Public Transit Ramblings

Riding the Interurban

Riding the Interurban - Public Art

Watch out for that train!

It’s been a rainy week in Seattle (and all around the PNW), with strong wind, sleet and even wet snow on a few days.  And it was just starting to seem like spring was around the corner. Of course it is, less than two weeks away, and this wetter chillier weather isn’t stopping the plants from sprouting and the trees from budding. It’s typical Western Washington March weather really.  We can get into periods like this throughout March and April with it just slowly warming up.  Anyway I was working on this post during some serious periods of rain today when I looked out the window and saw blue sky. I hurriedly changed into my cycling togs and set out for a bit of a rid. It was rather windy, but there was blue sky and sun and not even quite as cold as I was expecting. It wouldn’t last though and the last 3-4 miles were in a torrential downpour with serious gusting winds.  Still pretty fun and nice to be back on the bicycle even for just a 10 mile jaunt.

Waiting for the Interurban

Since moving into the city I’ve found myself often riding on the southern end of the Interurban North trail.  The northern end  I’ve often ridden as I had a loop I’d do from Woodiniville toward Everett and then south on the Interurban to Shoreline and back toward Woodinville. Every so often I’d ride it all the way into Seattle and then make my way on city streets to Greenwood where my sister lived or further on into Fremont or Ballard.  Roughly the route I took on these city streets has been signed as part of the Interurban North and bits of it where they can has been made into a dedicated rail-trail. When I need to head from the city toward Woodinville (where I have some stuff in storage) I’ll often take the Interurban to Shoreline and cut over and I’ve found this an enjoyable route. I’ve long meant to do a post talking about the history of the Interuban beyond as a rail trail and this rainy week is a good opportunity to do so.


Riding the Interurban

Electric interurban railways played a major part in defining early twentieth century transportation routes and growth patterns in King County. Early roads were primitive and before the development of the first inter-city rail service in 1899, most shippers and commuters on Puget Sound relied on water transport and “Mosquito Fleet” steamers for mobility. By 1912, private interurban lines connected Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, but modern highways would soon offer fatal competition. Seattle-Tacoma service ended in 1928 with the opening of Highway 99, and Seattle-Everett service ended 11 years later (Seattle ripped up its streetcar lines in 1941). After the rejection of previous rail rapid transit proposals, regional voters approved a Sound Transit system in 1996. In September 2000, Sound Transit inaugurated commuter rail service between Seattle and Tacoma. (1)

The above single paragraph summary, from, of the history of commuter transit in the Puget Sound also nicely illustrates the short-sided thinking of the the age of oil.  For the last hundred odd years cheap energy has allowed massive changes in how human societies have operated and no-where has this been more dramatic then here in the United States. By the early 20th century in here in the Puget Sound we had a pollution free transit system that utilized hydro-electric power (which is not without its issues, but carbon emissions is not one of them) with city-wide trolleys and interurban networks that connected the major cities. The rise of the automobile and the shift of our society toward individual personal transportation among all the other devastation this led to (suburbia, strip malls, massive highway systems, an automobile focused culture, etc) rapidly ended both the trolley networks and the interurbans.  One hundred years later we are attempting to recreate this public network (now called light rail) at massive cost and dogged at every step by vicious struggle with those invested in the existing car culture.

An old passenger car in a farmers field on Fidalgo Island

This shift has occurred because the era of cheap energy is coming to a close.  During this era we have cast away a vast amount of resources and set ourselves up to be massively impacted by the change. Fully exploring the decline of cheap energy is beyond the scope of this post but for some good straightforward reading on the topic read this post: Oil Demand Shift. For a more numbers orientated perspective that deals with some of the outcomes check out this post: Peak Oil Perspective. So now we have here in the Puget Sound a very late effort to replicate the network of the Interurban and citywide transit. With our hilly terrain, many lakes and the Puget Sound itself this presents many challenges but also makes it more necessary. Bicycling is of course a primary way of getting around for myself but public transit is a major component as well. Sound Transit has now added a heavy rail commuter line that basically replicates the Interurban. Not quite like a bus or light rail in that it only runs during commute times but at least city connections have been made. Likewise its light rail network runs from downtown Seattle to SeaTac (the airport) and is being extended to the University District to the north, Federal Way to the South and across Lake Washington to Bellevue.  While way behind fellow West Coast cities of Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver et al along with a well used bus system it seems like we are finally heading toward a region-wide system. A return to the past as it were.


The start of the Interurban

Riding the Interurban - A Signed route at first

The right of way of the Interurban has thankfully not been lost: along with the rail it has always been a corridor used by Seattle City Light to run power lines into the city (and previously power the trains).  The land beneath these lines was a candidate for rail-trailing and it has been over many years turned into a 29 mile route that includes paved trail and signed route through neighborhoods and city streets. During that brief window of sun today I set out into the city to find the start of the Interurban North. I rode along Lake Union until I intersected it on Dexter and then rode south until I encountered the Interurban End sign. Crossing the street was the above sign and I rode up a few blocks without seeing anymore so I guess the start of the route goes unremarked. From here the route heads north on Dexter all the way to the Fremont bridge, which crosses and then heads up Fremont Way to Phinney Ridge, skirting Greenlake then mostly staying west of I-99/Aurora all the way through Shoreline (for a whole map of the route check out this great pdf).


Riding the Interurban - A signed route in these North Seattle Neighborhoods

After the city streets the first part of the interurban is all nice neighborhood riding

Riding the Interurban - Nice signage Aurora is a major route north, though it itself is overshadowed by I-5 to the east.  99 more or less killed the Interurban Railway back in the day and while one can ride on it (and sort of have to at times depending where you are going) it never is a good time.  The Interurban route is a nice alternative and shows off these northern Seattle neighborhoods nicely. Eventually there begin a few sections of separated trail and once the city of Shoreline is reached it is more on trail then not. There are always bits and pieces of trail connected by streets on this route and really adds to its character. A lot of riders complain about finding their way on the trail and getting lost, but I always found that part of its charm. I really have never gotten that lost on it at all though the first few times I rode it I often inadvertently skipped sections and I though it ended a mile or so before it really does.


Riding the Interurban - One of the newer bits

Park at the start of the Shoreline section

The trail has taken years (decades even) to get to where it is now and it is always been worked on. I encountered a new section in progress that bypass some street riding in Shoreline just a week or two ago.  The first part of the actual rail-trail to be built was the  Northern Shoreline to Everett sections and the South Shoreline to Seattle bits are newer and have a lot more surface street sections.  This new bit connects these older and newer sections better then the surface street option and it is nice to see. Another part of this new construction was to pave what was basically an a dirt surfaced alleyway and to repave a narrow, beat-down road that bordered Lake Ballinger with a demarcated bicycle path. Both of these I always used to take but it’s a lot easier and nicer now.


Riding the Interurban - New section in progress

New section in progress

Riding the Interurban - Interurban markers After this new chunk you get onto the start of the old Interurban which is a lot more trail based but still of course has it’s share of surface street riding. One thing that is notable about the Interurban is the amount of infrastructure it has. It has more overpasses, underpasses, parks and signage then any rail trail in the Seattle area. A lot of the latest construction has been overpasses that cross Aurora and I-5 and bypass around parking lots and malls.  The trail lives up to its name in that you encounter two major cities, Seattle and Everett and ride through outskirts of numerous smaller cities: Shoreline, Edmonds,  Montlake as well as several Seattle neighborhoods: Fremont, Phinney Ridege and Greenwood. There are several suburban lakes that you pass by that the motorist may never know lies on the route: Bitter Lake, Echo Lake, Lake Ballinger and Hall Lake.



A section in the woods, but it's just east of I-5

The route eventually cross Interstate 5 and after wandering through some interstitial boundary woods it returns to the separated trail which features some the longest straightest sections along the freeway. At times it pops into the trees that border the interstate and one surface street section seems to be almost rural land. It is always interstitial though, the route is almost always in-between a major road and and urban area that is just a ways from it.  Toward the end, in Everett, though the route is now west of the 5 to the east it descends into valley land and if you can get over there and get out of the suburbs you truly can do some rural riding. But at the same time you can continue into Everett and by heading north and a bit west end up downtown in one of the larger cities in Washington State.


Riding the Interurban - Interurban Park

Not quite the end of the Interurban, but nearly.

In the end the Interurban returns to how it begins: more surface streets connect short cantons of path.  These are the suburbs of Everett and in the end you either ride into that city, cross over the Five and head into Snoqualmie Valley or turn around and ride back.  I’ve never seen the trail as busy as the Burke-Gilman Trail but it gets used by commuters, dog walkers, cyclists and other recreational users.  It has a different character then most regional trails and it used differently. It requires more attention and navigation then some and that seems to keep the racer cyclists down. Its urban character is certainly different and far different then the ruler straight, flat Interurban South that goes through mostly light industrial. It’s history and preservation of this once vital transportation route has always fascinated me.


Riding the Interurban - nice day

Fantastic winter riding

I tend to use the regional trails as connectors – I prefer to ride on the streets and find the trails often too crowded or too flat or otherwise not interesting. There are sections of streets you want to skip and they come into their own then and of course riding on them on the way back from a long tiring ride is often a better choice (or at night in some places). But the interurban, with its length, its mix of trail and surface streets and its unique character has made it a trail I tend to ride a bit more early in the season. Since moving to Seattle the signed route has been more utilitarian but on a beautiful late February day I rode nearly the whole thing and enjoyed it as ever. Since I’ve ridden on this numerous times this year, I’ve included pictures in the set from several different rides (including today even) but mostly I picked from that unseasonably sunny and warm day.

Check out more pictures in my Riding the Interurban photoset on Flickr

Further Reading
(1) Interurban Rail Transit in King County and the Puget Sound Region on
(2) Interurban article on WikiPedia
(3) Puget Sound Electric Railway article on WikiPedia
(4) Interurban North page at the City of Lynnwood site
(5)  Interurban page on King County website
(6) City of Shoreline’s Interurban Page
(7) Interurban Trail page on Wikipedia
(8) Interurban Map (pdf)

5 thoughts on “Riding the Interurban”

  1. Another great entry! I got a lot to say, so I’m going to divide it into two replies. Hope you don’t mind.

    I really find it amazing that Seattle not only tore up its rail transit system faster than any other West Coast city (or probably any city in the country), but how it has lagged so far behind so many other cities in reinstating it. I mean, Houston opened its light-rail system five years before Seattle! Most cities had their rail system killed off before WWII but few if any before. If you don’t take into consideration the Monorail or the Waterfront Streetcar, both of which were more novelty/tourist item than actual transit, there was a gap of 66 years between killing off the streetcar/interurbans in 1941 until the South Lake Union Streetcar in 2007. 66 years! Portland went with without rail transit for only 28 years, between 1958 and 1986. (I’m not trying to be all “Portland is better” or anything, so don’t misconstrue this as such.)

    Also, Seattle had an extensive cable car system which I believe was the second-largest outside of San Francisco. “Seattle was the last city in the U.S. to abandon all its street cable railways, with the last three lines all closing in 1940, leaving San Francisco as the only U.S. city where cable cars continued to operate” sayeth Wikipedia. Imagine if they kept that running! The tourist draw! A way to get up all those hills in snow and ice!

    The right of way of the Interurban has thankfully not been lost. It was pretty much taken over by Seattle City Light and used to run power lines into the city.

    Since most streetcar/interurban systems were built, owned, and operated by electric companies, saying that Seattle City Light took it over might not be accurate, as they (or their predecessor company) probably owned it all along.

  2. We rode the Interurban Trail last year as part of our Big Tour. I enjoyed the first bit from Seattle into Shoreline. I didn’t find the on-road sections and wonky navigation that bad on that section. However, it got somewhat more annoying after that, especially with all the routings around shopping centers and cloverleaf freeway interchanges, and some of those short steep hills. I think if we were riding casually and lightly it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but we were running behind (story of our trip) and fully-loaded. We still got to the Mukilteo ferry terminal before dark, though.

    Still, I wish that the Portland Metro area has the same amount and variety of off-road paths as Seattle. We really only have one right now: the Springwater Corridor, though they are working on some more. Since the rail line the Springwater follows got abandoned in the 1990’s, it is pretty much exclusively off-road with only a little on-road section at the start and in Sellwood. (The Sellwood section is currently under construction.)

    While sections of the Springwater are ho-hum for scenery, it is a great place to just ride without having to worry about cars. It does have its share of roadies on nicer days. The easternmost section is pretty bucolic, passing through woods and some mixed farmland. There’s a farm with sheep that’s always a joy to pass!

  3. Thanks for the comments Shawn.

    Since most streetcar/interurban systems were built, owned, and operated by electric companies, saying that Seattle City Light took it over might not be accurate, as they (or their predecessor company) probably owned it all along.

    Thanks, good catch; I’ll update that to point out that they kept the corridor. This is of course always an issue – an excellent Eastside corridor became available maybe five years ago and luckily a strange partnership between the Port and King Country has acquired it (I think – they may not have actually finalized this yet). Both as use for trails and for potential future transit it seems vital to keep these corridors.

    Your other point w/r/t to Seattles abandonment and lagging replacement of train based transit – yeah I’m with you there. I’d have to do some research to see if there were any extenuating circumstances but I really think it was all the companies going bankrupt pretty much. All this transit was privately owned and it was pretty much all driven out due to competition with the automobile (which was of course actively working against them – general motors subsidizing city busses for instances and big oil doing similar). It could be it all collapsed faster in Seattle as it was on a shakier foundation to begin with.

    As for the slower adaptation, that is I believe the infamous “Seattle Process” in action. From what I understand in the 60s there was a sort of west coast summit where all the major cities from Vancouver to LA discussed these issues. All of these cities setup transit plans but Seattle’s has taken this long to finally put in place. Of course there were some economic issues (Boeing’s collapse in the 70s pretty much shut down any investment for a decade) but it really is pathetic.

    All of this is further backstory to why the story of the Interurban is so tragic in my mind. The times were different of course, but if the state or counties had taken it over and kept it going, perhaps making the highways smaller in the process it’d be a different place.

  4. As for riding on the Interurban, it definitely is a different experience. Ideally one should treat it more as a ramble, where one just goes with the flow and explores the side routes and such. But if one is trying to get from Point A to Point B on a deadline, well it’s tougher for that the first time. I too have ridden it fully loaded going out and back on some tours but of course I’d ridden it before. I didn’t really find the hills on it much of an issue (compared to all the other hills we have to deal with around here), but it does add up. Still I find it an interesting trail and if one can spend more time around it, there is a lot of interesting public art (I may do a follow up post about that since I couldn’t fit it in), there are cute little out of the way sections of Greenwood, Phinney Ridge and of course Fremont (plus plenty more just off the route: Green Lake, Ballard, Edmonds, etc). The neighborhoods on the Everett end I want to explore a bit more – there is at least one bit with a couple of nice looking coffee houses and someday I need to ride all the way into Everett.

    I do think that the Seattle area is really nicely set up with trails and the network seems to be always slowly growing. As I said in the post, I’m not really a die hard trail rider, but there are those instances where it is ideal – as a connector, or a flat fast shot out to a rides start point, night riding in bad weather, winter rides, riding for saddle time and such. There are a couple of trails that are right out in the woods (the Issaquah-Preston and Preston-Snoqualmie trails) that are almost like riding a hike that I truly do love riding.

    One of these days I’ll need to take the train down to Portland and ride around some more. A great city that I tend to visit a couple of times a year, but have yet to take my bicycle with me. I would have thought there would be more trails there with the robust culture and all the cycling advocates and infrastructure promotion. Of course it is better in general for cycling to be accepted everywhere, but trails certainly have their use and of course I’d rather see old right of ways become trails if the rails are going away.

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