The Emerald City
Walking off the Empire Builder under the towering skyline of Seattle after hundreds of miles of pine-covered wilderness was as startling, in its own way, as the transition from the great flat expanses of the plains into the Rocky Mountains. More worrisome, too, since I suspected I was going to have to ride up all the hills that form Seattle’s downtown (fortunately, we stumbled onto one of the best Seattle bike-guides a girl and her bike could hope for… more on that later, though).
I was welcomed off the train by Rob Eaton and Mari Hirabayashi from Amtrak, who were incredibly warm hosts. I was also joined by Sean, Vice President of NARP, who flew out to be part of the Pacific Northwest leg of Summer by Rail. He was mostly just there to be Stevie’s cameraman, so you won’t really hear about him (until the next leg of the tour, his native city of Portland, where he made a strong return onto the scene as The Local Guide).
After a tour of King Street Station from Rob and Mari, we jumped over to Union Station where we met up with Bruce Gray, a communications officer at SoundTransit. Bruce gave us a little history on why Seattle has two amazing train stations. Unfortunately only King Street is served, but Union Station was renovated in the early 2000s and still serves as a lovely community gathering space. Bruce also mapped out some of the most important Link light rail lines and stations, a system SoundTransit has been aggressively expanding over the past decade.
Next, we headed (almost) next door to Zeitgeist Coffee for some of Seattle’s most famous export. And a scone. Which was not famous but very delicious. At Zeitgeist, we were fortunate enough to meet up with author Madi Carlson of Seattle Bike Blog, FamilyRide.us, and Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living. Madi also runs guided bike tours all over the Pacific Northwest, and if you live in the area STOP READING RIGHT NOW and go look at her website, because I couldn’t imagine a better bike guide. She probably saved my life with this pro-tip: when navigating the hills of Seattle, follow the routes the pedicabs take, because those folks make a living out of hauling people around and they’ll have figured out the flattest route in any given quadrant (there, that was ONE free tip I’ll pass along; you have to check out Madi’s writing for the rest of her wisdom). We rode over to Back Alley Bike Repair to get the feel of the local biking community. It was a lucky thing, because repair-guy Ben noticed Stevie’s quick release wasn’t quite affixed properly. Sean also got a water bottle, which he didn’t wash out before drinking out of, which doesn't seem hygienic. But it was a good deal, and he confirms it's now sitting on his deck back in NARP headquarters in D.C.
The next stop was Occidental Square, where we met up with Darby Watson and Dongho Chang from the Seattle Department of Transportation for a tour of Seattle’s rapidly expanding bike- and pedestrian-focused infrastructure. Touring Seattle’s complete streets and bike infrastructure with the people who built it made it incredibly clear how much thought goes into every aspect of these infrastructure elements—from lane colors, to bike-specific signaling, to the location of the transportation-functional bioswales. One of the more interesting things Dongho and Darby said was that introducing bike lanes actually helped make many of Seattle’s intersections safer for pedestrians, bikes, AND cars—which is counter to some of the narratives that surround the interactions between bicycle and automotive traffic.
(Also, Seattle must be a lot smaller than I imagined, or its bike authors/engineers much more notable than I supposed, because Madi and Dongho could barely go a block without being recognized. Not exactly rockstar treatment... but midsize-town Mayor.)
After that, it was a stopover at Pike Place Market. The line was too long to sit on the bronze pig (which was never really explained to me), but we did talk to an honest-to-goodness fish monger, and Le Panier had can’t-miss baked goods (special thanks for that recommendation to Abe, NARP staffer and Seattle’s native son).
There’s so much to communicate about the rest of the day, but so little to write; words can’t really do justice to the miles and miles of bike trails along the Sound. We headed north on the Elliott Bay Trail, through the Olympic Sculpture Garden, across the Ballard Locks, west on the Burke-Gilman Trail, a quick stop at the Gasworks Park for a breathtaking view of the Seattle skyline, through University of Washington’s campus, across the new pedestrian bridge over Montlake Blvd., and down into University of Washington’s Link Station. From there, I comfortably and quickly carried Stevie back south to Chinatown Station across from King Street Station. And while I can’t put the scenic beauty of Seattle into words, Sean was taking video much of the way—so look for a video coming shortly!
The Emerald City certainly felt like an apt nickname coming into Seattle. Like Dorothy I felt super unfamiliar and, in talking about transportation, a little outclassed (not that she spent lots of time talking about trains?). As the day came to a close, though, the city felt much more approachable. Maybe it was because of all the amazing people I met that day and then again maybe it was because I was eating Molly Moon's ice cream and watching bike polo? Either way, Seattle let me feel a little bit like a local, and on this great big adventure I am grateful for that.