Seattle's freeways cut through the city rather than circling it, and while driving isn't the norm if you're only getting around the downtown area, it may be useful to get to anywhere else. With that said, the use of alternative transportation modes such as public transit, ride-sharing, walking and cycling are among the highest in the U.S., despite the hilly nature of many neighborhoods. If you do drive, note that you'll want to avoid driving during rush hours unless you know an alternate route away from the easily clogged interstates and state routes — a car accident at a bridge to West Seattle, for example, can back traffic up all the way to the northern city limits!
Seattle's street designations are generally easy to remember once you understand them. Most of the city is laid out in a grid, with north-south roads called Avenues and east-west roads being Streets. There are occasional irregularities: Ways are long roads that don't always conform to the grid, Drives are long, circuitous routes, and there's the occasional very short Place or Court.
Seattle has a somewhat convoluted address system that can be confusing to the uninitiated. Outside the downtown area, the city is divided into 7 compass directional sectors (N, NE, NW, W, E, S, SW; no SE section), with the name of the sector applied to every road that passes through that sector. Streets are written with the sector before the name (e.g. NE 45th Street or NE 45th) while avenues are written with the sector after the name (e.g. 45th Avenue NE or 45th NE). Roads within the downtown area (as well as some avenues east of Downtown and some streets north of Downtown) have no directional designation. Take this into consideration when looking for directions to a specific address.
When locals give you directions, they may refer to an intersection (especially in the case of a bus stop). The first road mentioned is the street it is at, followed by the crossing street adjacent to the stop, but sometimes they neglect to specify whether it's an "avenue" or a "street," so inquire to be sure and you'll avoid the risk of winding up in the wrong part of the city!
Walking is highly encouraged for short trips, especially if your destination is within Downtown or Capitol Hill. While the streets and drivers are generally friendly for pedestrians, do keep your street smarts. Avoid walking alone in Downtown at night due to the frantic beggars. For more information about street safety, look at the "Stay Safe" section.
Seattle pedestrians are noted for their unusual refusal to jaywalk. Unlike many other large American cities (particularly those on the East Coast), in Seattle you'll see groups of pedestrians patiently wait for the light to change before stepping off the curb, even when there isn't a car in sight. The reasons for it are unclear, though it's often suggested that the local police are particularly strict about enforcing the jaywalking law.
The block layout in the downtown area is pretty compact; a walk from Denny Way to Yesler Way should take roughly half an hour. Walking away from the shore in the downtown area requires some effort, given the steep elevation of the streets. Outside the downtown area, especially Capitol Hill or the northern and western parts of the city, there are many hills (albeit less hilly and steep than San Francisco). In fact, walking is a great form of exercise in Seattle, with abundant jogging tracks in the parks and longer trails like the Burke Gilman Trail, which runs along the northern side of the ship canal and the western rim of Lake Washington.
King County Metro is the primary public transportation agency not just for Seattle but throughout King County as well. The bus service is generally easy to navigate, especially from downtown, with multiple lines to most tourist attractions. There are two types of bus service offered: the ordinary local service (green/yellow or blue/yellow buses) and the frequent express RapidRide service (red/yellow buses). You must pay upon boarding (or if you have a transfer, show it to the driver) at the front. To request a stop, pull the cord alongside the windows or, on most buses, you can press a red button next to the back door. All upcoming stops are announced by display on the board at the front of the bus and by voice.
Buses generally operate from 5AM to 1:30AM, and run from every 5 minutes up to every hour, depending on route, time of day, and day of the week; a few selected routes are peak-only or night-only service and RapidRide routes are 24 hours.
To figure out your nearest bus stop and real-time arrival times, you can download the One Bus Away app to your smartphone. Arrival times are also displayed at certain Downtown bus stops as well as most RapidRide stops. Paper schedule and maps of the bus route can usually be found at transit centers.
When traveling to destinations outside the downtown core, make sure to ask the drivers about the green and white "EXPRESS" signs in their windows or the "VIA EXPRESS" on the road display if they are going to your destination. Some of these express routes are intended for regular commuters traveling between residential neighborhoods and Downtown and make few or no stops between, but may be useful for getting to destinations such as the University District, West Seattle, and Ballard. A rule of thumb is that three digit route numbers are for service to/from and within outside the Seattle city limits, but a few of them should still pass through major attractions within the city area.
In Downtown, most buses and RapidRide buses go along 3rd Avenue and high-capacity routes use the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel alongside the Link light rail. The tunnel has five stations, from north to south: Convention Place, Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square, and International District/Chinatown (the last of which is convenient to King Street Station). The bus tunnel is useful for bus and light rail transfers, but watch your belongings.
Link Light Rail operates between the University of Washington and Sea-Tac Airport, stopping in Capitol Hill, Downtown, SoDo, South Seattle, and the suburb of Tukwila along the way. Ticket machines are available at all stations, and the tickets must be retained for the duration of your trip (ticket agents will occasionally board the train to check if you have paid your fare). If you use an ORCA card, you must tap at both your origin and your destination station.
The Seattle Streetcar has two lines: The South Lake Union line between Downtown and South Lake Union and the First Hill line between Pioneer Square, the International District and Capitol Hill along Broadway. The former line gained the rather unfortunate moniker "SLUT" (South Lake Union Trolley), and you might hear it referred to as such. The streetcar runs up to every 10 minutes. You must purchase the ticket at one of the streetcar stops before boarding. Note that these streetcars stop only when requested by pressing the yellow stop request strip.
The Seattle Center Monorail, a legacy of 1962 World's Fair, takes you non-stop between Westlake Center (5th Avenue & Pine Street) and the Seattle Center in just 2 minutes, and primarily serves tourists heading from Downtown to the Space Needle.
If you need any help, go to the Customer Stop at Westlake Station in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, security officers in the tunnel, or ask a local. Seattleites are always eager to help and may offer help, even if they see you looking confusingly at a tourist map!
King County Metro provides a Water Taxi service between Pier 50 (beside Pier 52/Colman Dock) in Downtown and Seacrest Park in West Seattle, a ride which takes 15 minutes and is an optimal connection to Alki Point. Boats depart every half-hour on weekdays and every hour on weekends during the summer months, with reduced service during the winter.
Cars are fairly useless for transportation within the city proper, but are a great asset if travelling to Bellevue/Redmond or Everett/Tacoma. Note that many roads Downtown are one-way, which might require some extra navigation. On weekends, you can often rent cars at locations throughout the city. One of the challenges in driving in Seattle includes the hilly terrain, especially in Downtown, Capitol HIll and Queen Anne, where you have to be extra careful in applying your brakes.
Be aware though that parking is scarce in Downtown due to the recent dedicated bike lane developments and even your hotel will levy exorbitant fees for overnight parking at their property!
When parking on a hill, remember to always apply the parking brake and turn your wheels so that the car will roll into the sidewalk instead of the street if the brakes give out (i.e., when facing uphill, turn toward the street; when facing downhill, turn toward the curb). Failure to park properly can run the risk of having your car roll downhill.
Drivers traveling on Interstate 5 between Downtown and Northgate as well as Interstate 90 between Downtown and Bellevue can make use of the express lanes for a generally quick and smooth ride to downtown in the morning, or to the suburbs in the afternoon and evening. Even though Seattle is only the 20th largest city in the U.S., its traffic jams are second only to Los Angeles. This is mainly due to inland waterways causing choke points around the few available bridges.
You can call or hail a taxi from any major street in Seattle or most hotels will call them for you. However, most of Seattle's taxi services are unfriendly and expensive, especially if you are only trying to get around the downtown area. Some taxi drivers will even refuse to take you if your destination is less than 15 blocks away.
- Yellow Cab, +1 206 622-6500.
- Orange Cab, +1 206 522-8800, +1 206-957-0866.
- Stita Taxi Services, +1 206 246-9999.
- Seattle Airport Limo & Town Car, +1 206 420-3400, toll-free: +1-877-340-3434.
If your destination is miles away and you don't have a car, yet public transportation seems inconvenient for you, you can use the ride-sharing services like those provided by Uber or Lyft. Download their app to your phone to reserve a car, register your card for payment, punch in your current location and destination, and a car will be in front of you in no time; they do not take prior reservations. If you prefer to drive yourself, Car2go or Zipcar vehicles are abundant, especially in Downtown, Capitol Hill, and University District. Seattleites often prefer this method to taking the reckless and overpriced taxis.
The rainy weather makes motorcycling difficult but not impossible. Drivers exhibit an alarming obliviousness to motorcycles, and riders should take care to stay well out of a car's blind spot and preferably ahead of, rather than behind, any car. Motorcyclists get preferred boarding on the ferries and there are many parking spots Downtown reserved for motorcycles.
Cycling is better in Seattle than in most American cities. In fact, during rush hour it's often faster to bike than to drive! Bicycle usage has increased significantly since the early 2000s and drivers are a little more accustomed to bicycles in Seattle than in other major cities. Your main drawbacks will be the wet roads, the rain, and the hilly terrain, so you might want to pack some raingear. Many major roads in Seattle have properly maintained bicycle lanes, and you are allowed to ride bicycles on all Seattle roads except the Interstates, the State Route 520 floating bridge, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Bikeshare kiosks called Pronto are available throughout the city. A purchase of a 24-hour, a 3-day pass, or an annual membership at the kiosk entitles you to a ride for 30 minutes and a small surcharge for every half hour thereafter, up to 24 hours. The bikes can be picked up and returned at any kiosks citywide, but do not forget to take the helmet before you ride and dock the bike correctly when you return it! Coverage is limited to Downtown, Pioneer Square, the International District, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and the University District.
The city maintains a bike map with suggested biking routes for visiting major attractions.
Bicycle transportation in the greater part of Seattle is facilitated further by the Burke-Gilman Trail. This is a paved walking/jogging/cycling trail that winds its way from the north end of Lake Washington, down around the University of Washington, then west along the canal towards Ballard. The trail is on an old railroad right-of-way, so it maintains a very consistent elevation and is excellent for commuting or a casual day's touring. The Elliott Bay Trail overlooks Puget Sound and starts at the north end of Downtown in Myrtle Edwards Park, continuing north along the shore of Elliott Bay. It is much more scenic than the Burke trail, with gorgeous views of the Olympics and Mt. Rainier, and more quiet since it doesn't intersect with any roads.
If you are tired from cycling or looking for a quick ride to another biking place, King County Metro buses have bike racks on the front of the bus. Just don't forget to unload it when you get off!
Here are a few places that offer bike rentals:
- The Bicycle Repair Shop, 928 Alaskan Way (Opposite between Piers 52 & 54). Weekdays 8AM-6PM; Sa 10AM-6PM; Su noon-6PM. You can rent bicycles for an hourly rate or a daily rate (which translates to 5 hours of rent) depending on type of bicycle. The website also has a list of self-guided tours.
- Seattle Bicycle Rentals, Pier 58, toll-free: +1-800-349-0343. W-M 8AM-6PM. You can rent bikes for the day, the week, or the month. Guided tours available to Ballard, Fremont, and Lake Union for 3 hours from 1PM (check in the hour before).
- Pedal Anywhere. You can rent a bike for up to 30 days, and the bike will be delivered to your doorstep! Reservations must be done online.