Light rail gets you where you need to go, but it doesn’t take you all the way there.
The light rail gets you where you need to go, but it doesn’t take you all the way there. RS

I’ve been riding light rail several times per week since the Capitol Hill Station opened last March. I love that thing. “Really opens up the city,” as they say. I even love just being on the train. I get to glance at all the people, read a little bit, internally smile at the cartoon bunnies demonstrating appropriate train behavior. Everything is great.

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Everything is great, that is, until the very second I step off the train and onto any station's platform.

Exactly.
Exactly. RS

I panic a little bit. Which way am I supposed to go? Where am I? Where’s the sign that points to my friend’s house or to the hotel thing I want to find?

Like a proud idiot, I end up just randomly picking a side and hoping for the best. Occasionally I pick the correct exit, but sometimes I wind up three blocks down the road and on the other side of the street. But I do it this way because the wayfinding within the stations is generally terrible.

Let’s use my local Capitol Hill Station as an example. In order to know which exit I need, I have to step off the train, walk to the middle of the platform, crane my neck to look up at the purple signs, find the middle of the sign, read the thin little font, wonder if I want “E Denny Way” or “Broadway E & E John St,” try to remember that the “E Denny Way” exit actually dumps you onto Broadway next to Annapurna, and that the “Broadway E & E John St” dumps you out onto E John St, which is technically John St. but emotionally it's E Olive Way, and what the fuck is an "E & E?" But, okay, focus: After a while I remember I want E Denny Way, despite the fact that every cell in body is screaming BROADWAY, BROADWAY, WTF IS E DENNY WAY?

By the time I’ve had all those thoughts, I’m a thousand-year-old pile of bones who’s late for a date at his secret low key best summertime drink spot ever, Yeti Bar.

Even after over a year of riding, I still feel this way sometimes at my own station, and that’s only if I’m coming from the south! If I step off the train coming from the University of Washington Station? Forget it. I’m a child lost in the wilderness.

And even though I kinda know my own station, that doesn’t help me navigate Westlake’s labyrinthine mezzanine, University Street’s obscene symmetry, or Pioneer Square’s tangle of intersections.

Obviously, I'm no transit nerd. But I am a human being, and I know what I want.

Everywhere a sign.
Everywhere a sign. RS

More directional signs. When I step off the light rail, I want to be looking at an eye-level or ground-level sign telling me which way goes to my house and which way goes to other side of the god damn street.

I found this website on the internet called City Lab when I googled “best subways for wayfinding.” Some of the helpful subway features they mention include stair signage (love it!), maps that help visualize how the underground world fits beneath the above-ground world (maps!), and directional compass roses embedded into the sidewalk (tattoos anybody?!) when you emerge from the underworld. All of those additions would make me feel comfortable and loved.

Number the exits. They sort of do this in Tokyo, which is another fact I learned while browsing the internet. If you put a number next to the street, locals can remember they always take escalator 1 or 2 when they're going to the place they need to go. When friends come to visit, locals can just tell them to take the light rail to station x and then follow the signs for exit n.

As it is now, I just tell my friends to choose an escalator at random and then call me to say which street corner they’re standing on. Sure, I could say take the E Denny Way, but don't get me started down that road again. Also, numbers are better for non-native English speakers.

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Change your station logos. No design governs here. Why is University Street Station a pair of opera glasses and Capitol Hill Station a fucking flag? Either highlight attractions such as Benaroya Hall or pun on the name. Doing both creates confusion.

I've left a message with Sound Transit media relations people about whether they have any plans to update the wayfinding signage in their stations, and I'll update this post if/when they get back to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Light rail changed my life and continues to change my life. Since the Capitol Hill Station was built, I've been able to see my friends and access services all over the city, and also get to the airport without having to walk downtown first. (Though finding the light rail from the airport is a transit trauma that deserves its own slog post.) I love having Pioneer Square and Columbia City just minutes away. And the University District! It’s all possible. But, with a few lil fixes, Sound Transit, you can make it all even more possible.

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