Seattle’s Transit System for Dummies

Update 2018: I have been living in the UK for the past five years so while system structure information may still be applicable route/schedule information is now very out of date – please check before traveling.

Let’s face it, Seattle’s public transit system is not the most intuitive in the world. But I do believe, contrary to many Seattleites, that it is a pretty good system once you get to know it.

spoofFor the first 30 years of my life I lived in Reading, an English town whose public transit options put all but the largest American cities to shame. And my close proximity to London meant that I grew up learning how to use arguably one of the world’s finest transit systems. The result of this was that I had no need for a drivers license until I was 25, and today I know what makes a good transit system and what doesn’t.

In stark contrast, before moving to Seattle in 2008 I lived for over 20 years in the transit wastelands of central Ohio and south Florida. Comparatively speaking, while I would not put Seattle in the same league as the few North American mega-city systems that I have experienced: Chicago, Washington DC, Montreal, San Francisco, to name a few; the Emerald City is light years ahead of similarly sized US metro areas where I lived previously.

Overview of the Seattle Public Transit System

Seattle is located at the center of an integrated public transit system serving  more than 3.4 million people. Nearly 60% of all the people in Washington State live in the Seattle metro area.

Although predominantly a bus-centric city, Seattle is diversifying its transit options to incorporate local and regional buses; local and regional rail; local streetcars (trams); and ferries. The system efficiently connects Seattle to its neighboring regional centers to the south (Tacoma), east (Bellevue), north (Everett), and across Puget Sound to the west (Bremerton & Bainbridge Island). Seattle serves as the region’s air transportation hub connecting to domestic and international airline networks at Seatac airport. It also serves as the region’s passenger rail hub for Amtrak services.

Each individual transit agency operates its own route network and charges its own fares; however the Orca smart card (a lot like London’s Oyster) is the way to go for fare payment. Orca ties all the agencies together into a seamless system. Orca manages each journey making sure the correct end-to-end fare is charged regardless of the different modes and/or agencies used. Transfers are automatically recognized and included as part of a single journey.

Introduction to Services

King County Metro Buses

Starting at the most basic level we have the county-wide Metro local bus network. From virtually any point within the Seattle city limits, as well as the surrounding suburban cities to the south, east, and north, it will rarely require more than a 10-15 minute walk to reach the nearest bus stop. Outside this area Metro routes reach the furthest corners of rural King county, with most providing service 7 days a week. (View System Maps)

Standard Metro Hyrid Bus

Throughout the city and suburbs Metro operates local transit centers and park & ride lots. Located at places where high transit demand and rider density naturally occur, many bus routes are organized to pass through these centers between their individual start and end points. This arrangement does two things: it makes more routes available (providing greater capacity) between the places with the highest demand. It also facilitates cross-town routes, which can eliminate the need to pass through the busy downtown Seattle core.

A great example of this is the option I have from my neighborhood on the eastside to the University district and other northside destinations. While I can always take a bus from Bellevue to downtown Seattle and transfer to a U-district bus, I don’t have to. I also have routes that run from Bellevue directly to the U-district, by-passing downtown. It is often a timesaver.

Metro buses are distinguished by their distinctive color livery. The lower half is painted yellow; the upper part is painted either teal, blue, or green.

Metro RapidRide

Updated September 2014

RapidRide Coach

RapidRide Coach

RapidRide is Metro’s effort to build a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) brand in Seattle. Currently there are six lines in operation: Line A (Tukwila-Federal Way); Line B (Bellevue-Redmond); Lines C/D (West Seattle-Downtown Seattle-Ballard); Line E (Downtown Seattle-Shoreline); and Line F (Burien-Tukwila-Renton).

Contrary to what Metro led us to believe prior to launching RapidRide, it has proved to be only an incremental improvement over the services it replaced. However as a way to move people through busy corridors faster than other modes of transport it fails. In reality RapidRide isn’t appreciably faster along its corridors than the routes it replaced, and some might argue it can be slower getting from A to B.

This is because RapidRide retains all the things that slow down regular bus service. There are no dedicated bus lanes; at best there are BAT (Business Access and Transit) lanes along portions of some lines but they are not effective. There is supposed to be signal priority at intersections but in my experience on the B Line, RapidRide sits at red lights in backed up traffic just like all the other vehicles.

RapidRide also retains onboard payment where riders fumble around for change to feed the fare box. I even observed Orca card users waiting in line at RapidRide ‘station’ stops to board through the front door. They insist on tapping their card on the onboard reader, like on a regular bus, even though  there is an Orca reader on the platform. They could save themselves and everyone else time by using the platform Orca reader (assuming it is working) before the bus arrives then board via the center or rear doors.

Then finally, wheelchair loading and restraining still requires driver assistance, and bicyclists must still hold up the bus while they deploy the external rack to stow their bikes. Watch how wheelchair users and cyclists board Community Transit’s Swift coaches to see how it can be done.

Reading Buses Electric Hybrid

Reading Buses Electric Hybrid (2010)

The nearest thing we have in our region to the kind of BRT services used in Europe or South America is Community Transit’s Swift service. Swift picks up where RapidRide E ends and continues along the highway 99 corridor from Aurora Village on the King County line to Everett Station in Snohomish County. As I’ve already blogged in another post, Swift has earned my seal of approval. Unfortunately RapidRide, a poor imitation, does not.

UK Bus Interior

In fairness I feel it is worth mentioning that RapidRide, in the context of modernizing local bus services, does have several positive aspects. First the coaches: they’re modern, Wi-Fi equipped, air-conditioned, low floor hybrid diesel/electric vehicles. Then there’s the upgraded ‘station’ stops and shelters, with Orca readers and next arrival signs (when they work).

UK Bus Interior

And finally there’s the ride quality: light-years ahead of the service I was used to on the 271 between Issaquah, Bellevue, and the U-District. Compared to the antiquated high-floor Gillig diesels I rode most of the time, RapidRide brings bus service along the Seattle area’s busiest corridors up to what is already just regular bus service in my home town here in the UK.

ST Express Buses

ST Express Bus

The next level in Seattle’s transit hierarchy is the ST Express bus. ST – Sound Transit – is the umbrella agency that provides region-wide transit services between the major centers of central Puget Sound, both within and across county lines. (Download System Map)

ST Express is a limited stop service that runs along the region’s freeway corridors. On most routes during peak commuting hours, while the regular freeway traffic is often gridlocked, the ST Express buses are able to keep moving by the use of dedicated express lanes. Connections to local Metro services are available along the way at specially constructed ‘freeway stations’.

ST Express buses are distinguished from Metro buses by their paint job: white from the windows up, with a wave design below in teal, green, and dark blue.

Link Light Rail

For many visitors arriving at Seatac airport, their first experience of Seattle transit is Link Light Rail. Link is Seattle’s newest transit component; it opened in July 2009. Link is an immense work in progress: fully funded construction is underway to extend the system from downtown Seattle north to Northgate and Lynnwood, and east to Bellevue and Overlake (Microsoft-Redmond).

Link Light Rail

Link trains currently run from Seatac airport to downtown Seattle, completing the journey in around 35 minutes. Link is by far the most comfortable and efficient mode of transit to get downtown from every point along its route. The fare from Seatac is $2.75 (2012) and when Link reaches downtown riders can get off at the underground tunnel stations. Downtown station spacing and their street-level entrances put riders within 2 or 3 blocks of most downtown hotels, shops, restaurants, and offices.

The next segment, University Link, is on schedule to open in 2016. The twin Link tunnels continue underground from the present downtown terminus, passing beneath Capitol Hill, where a station is currently under construction,  then under the Lake Washington ship canal to a new underground terminus at Husky Stadium in the University district.

Update: September 2014

Beyond 2016, the Northgate extension will be constructed to continue Link underground beneath the U-District. There will be additional stations at Brooklyn and Roosevelt before Link emerges above ground near Northgate Mall. Northgate Link is currently slated to open in 2021, with a Lynnwood extension planned to follow in 2023.

Within the same 2023 timeframe East Link is set to cross Lake Washington to Mercer Island, Bellevue and Overlake (Microsoft). This has been the most contentious portion of Link so far: there remain many challenges to its viability, not least of which are unresolved legal and technical issues of running light rail trains across a floating bridge.

When the currently funded voter approved 55 mile Link Light Rail system is fully built out in 2023 it will have taken 20 years since initial groundbreaking. It is incredibly frustrating to someone who is used to seeing much larger infrastructure projects come to fruition in less time despite the environmental concerns imposed by more than 2,000 years of history.

I refer to Crossrail, currently Europe’s largest infrastructure project. Crossrail received the green light in 2008 and construction began with very little delay in 2009. The first phase of surface service is due to begin in June 2015 with additional surface phases coming online in 2017. In 2018 the new underground section beneath central London comes online. End-to-end service along the entire 73 mile route is due to begin in 2019. Seattle; why is Link Light Rail taking so long?

Washington State Ferries

Washington State Ferry

From two Seattle terminals Washington State Ferries carries vehicle and foot passengers across Puget Sound.

WSF is part of the Washington State highway system, connecting the over water segments of the State’s highways when there are no bridges. Routes and schedules are coordinated with Metro transit and Orca may be used for fare payment.

King County Water Taxi

Operating from pier 50 at the downtown Seattle waterfront, the water taxi provides seasonal service (Apr-Oct) across Elliott Bay to West Seattle, and out into the Sound to Vashon Island.

King County Water Taxi

From the West Seattle dock free shuttle buses take passengers up to the shops and restaurants at Admiral junction then over to the beachfront attractions at Alki Point (route 775); or up to the Alaska junction shopping and entertainment district (route 773).

Taking the water taxi over to West Seattle then enjoying the attractions is perhaps the most fun thing you can do by transit in Seattle. Orca is accepted and the fare is less when paid using Orca than when paid by cash.

Sounder Commuter Rail

Sounder Commuter Rail

Sounder trains provide weekday only commuter service along the 82 miles of Amtrak Cascades corridor between Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma. The current service provides morning peak hour trips inbound to Seattle from Tacoma and Everett, with return trips during the afternoon peak hours. Sounder really isn’t geared up for the reverse commute – i.e. travel originating in Seattle, or for travel outside of peak commuting hours. With planned track & signal upgrades, and additional funding, this may change in the future.

Seattle Streetcar

Seattle Streetcar

The Streetcar is a partnership between the city and Sound Transit. Service has already launched from downtown (at Westlake) on the South Lake Union line; and construction of the First Hill line is underway, with service slated to start in Spring 2014.

Update: construction is complete but issues with vehicle delivery have pushed service start back to 2015.

This new line will provide an important alternative connection between the Link stations at International District/Chinatown and Capitol Hill, via First Hill.

Before I move on from Streetcar I should mention the standing joke in Seattle: instead of saying I took the streetcar today, many people say I rode the SLUT. As local lore would have it, during construction the original name for the streetcar line was South Lake Union Tram (or sometimes Trolley) at least until the City realized what it spelled. They realized too late. The unfortunate acronym has stuck.

So that completes my lowdown on all the different components of Seattle’s transit system, but how do we use them? OK, now it gets confusing (as if it isn’t already).

Seattle Transit 101


On September 29th, 2012 the most significant change to Seattle’s transit system in many years will go into effect. For newbies this is a great thing: one of the most confusing aspects will be eliminated. I speak of the Ride Free Area (or “RFA”) and how it impacts fare payment.

Starting on the 29th, whether boarding in downtown or outside, all fares will be paid on entry. This will be a major shock to the system for Seattleites used to the old method. I predict pandemonium in Downtown Seattle during the evening rush particularly in the Downtown Transit Tunnel.


If you board a Metro bus and you do not use Orca, be sure to ask for a paper transfer. This will enable you to transfer to another Metro bus within two hours without having to pay another fare. Please note that Metro transfers are not accepted on partner agencies (Sound Transit, Community Transit, etc.) so, to avoid having to pay a separate fare on each bus, it pays to always use Orca.

Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel:

The tunnel is a unique feature of the Seattle transit system in that buses and light rail trains run together under 3rd Avenue and Pine Street through the heart of downtown. Every tunnel station, as does every Link station, has ticket vending machines where you can purchase Link tickets and Orca cards. Also, you’ll find a Metro customer service counter at Westlake Station (M-F, 9-5:30). I generally find University Street and Westlake to be the best stations for making transfers – whether the connection is in the tunnel or up on the street.

Downtown Connections:

If you need to make a downtown transfer it can be a crap-shoot knowing where to make the connection. You may find an information board at or near your arrival bus stop with a map, complete list of destinations & associated routes, and where their stops are. However I would recommend using the Metro website journey planner or the Google Maps transit feature to get the information ahead of your trip.

Surface routes through downtown use the following Avenues.

  • 1st Ave – runs both directions north & south
  • 2nd Ave – runs one-way southbound
  • 3rd Ave – runs both directions north & south
  • 4th Ave – runs one-way northbound
  • 5th Ave – runs one-way southbound

Using the Orca Card:

At the beginning of this post I described Orca as “a lot like London’s Oyster”. I meant this in terms of how the card is used, how it stores value; and by using Orca’s online features, how stored value may be added and protected from loss or theft. There’s a lot more to Oyster that Orca doesn’t even come close to matching but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Before I go any further I want to state a firmly held opinion:  there is absolutely no reason to choose cash over Orca when riding Seattle’s transit system. There, I’ve probably offended around 50% of Seattle area bus users if my recent observations are anything to go by.

And to those people who claim the $5 cost of the card is an insurmountable barrier I have this to say: give up just one pack of smokes or two cans of PBR and you’ll have the cash for an Orca card – and you’ll be healthier too.

The easiest way to obtain an Orca card is to buy one from a Ticket Vending Machine (TVM) at any Link or Sounder station, and at Bellevue or Federal Way Transit Centers. Pay the $5 card fee and add just enough E-purse value for your immediate needs. When you get home go online to and open a My Orca account. Then register your card and set up Autoload using a credit card.

If you need a youth or senior fare Orca: in Seattle go to the Metro customer service stop at Westlake station with proof of eligibility. Register it as described above.

If you prefer not to setup Autoload, or don’t have a credit card, you should still open an online My Orca account – this way you can view usage, etc. There are several ways to reload your card: by phone, online, at a TVM, or at the growing number of retail outlets. I recommend reloading by TVM or retail outlet because the value is instantly available; by phone or online you’ll have to wait 24 hours.

But perhaps the biggest downside of choosing not to use Autoload is that you have to pay close attention to your usage and remaining stored value. If you use your card and it has insufficient funds the card reader will beep four times, display “Insufficient Funds”, and display a red light. You will be expected to come up with an alternative fare payment.

This could be quite embarassing if it should happen while boarding a tunnel bus during the evening rush. Neither the driver or your fellow passengers will be particularly sympathetic if all you have is a $10 or $20 bill – but then again, Metro needs all the revenue it can get. So, if for no other reason, I strongly urge setting up Autoload to avoid this possibility. I have three Orca cards with Autoload and have so far experienced no issues with insufficient funds or the charges made to my credit card.

OK, so now you’ve got your Orca card: how is it used? Well, it’s pretty simple really.

Boarding Buses…

  • Tap On as you board the first bus, and as you make each transfer
  • Orca will automatically figure the correct fare for the journey

Boarding Link: Tap On before boarding the train,  Tap Off at the exit station to insure correct fare

Boarding Streetcar: Tap On (if station has no reader, card is proof of payment)

Boarding Sounder: Tap On before boarding the train,  Tap Off at the exit station to insure correct fare

Boarding King County Water Taxi: Tap On (crewmember has scanner)

Boarding Washington State Ferry (westbound only): Tap on

TIP: After your first ‘Tap On’, keep in mind Orca counts every subsequent tap within a two hour window as a transfer. This way, long multiple-leg journeys can be made for one fare. However, after two hours pass between taps, a new journey is considered to have started, and a new fare is charged.

I’ll conclude this Seattle Transit For Dummies post by relating my amazing Around the Sound experience.

Earlier this year I rode the Edmonds-Kingston and Bainbridge-Seattle Washington State Ferries ($6.75 round trip) but what I found truly incredible was how Orca handled the bus part of my trip. My ST Express ride from Bellevue to Lynnwood, the Community Transit transfer from Lynnwood to Edmonds Ferry Terminal, and the Kitsap Transit ride from Kingston Ferry Terminal to Poulsbo counted as one bus ride – off-peak $2.50 – all because each tap-on was within two hours of each other. Then my return trip from Poulsbo via Kitsap Transit to Bainbridge Ferry Terminal and then Metro from Seattle Ferry Terminal back to Bellevue counted as another single bus journey. I saw a lot of Puget Sound for an amazingly low price that day. (see my full blog post)


10 thoughts on “Seattle’s Transit System for Dummies

  1. Good introduction, I may pass the link to newbies. A few points though:

    Regarding Link light rail, I think the ST2 phase will have a greater impact than many people realize, and will be the biggest transformation of transit since the 1910s. ST2 Link will reach Lynnwood, south Redmond, and north Federal Way in stages between 2016 and 2023. That will put almost all major pedestrian destinations and many neighborhood centers and school/work/shopping destinations on the line. It won’t be like NYC or London, but it’ll be a big step in that direction.

    Regarding RapidRide, its main benefit will be frequency, if Metro fills in the holes in its schedule, which they might do if we prod them. RapidRide needs to be at least every 15 minutes all day and evening, and preferably every 10 minutes from 6am to 10pm, and several night owl runs. Upgrading RapidRide routes to Swift or light rail may be possible in the longer term.

    • Thanks for your feedback Mike.

      I’m 100% with you about Link – just wish the timeline could be accelerated. I’ve written elsewhere about the possibility of getting East Link to Mercer Is. in conjunction with U-Link (2016), and using BRT-based feeder lines from Bellevue, Overlake & even Issaquah. The I-90 bridge upgrades should be done in 2014 so I wonder what would stop East Link getting at least that far.

      RapidRide? I hope I’m proven wrong but I don’t see how anything less than a Swift-like implementation of BRT will yield improvement – after all frequency improvements can be added to regular bus too.

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  4. My husband and I have been considering moving to Seattle and this was really helpful. Thanks for explaining the system with such clarity. The transit system is a major player in “the decision.”

  5. Great explanation. What is still a bit unclear to me is how the monthly passes are based on a different value of ticket price. When do you pay 2.25 and when 4.00?

    • Yes, in my opinion the monthly PugetPass product is confusing. The basic formula is 18 times $x.xx ($x.xx being the fare for a specific daily round trip commute – that’s the 2.25 vs 4.00 you refer to). Fares depend on origin/destination, agenc(ies)y used, mode of travel, and time of day: Sound Transit’s trip planner can be used to find out. Bottom line: if you make less than 36 trips per month, then the pass makes no sense; but if you make more, then you can save some money. Trouble is, if you take a trip whose fare exceeds your pass fare, you must pay the difference, either cash on the spot, or by having E-purse as well as PugetPass loaded on your Orca card.

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