on public transit without waiting unreasonably long.
  • Downtown Seattle (i.e. by Nordstroms/Westlake/Pike Place etc) is a major junction for buses, as can be expected. It's often easier to get from A to B by stopping first in C, downtown. (Sorta kinda like being forced to go through Manhattan on the subway to get from one outer boro to another).
  • Things get kind of slow at night, and shut down completely for a few hours each night. This isn't a 24 hour transit system. It takes some getting used to.
  • There are some really fucking strange people that hang out on Seattle buses. In general, I'd say the bums in Seattle are a tick stranger than what you see in NY.
  • All bets are off when it snows. This is true in general, not only of buses. should give you some idea. Queen Anne is even steeper than Cap Hill at points.
  • The Westlake bus stop is underground (not just Westlake -- there are a few stops downtown running in a tunnel). This was very confusing to me when I took the Link Light Rail from the airport to downtown and Google told me to get on a bus from there. I went upstairs and was at a loss when i couldn't find any bus stops where google said there were at surface level.
  • The link light rail from the airport to Downtown is pleasant and cheap. It's also dog slow.
  • They're extending the light rail into Cap Hill, the U District and eventually the East Side. Any of these new stops opening is a few years off.
  • Sometimes you pay when you get on the bus, sometimes when you get off. Pay attention to the sign posted by the farebox.
If I think of any more to add to my braindump I will be back...
posted by badgerbadgerbadger at 7:47 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I moved to the area in December, and trying to figure out the transit system is a tad maddening. I have yet to find anything resembling a comprehensive system map online. Also, the online system is geared more toward entering your origin and destination, and then spitting out its recommended routes and transfers. Half the time, these recommendations are not the best by a long shot. will get you started.
posted by Ardiril at 7:53 PM on February 23, 2012

Oh, a relevant point to this discussion -- being a complete city slicker, I have no idea how to drive. I work on the East Side and live in Cap Hill. Not having a driver's license has not been an issue so far -- the buses get me where I need to go and I very, very rarely resort to taking cabs.
posted by badgerbadgerbadger at 8:00 PM on February 23, 2012

The bus system is fairly simple, but trying to figure out the rest of the agencies gets confusing.

I was in Seattle for two weeks back in 2008, and was amazed by the service King County Metro provided. And keep in mind this was before the light rail started running.

It's been rated one of the best bus systems in America, and it certainly lived up to that while I was there. Never late, clean, and rides within the downtown area were free.

If I had to live there without a car, I probably wouldn't mind. I also think it's cool that they are still running bus routes through the tunnels.

I don't see you having a problem. Just familiarize yourself with the routes.
posted by signondiego at 8:17 PM on February 23, 2012

Sometimes you pay when you get on the bus, sometimes when you get off. Pay attention to the sign posted by the farebox.

Method to the madness: There's a free-ride zone at the heart of downtown. So buses headed towards downtown are pay-as-you-enter (so you don't have to pay if you get off downtown), and buses headed away from downtown are pay-as-you-leave (so you don't pay when you board downtown). Not sure what the convention is for buses that don't go downtown; probably pay-as-you-enter.

If you're near the Seattle Center side of Queen Anne ("uptown / lower Queen Anne"), then you'll have a short walk to the bus stop and frequent direct bus service to downtown.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:19 PM on February 23, 2012

• Seconding "OneBusAway". It basically helped switch me over to bus commuting.
• I'm not too familiar with Queen Anne. Use Google Maps' directions with the transit button to find the closest routes to and from wherever you are headed.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:19 PM on February 23, 2012

Depending on where in Queen Anne you are, you may be spending a lot of time on the #13. Which I mention because it usually, but not always, turns into the #2, and occasionally the #3. This is confusing if you weren't expecting it. Both are really useful routes (if a bit slow) that go all over downtown.

Welcome to the city!
posted by molybdenum at 8:33 PM on February 23, 2012

Wife and I lived there for several months. We both had cars but literally only used them for big grocery store runs and things taking us way out into the suburbs and even those would've been manageable by taking smaller trips or riding more buses. In addition to all the bus routes, Seattle is pretty walkable. If I didn't want to mess with figuring out the exact-right bus, I'd grab one near me going in approximately the right direction and walk from there.

If you're going to be taking public transit a lot, I'd look into an ORCA Card, it covers most of the transit options inside the city and means you don't have to figure out which bus is free or when to pay or anything like that.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:42 PM on February 23, 2012

It's a great bus system for a U.S. city of this size. It won't really compare to the transit system in New York City in any way.

Here is a map of the Metro system. It is not very useful, since it displays every route, even the ones that only travel a few times a day. The downtown bus map is more useful since it only displays routes that go every 10–20 min on weekdays. All the buses at the top of that map are heading towards Queen Anne.

Queen Anne is a big area, especially if you are in Uptown or "Lower Queen Anne," which some people insist is not actually part of Queen Anne. There are lots of bus routes that go through it. You'll need to be more specific. Otherwise you can use the transit planning feature of Google Maps. Don't use the Metro trip planner, which sucks. Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn't always have the right schedule, especially on holidays, or when the University of Washington is out of session. You can use the OneBusAway web site for schedule info after you know which routes you want.

King County Metro is switching from an automatic vehicle location system based on roadside beacons and odometer readings to one based on GPS. Unfortunately, some of the real-time bus information has declined in quality during this process, and it looks like it may not be fixed until it is over. The most important thing to remember when using OneBusAway is that when it says "scheduled arrival" next to a bus time, that means OBA does not have real-time location information for that bus, so you shouldn't expect it to necessarily show up at that time. In my experience, most people who complain about inaccurate times from OBA do not seem to grasp the difference between "scheduled arrival" and "on time/late/early."

Seattle Transit Blog is a great place to learn about all things transit-related in Seattle.

Once you know which routes you use, you can sign up for e-mail alerts regarding any changes to the routes due to construction, special events, inclement weather, collisions, traffic, or any other reason. I find this useful even when driving because it informs me of events that shut down roads that I wouldn't otherwise know about.

Depending on how often you plan to take the bus, you may want to get a pass (especially if your employer offers one to you). If not, get a stored value ORCA card, which is like a stored value MetroCard, but works via RFID instead of a magnetic stripe. You just place your card on the ORCA reader as you board the bus. I don't even take mine out of its wallet. The ORCA card will store a free transfer for two hours, which is valid on other regional transit services as well (such as Sound Transit, which operates the light rail). Except for the Monorail.

Not sure what the convention is for buses that don't go downtown; probably pay-as-you-enter.

Generally yes. Although there are strange exceptions—some bus routes (like the 44) are sometimes continuations of other bus routes that do go downtown (like the 43), and the 44 is pay as you leave when heading towards Ballard for daytime trips, even when the trip didn't start in downtown. But for Queen Anne, it will be simple. Daytime buses to downtown are pay as you enter, and daytime buses from downtown are pay as you leave. Of course, it'll all change soon—in October, King County plans to get rid of the ride-free area and pay as you leave entirely!
posted by grouse at 8:51 PM on February 23, 2012

While pay as you leave is still around, you can and should get on in the back. Even though there is not yet any official request to do so, you should also leave through the back, period, so as not to delay the people getting on at the front, and the rest of the bus.
posted by grouse at 8:59 PM on February 23, 2012

The bus drivers here are the friendliest of all the cities I have lived. They all seem to know all the various systems quite well.
posted by Ardiril at 9:19 PM on February 23, 2012

Compared to NYC Transit system, the Seattle Transit system (which is mostly busses with a few disjointed rail lines) is best described as 'Hazing'.

That said, very true the bus drivers are friendly and willing to help (as with anyone else they may have an off day now and then.) Ask them and they can be your best friend on a new route.

N-th'ing One Bus Away.
posted by BustedCatalyzer at 11:07 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you plan on riding the bus more than 5 times a week, get an ORCA card. I lived in Seattle for a full summer, car-less. It's totally fine, especially if you have a smart phone with One Bus Away. Oh and eat at Dick's.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:18 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

+1 for OneBusAway. It comes in many forms (website, smartphone apps, etc) and is indispensable. I use it not only for knowing when my bus is coming, but also for planning trips and finding the best stops.

The King Country Metro Trip Planner will also be your friend as your acquaint yourself with routes and getting from point A to B.

Also check the Sound Transit site as you're likely to encounter and/or use Sound Transit services (buses or light rail) depending on where you're going.

If you're going to regularly commute via transit, priority one should be to get an Orca Card. This card will act as your bus pass (if you purchase a monthly one) and/or as a purse to load money on for paying fares. Many forms of public transport including ferries, buses (from the several regional transit authorities), light rail, and water taxis take the Orca Card, and it has become the standardized system for payment. Check with your employer to see if they provided reduced or free bus passes - they may provide you a preloaded card. In any event, once you have a card, register it on the site. You can then manage the card and load funds from the site. Oh, and just FYI, if you happen to switch buses, the Orca Card will hold your transfer electronically, so keep that in mind.

It's a pretty easy system to get down. There's a convenient Metro office in the bus tunnel at Westlake downtown that is helpful if you have questions.

Good luck, and welcome!
posted by karizma at 11:21 PM on February 23, 2012

If you pay with cash, make sure you get a paper transfer from the bus driver. Sometimes they give you them automatically, sometimes you have to ask.

The bottom-printed times are when it is good until. It's a pretty generous amount of time - it can be your return ticket if you're only running a short errand or something. You just flash at to the next bus driver.

Generally, you see the most weird/interesting people in the "heel" of jointed busses. I don't know why it's true, but it is.

Light rail is nice and convenient if you ever go south, but it's pretty slow. You can catch it in the bus tunnel (the aforementioned one under downtown). I don't use it a lot, but I've found it confusing to pay for - you basically just have to find a station to pay with before you get on, and payment is enforced by random checks.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:57 AM on February 24, 2012

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