seattle 2009

Seattle-Area Transit Vs. Twin Cities Transit

I’ve always been intrigued by the Seattle transit system, mostly because when I lived out there in the 90’s it was more minimal than it is today. It’s really interesting to see how it has grown.

As far as bus service, both of the Twin Cites and Seattle areas do very well. They’re both very convenient and timely.

As well, the Twin Cities and Seattle are both competitive with each other regarding train transportation, maybe not quite as nice as Portland’s TriMet program which pretty much takes you everywhere in that area.

Portland TriMet Routes

Portland TriMet Routes

Seattle’s public transportation system is bigger and very convenient to get to places from as far away as Tacoma and Everett, including downtown destinations such as right by Safeco Field and outside of CenturyLink Field, home of the world champion Seahawks (side note, I’m a Seahawks fan but I digress).

Upon first learning, it seems a bit complicated. You can take the Link Light Rail from Seattle to the SeaTac airport. You can also take the Tacoma Link Light Rail, mostly around downtown Tacoma. These are both fairly similar to the LRT system in the Twin Cities. However, the two systems out there don’t link up directly with each other.

Regarding buses, while Minneapolis still does have the free and green rides up and down Nicollet, downtown Seattle discontinued a similar program in 2012. Between that and a cheap monorail pass, it was a certainly a very easy and close-to-free way to travel around downtown Seattle and all the way to the Space Needle and Seattle Center.

For the Twin Cities light rail system, they have definitely done great things with both the Blue and Green lines. Living in Minneapolis, it’s sure nice to be able to go to and from St. Paul or somewhere around the airport for a little more or less than 2 bucks. I’m sure many of you share other positive experiences.

They also have the Sounder Commuter Rail, similar to our Northstar. This actually takes you from Lakewood and Tacoma, through Seattle and all the way up to Everett. From living there previously, I can tell you this is a fantastic program. The vehicle traffic there is a big hassle during rush hours.

Sounder Hard Rail

Sounder Hard Rail

Imagine jumping on the Northstar in Big Lake, going to Minneapolis, then eventually to St. Paul and Woodbury. This would be very similar in length.

Similarities of the two include stops right by picturesque, urban baseball stadiums. While Seattle’s Sounder stops right by Safeco Field, the Northstar stops right by Target Field. As well, there are plenty of Sounder trains that include free wi-fi and advertise them right on the train’s exterior, just as they do with all of the Northstar rides. These are both a huge plus for busy commuters.

I had a very nice conversation with one of my best friends, Heather in Puyallup, Washington regarding the Seattle area trains and other public transportation options. She also reminded me that Seattle does also has a system called the South Lake Union Trolley.

South Lake Union Trolley

South Lake Union Trolley

I imagine that their marketing department soon realized the naming faux pas with both the name and URL, then decided to market it as the acronym S.L.U.T. by selling merchandise on places like Amazon.

Clever, I imagine, it’s your opinion. Take the trolley to and from many stops between Westlake and South Lake Union. Minneapolis is studying streetcars too, but there is an intriguing article by Nick Magrino to say this may not the best idea.

So, between Seattle and MSP, is one transit system clearly better than the other? I don’t have a huge opinion other than they are both convenient. Let us know your thoughts!

13 thoughts on “Seattle-Area Transit Vs. Twin Cities Transit

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Thanks for writing this up, Paul. I’ve heard great things about Seattle’s bus system. I think one big advantage they have (for transit) is that it’s a very constrained city by both mountains and oceans. It makes it more linear and dense than the Twin Cities’ which is spread out in every direction without much in way of geographic limitations.

    (Also, Seattle doesn’t have skyways so its downtown doesn’t suck. (also also St Paul > Tacoma))

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      I think this advantage really only presents itself in the case of true grade separated transit. The linear geography and challenging topography creates an enormous number of choke points. As it stands, very little of Seattle’s transit network operates in its own lanes and therefore suffers along with a very trafficked city (#10 in traffic for the US, if these rankings mean anything).

      As far as the ideas that Seattle Subway ( has for connecting the city’s various legs, these will clearly one day be incredibly effective pieces of transportation infrastructure. For now, it really seems that while more of Seattle’s relevant places are accessible by transit compared to the Twin Cities, buses are delayed far more frequently in Seattle (ie, nearly always in my experience).

  2. BB

    I just moved to Seattle.

    I really like the BRT lines.

    And how can you not talk about the Ferries?

    I also think Amtrak/Bolt discussion is missing here.

    Seattle IMO much better intergrated.

  3. Paul JahnPaul Jahn Post author

    Thanks Bill, you’re certainly right as it’s more constrained for the reasons you mentioned.

    BB, I actually used the Pt Defiance to Vashon ferry for occasional work stops back in the day. All the ferries there are indeed a good system.

  4. Julia silvis

    I’d be interested in your thoughts in the relative trajectories of the two cities, especially in regard to bus service. Based on conversations with a few friends in Seattle, it seems their bus service was awesome, but is getting cut, whereas I feel ours is OK (great in some corridors), but getting better. Both those thoughts are based on small sample sizes — I’d love to understand better if there’s any data behind them. Thanks!

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      Bus service probably peaked sometime in the mid 2000’s, right when the level of service was peaking while traffic had yet to get truly destroy bus reliability. King County (WA) Metro’s operations budget is primarily funded by sales tax as in the Cities, but it has seen some pretty significant budget shortfalls. Not sure why that hasn’t happened as much here, although I’m sure part of it is from the fact that the Seattle metro area is made up of three transit authorities (SoundTransit, Metro Transit and Community Transit). The deal that created them resulted in many of the more profitable lines going to SoundTransit, which also operates LRT and commuter rail.

      But yes, around 17% of King County Metro’s bus service has been in flux since 2011 when the county was able to plug the gap last minute (axing DT Seattle’s Ride Free Area in the process as a concession) in a two year car tab fee, but the WA legislature has refused to pass a transportation package that would allow King County to tax itself for the budget shortfall. There’s currently a proposal that would fund Seattle-only transit routes (prop 1) but it’s not polling well. Seattlites operate in a bizarre political world in which a $15 minimum wage exists alongside no income tax (state policy) and and odd aversion to voting for car tab fees serving transit.

  5. Tony HuntTony Hunt

    Perhaps bus service is great in a few corridors around here but as a system I find it awfully difficult and unpredictable to navigate; plus nearly impossible to do so without handfuls of schedules and a transfer downtown.

    1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      I think that the Twin Cities, with nearly no significant geographical barriers, is somewhat predisposed to non-linear development patterns. On top of that, I’d argue that Minneapolis has less intensive development surrounding its streetcar suburbs as well as more lines altogether compared to other cities built in the same time period, leading even further to a less linear urban environment. If the Twin Cities saw their major boom in 1840, we might have ended up with more transit-oriented regional linearity… but we instead we have freeway infrastructure in every direction, it just goes on and on. We’re just not skinny!

      I think the Seattle region’s visibly linear and choke-point filled geography could force long term development around a few transit lines for truly practical reasons. Even in the most unrealistic fantasy rail maps you can make, an enormous degree of the region’s population and relevant places could already be reached by only a few lines. For the same thing to happen in Minneapolis, it will have to be far more based on the popularity of transit oriented neighborhoods along with many more transit lines. Minneapolis’ best case scenario would likely look something like DC, which is similarly geographically unbound. Unfortunately, we’re currently closer to Dallas.

    2. Paul JahnPaul Jahn Post author

      Tony, don’t know if this will help for buses, but what does help me out are a few mobile apps like OMG Transit, Transit Tracker and Google Maps. I do live in downtown Mpls so I don’t have a lot of experience transferring buses outside of it.

  6. minneapolisite

    Very convenient and timely does not describe most bus routes that require a half hour wait and end service before 1am.

  7. James WardenCowCookie

    Loved the transit options when I visited Seattle this summer. I didn’t need a car while I was in the city at all. Two things stuck out, though. First, the walk from baggage claim to Link Light Rail is LONG. I’m all for walkability but not when I’m hauling my wife’s over-sized luggage. It would be nice for the station to be a bit closer to the terminal. Second, I was underwhelmed by bike lanes in the downtown. It actually seemed like Minneapolis is better in that regard. Granted, I was a tourist and using the city differently than a resident so it may not be an accurate impression.

  8. Monte Castleman

    I have no extended family in the area but a lot in the Seattle area, so I’ve visited their quite a bit. I’ve rejected their efforts to get me to join them permanently, the main reason being this is home here, but the traffic congestion, anti-car culture, and bicycle helmet laws in the Seattle area were considerations also.

    Worth noting is the Seattle monorail proposal- it started as a 5 line system, initially focusing on a single line, which was then pared down. After a series of referendums it was finally killed for good when a lot of eyebrows were raised when a funding shortfall resulted in a proposal that would cost $9 million in interest over 50 years for a $ 2 billion project, and wound up spending over $100 million on getting nothing built. Here we haven’t proposed anything remotely as ambitious, but no rail lines that were actively in planning have been canceled either.

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