Off the Rails: The Demographic Puzzle of Light Rail

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Look at this picture of riders on the number 42 bus today, which travels along Martin Luther King Way, right alongside light rail. Then look at the picture after the jump of light rail riders yesterday. Notice something different? The bus riders are virtually all minorities. Light rail's are not. In fact, on the trains I've taken for the past few days, they've been mostly white, which is pretty surprising given that the trains service the most diverse part of town. What's going on? To find out, I passed on light rail this morning and rode the 42 into town.

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It's pretty simple why the bus riders were skipping light rail: the bus was simply more convenient, especially since many of the riders weren't skyscraper professionals travelling to jobs downtown. Lo Ching, for instance, was on his way to a Ballard landscaping job. He planned to take the 42 downtown, then transfer to the 15. Due to language problems, it was hard to get an answer as to why he didn't take light rail downtown before he transferred. One possible deterrent: it's not free to transfer from train to bus, as it is from bus to bus. Evan Lei was on her way to her job at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which is mid-way between the Columbia City and Mount Baker stations. The bus took her right there.

For Inja Kim and David Shing, 74 and 86 respectively, it was a matter of the distance from their homes to the nearest light rail station. "It's hard for an old man like me [to walk far]," said Shing, who added that he lives about a half-mile away.

Age isn't an issue for John Nills, 18. Still, he says of light rail: "I'm just not going to take it." He didn't articulate why. But it raises the question of whether the shiny, high-tech trains are more bedazzling to middle-class whites for some reason than others.

Nevertheless, some on the bus had tried the trains, and liked them. "They're easy, quick, efficient," said Chris Frank, a 25-year-old canvasser for a King County project that passes out energy-efficient light bulbs and showerheads. Living near the Othello light rail station, he said he would often take the trains--unless the bus came first, as it did today.

Obviously, some who normally take the 42 are choosing the train. The bus was much less full than usual, which made the bus even more appealing than usual. It had lots of seats, stopped less frequently and arrived downtown five or 10 minutes earlier than usual.

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