Oooh, yeah, get dat virtual commute.
Oooh, yeah, get dat virtual commute. Screenshot from Sound Transit YouTube
While a lot of workers in Seattle are toiling on the frontlines, many office workers, techies, and—ahem—journalists are looking down the long barrel of interminable work-from-home policies as the pandemic rages on. Gone are the rituals of waking, dressing, eating, and rushing out the door on foot/bike/car/bus. Now, putting on a bra and making coffee seems satisfactory enough.

For many the transitory space between home and work—The Commute—has become more abstract. But recently, Sound Transit's video team has been looking to bridge that gap with their "Virtual Commute" series made for people who miss that weird time when they could check their email and stare out into the morning sky while crammed onto public transit. The most recent video addition to the series is a real-time south-to-north journey of the Link light rail—which has experienced an 83 percent decline in ridership since COVID hit—posted to their YouTube yesterday.

In the video, the light rail travels north from Angle Lake to the very end of the line, the University of Washington Station, with an operator's booth view. In total, the "ride" lasts about 54 minutes. Shot in late May, outside is mild—cloudless, sunny, with the Pacific Northwestern greenery looking that brilliant shade of grade. By all means of interpretation, the virtual commute captures a completely unremarkable Seattle morning. And it is the video's unremarkable quality that's so comforting.

Sound Transit video manager Andrea Stuart-Lehalle told me this project was inspired by Chicago Transit Authority's Ride the Rails series on YouTube, which are real-time videos of the system's rail lines chugging along the tracks with a similar operator-box view. The twelve videos each garner hundreds of thousands of views, despite being pretty long.

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Since the lockdown began, Stuart-Lehalle says that Sound Transit's video team's priorities have shifted, allowing them an opportunity to dig into this Seattle transit-specific project. They began with a virtual commute for Sounder North, which runs from Seattle up to Everett, taking about an hour in total.

The video was sped-up to avoid being too long, but after community input, they decided to make both real-time and sped-up versions of future virtual commutes. They plan to tackle other Sound Transit commutes—Sounder South, Tacoma Link, and the ST Express double-decker bus (!!!)—to complete the series.

Notably, neither virtual commute video has sound. No gurgling of the operator's voice or grinding of the wheels along the track. Stuart-Lehalle told me that since the camera is placed inside the cab, they wanted to "preserve Link communications and driver confidentiality." But, she noted, it's an opportunity for viewers to add whatever soundtrack they wanted while watching. If you do decide to hunker down for an hour on your virtual commute, here's my music suggestion: