Tech

As any of my readers know I travel a lot. I also blog a lot, take photos a lot and research a lot. That’s a lot of lotting. Thus when I’m travelling I need a computer. I know people who rely completely on Internet Cafes but I really like editing photos using my own computer late at night in my apartment in Paris, or Venice or Budapest or anywhere else as opposed to paying by the hour to use some age old slow Windows machine. Not to mention I can upload all of my photos while I’m sleeping via secure copy instead of having to babysit it.I also like to travel light thus I’ve always leaned toward small lightweight laptops.

My first travel laptop was a Sharp MM20 that I purchased in 2004 for my trip from London to Istanbul. This is probably my favorite still. However, it came to an untimely end in Krakow Poland when I left it running in our apartment while we went out to dinner. It was an unusually hot day and roof tiles peeled up on the roof followed by an equally unusual downpour. Our roof as you would expect only leaked in one spot - right over my Sharp MM20. The poor thing continued running under a direct stream of water for an hour. It took me a month to dry it out and then it continued to run for another year although in somewhat of a crippled state.If memory serves me the wifi card stopped working and it took several tries to get it to turn on. I still used it though until it finally gave up and died for good.

The Sharp MM20

The Sharp at .8 inches thick (at it’s thickest) and only 1.99 lbs was ultra-sexy. That 0.01 lbs was crucial in differentiating between sexy as opposed to ultra-sexy so I’ll emphasis it here - 1.99 lbs! It had 512 MB of ram which was a lot at the time and a minuscule 20 GB ipod sized hard drive. The battery as you can imagine was tiny and even if the Transmeta CPU was efficient I got about 2 hrs of life out of each charge. To solve this issue I bought the “9 hr battery” which lasted about 6 hrs. It added about half a pound to the size and protruded out the bottom like a large wart so I actually carried both batteries, one for transport and the other I’d swap in when I decided I wanted to work for a while. Not ideal but it did work. I also used a USB mouse and since the hard drive was so small I backed up all of my photos and videos on an external USB hard drive. The Sharp had no memory card reader so I had to use an external USB and it only had two USB ports so I had to carry a mini USB hub as well. The laptop, 9 hr battery, USB hub, USB memory card reader and external hard drive weighed 3 lbs, 5 oz. I paid $1850 for everything which at the time was a good deal. One year I took my USB DVD drive too and even a USB Dye Subliminal postcard printer. The latter was really fun since we could send out customized postcards with us in them but I couldn’t justify the extra more than once.

Pluses for the Sharp MM20

  • Small and Beautiful
  • Decent screen and keybaord for the size
  • PCMCIA slot in a .5/.8 inch laptop!

Minuses for the Sharp MM20

  • Poor battery life
  • Not enough USB ports
  • CPU not very fast
  • VGA port needed a dongle
  • Small slow hard drive

The MSI Wind

After the Sharp died a friend gave me an MSI Wind Netbook. Netbooks are wimpy little Notebook computers that go for a song - in this case free because my friend didn’t like the touchpad. It had a 160 GB hard drive, memory card reader and 3 USB ports so I didn’t really have to bring anything with me. Although the idea of having my photos in one spot still made me nervous so I carried the external USB drive anyway. Total cost was $0 but had I purchased it I would have paid about $299. Netbooks are an interesting breed. Technically speaking this thing had more CPU, more ram, way more hard drive and more expansion than my Sharp and cost ? as much. What 5 years makes in the IT industry. They are however built cheaply. It’s about twice as thick as the Sharp and all plastic. The Sharp feels like a really nice, well engineered product. The Netbook... not so much. Also battery life sucked and there’s not much I could do about it - 2.5 hrs tops. An added note is that the MSI screen was 10.1 inches. The Sharp screen was 10.4 inches but if you compare them side to side you’d think something is a little fishy. The Sharp’s screen was way more useful. With the MSI they went with the wide screen format and technically it is a 10.1 inch screen but vertically it’s nearly two inches shorter than the Sharp’s. The Sharp’s screen resolution was 1024x768 and the MSI 1024x600. That’s valuable screen real estate lost. A great example of why small 4:3 screens were better than small 16:9 screens.The netbook still works and still sucks the same. It’s slow, attracts fingerprints and the battery life is still poor. I might note too that the keyboard layout is less than desirable. I remember cursing the Sharp’s tiny keyboard but now in retrospect it was quite nice. Total weight 2 lbs 15 oz with the external hard drive.

Pluses for the MSI Wind

  • Cheap
  • Reasonably small
  • Lots of hard drive space

Minuses for the MSI Wind

  • Slow CPU
  • Poor keyboard layout
  • Cramped wide aspect screen
  • Maddening touch pad
  • Poor expansion - 3 USB ports, that’s it.

The Toshiba r705

Earlier this year  I decided that I needed to get some work done and it pained me to do it on the Netbook so I bought a Toshiba r705. This is the grown up successor to the Sharp MM20! It has a 3 inch larger screen (13.3) is still fairly slim in relation to it’s size and feels a lot like a bigger Sharp. It includes a memory card reader, 500 GB hd, 4 GB of ram, DVD writer (so I don’t have to carry an external USB drive now) and a 6 hr battery life. The Toshiba is all I need by itself and only weighs 3 lbs 3 oz. Travel weight was roughly equal to it’s 10” brethren but had a dual core 2.4 Ghz Intel i3, lots of ram, lots of hard drive and a writable DVD drive. I could actually WORK on it and it was light enough to travel with. It’s size is a bit of an issue because it’s quite a bit larger than the two smaller laptops but still manageable. With the Sharp I used to just slide it between my vacuum packed clothes because it was so slim. Neither the MSI or the Toshiba have this luxury as they’re a bit more than an inch thick.

Pluses for the Toshiba r705

  • Great screen size - 13.3 is near ideal in my book
  • Great touch pad
  • Large hard drive
  • eSATA, VGA, USB, HDMI, Ethernet
  • Optical Drive
  • Excellent weight for this size of laptop

Minuses for the Toshiba r705

  • Quite wide. Probably can’t get around that with a 13.3” wide aspect screen
  • Chicklet keyboard
  • Battery life could be better
  • Needed AES-NI (that’s the only reason I’m selling it)

The Lenovo X220

I mentioned I bought the Toshiba so I could work right? Now work required me to have a new thing in my CPU called AES-NI. This allows lightening fast hard drive decryption. Had I just paid another couple hundred dollars I could have gotten an r705 with it but at the time I didn’t know I was going to need it. By the time I knew the relevant Toshiba r705 wasn’t being sold anymore and it’s replacement was $1500. My search brought me to the Lenovo X220 - a mid 3lb laptop with AES-NI, lots of ram, decent hard drive, decent expansion and incredible battery life. I could have bought the lightweight 6 hr battery and my travel weight (and battery life) would have been identical to the Toshiba. However, there was the standard 9 hr battery or the extended 12 hr battery. Knowing that you never get as much as they say I bought the 12 hour battery which gets me 10 hrs. That’s still a LOT. It would allow me to use it on a trans-Atlantic flight or any cross country flight without plugging in! It also added about half a pound. Crap, I would work for an entire day just on the battery. This is the first practical laptop I’ve ever had in that regard.

The Lenovo’s screen is 12.5 inches (smaller than the Toshiba, larger than the others), has 8 GB of ram (!), a 320 GB hard drive, PCI Express slot (which I filled with an eSATA card), three USB ports (one of them ultra-fast USB 3.0), HDMI, VGA, SDHC memory card slot, ethernet and headphones. Basically everything I need. It’s a bit of a brute and as ugly too. The Sharp and Toshiba’s are pretty laptops, the Lenovo - only a mother could love. It is however durable and the keyboard has the best feel of any of them. It will make a great work laptop and I think a decent travel laptop as soon as I get a chance to take it somewhere. It’s a tad shorter than the Toshiba and would have less depth to if I’d ordered the standard battery. It’s a tad thicker though. I think overall the size difference is a wash. I kind of wish Lenovo would look over the trade show booth at just about anyone’s products though because this thing looks like an IBM Thinkpad from 1992. It even has the red rubber eraser pointer tool in the keyboard which is a bit irritating as I keep bumping it. I think I saw in the BIOS that I can turn it off. It also has a very strange bumpy touchpad and strangely shaped mouse buttons between the space bar and the touch pad in addition to the touchpad acting as mouse buttons. If you took all the input methods by ALL the other manufacturers and crammed them into one Laptop you’d have the Lenovo. However, the feel of the keyboard is great (like an old fashioned non-Chiclets keyboard!), the cursor keys, home/end/PgUp/PgDn and function keys are placed well. The shift, delete, backspace and enter keys are very large as well which is a huge improvement over other laptops.

Pluses for the Lenovo X220

  • Great screen size - 12.5 is near ideal
  • Battery life, battery life, battery life.
  • Even the light battery is great!
  • PC Expresscard slot, USB 3.0
  • Great keyboard feel
  • Decent sized hard drive
  • AES-NI - the reason I bought it
  • LOTS of ram - 8 GB. That’s more than my workstation or server
  • Great wifi reception

Minuses for the Lenovo X220

  • Weird keyboard layout
  • Weird red eraser pointer
  • Funky touchpad
  • No eSATA
  • Heavy and a bit bulky too
  • Ugly as sin
  • Extended battery protrudes
  • No optical drive!

Here are all four lined up in the following order (from left to right), Toshiba r705, Lenovo X220, Sharp MM20, MSI Wind. If you look closely at the screens on the Sharp and MSI you'll see that the Sharp looks to have a screen much larger than the MSI. This is what I was talking about earlier about wide aspect ration screens - you lose a lot. The Sharps 10.4" screen is as tall and nearly as usable as a wide screen 12.5. Also I think you can see from this photo how thin the Sharp is.

My Dream Laptop

If I could have anything I wanted I’d take an updated Sharp MM20. Stretch the screen a bit from 10.4 to 12.5. Expand the keyboard a tad, give it more oomph and increase the battery life. Yep, that’s what I’d order if I were Mayor for a day. Some people might think I just described the MacBook Air 13 and maybe they’re right so let’s look at that for a moment.

  Sharp MM20 MSI Wind Toshiba r705 Lenovo X220 MacBook Air 13
Dimensions 9.9 x 8.1 x .8 10.3 x 7.1 x 1.1 12.4 x 8.9 x 1.0 12 x 8 x 1.4 12.8 x 9 x .7
Weight 1.99 lbs/2.5 lbs with 9hr battery 2.8 lbs 3.2 lbs 3.8 lbs 2.9 lbs
Screen 10.4 10.1 13.3 12.5 13.3
CPU 1 Ghz Transmeta 1.6 Ghz Atom 2.4 Ghz Core i3 2.5 Ghz Core i5 2.13 Ghz Core 2 Duo
Ram 512 MB 1 GB 4 GB 8 GB 4 GB
Hard drive 20 GB 160 GB 500 GB 320 GB 256 GB
Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 None
Wifi 802.11 b/g 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n + WiMax 802.11 b/g/n 802.11 b/g/n
Battery Life 3/9 hrs rated
2/6 hrs real
with 9hr battery
3 hrs rated
2.5 hrs real
8 hrs rated
6 hrs real
13 hrs rated
10 hrs real
7 hrs rated
Expansion PCMCIA, 2 USB, VGA, Ethernet, headphone 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, headphone, mic 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, eSATA, headphone, mic, bluetooth 3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, Expresscard, headphone, bluetooth 2 USB, SD card, Displayport, headphone, bluetooth
Price $1500 $299 $899 $1500 $1829

It’s interesting to see how closely Toshiba tracks the MacBook Air. Toshiba seems to have taken a 90/10 plan in that they will provide 90% of the coolness for a fraction of the price. It’s almost as light and thin ( ¼ lb and ¼ inch) but has far greater expansion and included equipment. Battery life is arguably better, CPU is faster, storage is double, plus it has a great deal more expansion for... wait for it... half the price!

How does my current choice stack up? It’s physically smaller in width and depth but twice as thick (thus half as sexy) and nearly a pound heavier. It’s clearly built for a different purpose. It has double the memory, more storage, double the battery life and double the expansion for …. wait for it... half the price!

So in short the MacBook Air is a neat bit of kit but it’s got some shortcomings - namely expandability. The other issue (and it’s a big one) that I haven’t even touched yet is running Linux on it won’t be nearly as easy. Yes, I’d put Linux where the Oh So Fancy MacOS was but I’m sure I could coax Linux on the MacBook but my options are more limited.

The other other really big issue is eSATA. I need eSATA for my current job and the Toshiba had it built in. The Lenovo has an Expresscard slot in which I placed a dual eSATA card. And the MacBook Air doesn’t have AES-NI in the CPU either which is the main reason I’m getting rid of the Toshiba. In short it wouldn’t work for my situation. However, for just a travel laptop it looks like a great deal if the price was significantly lower (or the Toshiba didn’t exist).

I've been very excited about Android for quite some time. It's nice to see a form of Linux take over the mobile device market. Until the beginning of the 2011 year though hadn't personally experienced Android. For the couple of year before I got my phone I'd been using Nokia's Mobile Internet Devices (n800/n810) which have served me well outside of not having Internet connections everywhere. Nokia understood this and made the n900 a cell phone and released a new more finger friendly Maemo 5 operating system for it too. Because they needed to get the phone out as soon as possible they kept Maemo 4's Hildon (gtk) based gui with the idea of going to a QT based GUI for Maemo 6. Nokia had just purchased QT for millions of dollars. And then something happened, Android started to gain traction so Nokia did what any smart company would do - join resources with another large corporation getting the snot beat out of them - Intel. Intel had a mobile operating system called Moblin which was designed primarily for tablets. Nokia's Maemo had largely been a small tablet OS and since both were based on Linux it made sense to merge and form MeeGo. This however, put an already late project (Maemo 6) an additional year behind in the merging Maemo and Moblin into MeeGo. This resulted in Nokia being in a bad position as their Symbian OS was getting very long in the tooth.

Years ago I had a Psion Revo+, the forerunner to Symbian which I liked a lot. I wrote applications for it in the included OPL language. Then Psion spun off the OS and every major cell phone company jumped on the bandwagon but it was really Nokia that carried the torch. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when a company called MobilePC accidentally sent me a Nokia N97 instead of a Nokia N900.

Without knowing it was a mess-up I took the Nokia from the box and immediately I thought I'd been ripped off. The phone said N-Series and felt very very cheap. My first thought was that it was a Chinese clone of the N900. I powered it up and the operating system looked like it was from a different era, it felt very clunky and not very intuitive. It was only then that I looked under the LCD screen and saw that it was a Nokia N97. Having only dealt with the Nokia MIDs I was shocked that this hunk of junk could be a Nokia. Looking at the specs it looked great - 32 GB of flash, 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss lens,  3.5 inch screen, Quad Band cell radio and more. This appears to be a thoroughly modern phone - however, I'd be ashamed selling it. Without thinking (or doing a proper review) I put it back in the box and sent it to MobilePC then waited patiently for way to long for my N900. In hindsight I probably should have spent a day or two with it so I could give it a proper chance but since I didn't my opinion that it's a hunk of junk stands.

As soon as the N900 arrived I took it out of the box and immediately knew I was dealing with a completely different animal. Even though it is only 1 ounce heavier it feels good. It feels like it was made of good solid materials. The screen is sharp and clear, the keyboard slides with a satisfying clunk and the plastic case even feels better. They clearly are spending more money making this phone than the N97. The specs look similar with a 3.5 inch screen, 32 GB of flash, Quad band, same lens and so on but boy is there a difference. Powering it up introduced me to Maemo 5 which is definitely different than Maemo 4. A lot of the same applications are available in updated versions, the gui effects show off the beefier hardware and it's way faster than my old N810 tablet. It however, doesn't have the "start menu" for lack of better term. Instead it has desktops not unlike Android and it has a "view all applications" mode just like Android. What's different though is how widespread widgets are and how easy it is to switch between running applications. I'll be doing a video later but for the record Maemo is a breath of fresh air after using Android for 5 months. My biggest concern going back to Maemo was that Android has about 160,000 apps and Maemo has about 400. What I'm finding out is that if an OS is designed properly you only need about 10 apps. With Android I spent a lot of time just trying apps and finding out none of them did what I wanted. Things like having a weather widget on the desktop showing the next 4 or 5 days weather forcast. I can glance at it while I'm getting ready to launch an app without having to start a weather app, then leave it running because Android doesn't shut anything down. With Maemo I have more than one weather widget that does exactly what I want. There will be apps I miss though like Yelp and OneBusAway. I'm looking into writing a version of the latter for Maemo though.

Overall it's a very nice piece of hardware. I LOVE the stylus (any screen under 5 inches needs a stylus no matter how clever the interface designers are), the OS is fast and shows no noticeable slowdown when multitasking, it doesn't need to be "rooted" to work right, it's Linux so if you want to overclock the CPU to 1100 mhz you can, it has Video Out, FM radio, FM transmitter, 32 GB built in memory and expansion for another 32 GB, decent audio, a really nice camera for a phone and it seems very stable.

Update two weeks later:

I've now been using my n900 for a couple of weeks and I'm very frustrated, not with the n900 or Maemo but with Nokia. Are they really that stupid? Their plan was to move to QT for Maemo 6 then that got shelved for the MeeGo joint venture with Intel. The reason I'm frustrated is that Maemo 5 is a very very nice product. Once in a while you'll find an app screen that doesn't look finished (the app manager) but it's rare. The overall user experience with Maemo 5 and the apps built into it is so much nicer than Android (I have 2.2) that I'm just speechless as to why Nokia couldn't make a decision or stand behind a product. I just don't know what to say. Really Nokia, are you on drugs? I'll do a proper review of the n900 when I calm down. :-)

 

I've already posted my Regional Transit Plan and will have an update in the future. I put a bit of emphasis on the Seattle Monorail because this article was supposed to be published before the Regional Transit Plan but I didn't get it out. With that in mind I'd like to review the Seattle Monorail and give my additional thoughts on it's usefulness and where it falls down.

Many people think of the Monorail as a tourist trap and not an important transit link in Seattle. I too have thought this way but then I also thought the Tacoma Link was worthless until I went to Tacoma to ride it and realized that it's a very useful train that takes the stress out of going from the Tacoma Dome to anywhere downtown. Being free you just hop on and hop off whenever you want. It's like having one long escalator along downtown Tacoma. Is the Monorail as useful though as a transit option?

There are several advantages of train in general over their street bound bus equivalents - they're consistent, they're more comfortable and they usually have right of way.

These are not constants and can be said for certain types of bus travel as well but for the most part trains trump buses because of these three things. Consistency is a very important ingredient - one the bus people don't get. People will ride transit if it always does what they expect it to do without surprises. Nobody likes the feeling of being on a bus going the right direction and then have it suddenly take a turn and you don't know if you should have gotten off. Buses cause stress. I have many bad stories of riding buses in foreign countries where I didn't know exactly where I was going (and can't ask the driver). I don't have one similar bad train story - trains are consistent. If someone says "get on the number 8 and get off at the commerce station" it's easy and works every time. This should not be ignored. Trains generally have more room so more comfort. Buses can be pretty awesome though and a quick trip to Mexico would prove this. However, there's something about the motion of a train that just can't be equalled by buses. A bus lurches forward then back on acceleration and braking, then makes 90 degree turns, wallows over bumps etc.. A train rocks side to side and clacks down the tracks - which tends to be very soothing and welcome. The worst trains are about as nice as the best buses. As for my last point trains usually have right of way but in the case of Portland's MAX, Tacoma Link, the S.L.U.T. and parts of Central Link they might be in the streets with the cars which is unfortunate. Monorail however, by design always has right of way which returns us to our subject.

 

The Seattle Monorail was put in 50 years ago as part of the World Expo in 1962 and goes from Westlake Plaza to Seattle Central. There's been many plans to extend it but none have prevailed. Now the monorail soldiers on as a tourist attraction and to be honest is a bit run down. The train cars are no longer being made but Seattle has a copy of the plans if they need to manufacture any new parts. Malasia recently built entire trains from those designs although you'd think they could have just built a new style monorail had they thought about it for a moment. Let's take a journey on the Seattle Monorail then we'll talk about it's usefulness.

The reason we decided to use the Monorail was to go to Pikes Place Market. You might be thinking that we could have just parked at the Market but parking there is extremely expensive and hard to find. You do get about an hour free I believe at a parking garage near the market but an hour gives you just about as much time to get to the market, take on photo of a flying fish and get back. We were there for the day to enjoy the Artisan Food Festival and it was Sunday so street parking was free. It's fairly easy to get street parking on Sunday near Seattle Center so instead of feeding a greedy parking garage we decided to park near Seattle Center and pretend the Monorail was a valid form of transportation. Following is our experience.

We bought round trip tickets at Seattle Center Station near the Center House for $13 ($4 adult, $3 for youth and $2 for seniors I think) total. That's about what we'd pay at the parking garage near the Market but this way we get to see Seattle Center, ride a Monorail, peruse Westlake Plaza AND go to the market. More bang for our buck. Since the Monorail is elevated you wait on a platform high above the ground under a covered roof. What makes monorails different from other elevated trains (Central Link light rail) is that it has one "rail" that the train straddles as opposed to two rails that it rides on. The Monorail is also a rubber tired train so the ride is different. I'm not endorsing rubber tired trains as I have my gripes about them (reverberations at speed) as well but just noting it. The loading platform is completely level and to board you have to zig zag through two levels of railing separating you from the train. This I'd assume is to keep people from falling off the platform when the train is not in the station. Since the Monorail only goes back and forth there's a drivers seat on each end. When it pulls into station the driver walks from one end to the other to drive it back the other direction. The Seattle Monorail controls have been updated over the years and include an LCD screen and other goodies. Part of me wants to know why there's a driver at all though in this modern day. the Toulouse Metro and many Airport skytrains operate just fine with no driver on board. I'd envision a modern version of this to not have a driver. It's not like you're going to run into anything on the route.

As the Monorail leaves Seattle Center station it passes through the strange metallic blob of  The Experience Music Project and makes a right turn toward downtown Seattle. The EMP was a later addition and built over the already existing Monorail. As the Monorail gains speed it makes it's biggest turn to the left and leans several degrees over the side of the rail so you can look straight down out the left side of the car. For this reason I always sit on the north side (left going to Westlake, right going to the Seattle Center). My mother however, sits on the opposite side for the very same reason. Along the straight away the Monorail approaches 45 mph and because of it's rubber tires I don't think it could do anymore even if the line was longer. I've mentioned rubber tired trains reverberations earlier. At slower speeds they're a bit smoother than metal tired trains or maybe the bumps are just more rounded. Metal tired trains do the clickity clack think and the bumps are sharp. I've decided though through experience that a rubber tired train does NOT improve the experience, just change it. The ride on the Monorail is surprisingly bumpy.

At the end of the journey which comes far too soon the Monorail makes it's last right turn and pulls up next to Westlake Plaza.  The old station used to be in the middle of the street but they later squeezed both tracks up against the building and they're so close together that only one monorail can be in station at a time or they'll collide. Because of the nature of a monorail you can't just walk across the tracks to exit like you could a metal wheeled train so a very strange metal walkway extends to meet the train. This walkway has enough moving parts that it causes the maintenance crews never ending grief.  It might also cause some people who are afraid of heights grief.

As you leave you have the option of taking an elevator to the street level two floors down or entering Westlake Plaza and using the escalators. Westlake plaza is a shopping mall with restrooms and a food court so we usually dash through it, use the facilities and gawk at the Seattlites in their flannel shirts, sandals with socks and nose rings. Just kidding about the flannel.

The point of this experiment was to see if the Monorail could be a valid form of mass transportation in Seattle and I say it is or at least can be with some slight changes. One criticism toward the Monorail is that it doesn't go anywhere. I think this is a bold statement since the Monorail only goes to the two most touristic spots in the city. I'd consider that somewhere. I think what people are getting at with that statement is that you can't commute with it and unless you're a tourist or just going between Westlake and Seattle Center it's mostly worthless. This is true to a degree and following is my solution.

 

Currently the Monorail is run as a separate entity for the City of Seattle. It's also supposedly the only transit solution in America that actually makes money. Curiously it's also one of the only transit solution in America that doesn't serve the populous of the city it resides in. Maybe that's why it makes money. Most of Seattle's transit systems take payment in the form of the ORCA card. If you take a ferry, an Everett Transit bus, Community Transit bus, Sound Transit Bus, The Sounder Train, Link Light Rail, Metro Transit bus or Pierce Transit bus you can pay and more importantly transfer with your ORCA card (Tacoma Link is free). There are a couple of transit options left out – The S.L.U.T. (but if you flash your ORCA they'll let you on, I think it's just that they don't have ORCA machines), InterCity Transit (Why InterCity? Why?) and the Monorail. I believe that these three need to get on board and I'll explain why. InterCity needs to take the ORCA because being a rebel only works for certain movie actors, it doesn't work for bus companies, especially ones that connect two other transit options that both use ORCA (Pierce and Metro) so wake up and smell the coffee. The S.L.U.T. Doesn't take them because of a lack of vision on the part of King County Metro – they just didn't put in the pay stations. The Monorail is run like a tourist attraction and is making money so why would they even want to take ORCA? Because the trains aren't full and we are finally getting serious about transit (and trains) in Seattle. Does adding one mile of rail to the ORCA when buses already cover that route make sense? Yes, for consistency. I see buses driving down 4th avenue and I'm sure they go to the Seattle Center but I've never ridden them. I'd rather pay the $4 or walk the mile than get on a bus and possibly end up somewhere else. People will probably tell me to consult a bus schedule but with the Monorail I don't have to – I just get on and this is my point. Allowing the ORCA would allow people from the North Suburbs to arrive via Sound Transit 510/511 buses at Westlake Center and transfer to the Monorail to Seattle Center. It would allow people coming from the Link Light rail or South of the City via the Sound Transit 594 bus or even from the Sounder Commuter train (with a free transfer via Link Light Rail) to transfer at Westlake to the Monorail to go to Seattle Center.

As short of a ride as it is this IS an important link for residents – not just tourists. Just by adding an additional turnstile and an ORCA reader at each end we could add the ability for locals to transfer. Tourists will continue buying round trip tickets for $4 just like they do now because it wouldn't make sense to buy an ORCA card just for one ride. Not only would the Monorail make the money they're currently making but they'd also keep a portion of the money paid on the ORCA card. They'd be even more profitable than they currently are and ridership would go up. Current headways are 10 minutes which are shortened to 6 minutes during special events. With increased ridership and very little additional overhead headways could be shortened to 6 minutes with one train. For special events the second train can be deployed to shorten headways to 3 minutes.

 

In summary, if you're heading to downtown Seattle on a Sunday when street parking is free then parking near Seattle Center and taking the Monorail may be a great option. You'll still pay for the Monorail but the ride is fun and it helps support a historic icon. However, if they ever start accepting the ORCA you can then just leave the car at home and ride other forms of transit into the city to take the Monorail. I urge Seattle to make this move.

So while I'm dreaming let me express a couple of my negative feelings toward the monorail and my proposed solutions.  From the train the view is excellent. From the ground the views pretty bad. The Monorail tracks from the ground are ugly so let's just get that out of the way. The way I look at it is the Monorail will NEVER be extended and as such the ride will never be any longer. Because it only takes 90 seconds to get from one end to the other and because the ride is so short we have options. In Toulouse the metro doors stay open 15 seconds exactly and trains come by every 60 seconds. We can't have headways like that unless we run two trains but I don't think that's necessary. If we have the train in the station for 1 minute on each end we could run about 3-4 minute headways using one train. With 185 passenger per train load we could move 3600 people per hour which is roughly what the Central Link light rail does with 10 minute headways. Granted, that would be max capacity for a single beam monorail but I'm not sure it's a problem since it's just between two stations. The reason I'm yammering on about a single beam monorail is the aesthetics factor of our current system. in order to support two trains we have two parallel beams end to end and the supporting columns are quite large. This all creates a very heavy, industrial visual statement that is neither appealing or pretty. I think that if the current dual beam monorail was replaced by a single beam and the supports halved in size we'd have a very unobtrusive system that would blend into the view of the sky. A single beam is very narrow and without the V shaped supports supporting two beams and the massive pillars holding it up would be a great visual improvement. Am I talking about replacing the current monorail with a new one? Isn't the same idea as the Green Line that was going to cost $125 million dollars a mile? No, all I'm talking about is a concrete job of replacing pillars and beams. The trains stay the same, the stations stay nearly the same etc... I don't think the cost would be that huge.

Another change I think should be made at the same time is to bring the Westlake Center station nearer to the ground. As the train rounds the corner on 4th and Stewart the train should dip down along Westlake Center to second story level and there should be an escalator to street level then another escalator down into the transit tunnel to ease transfers from the S.L.U.T., surface buses and the Central Link. Also with just one beam the radius of the three curves could be lessened so it can maintain a bit more speed. Maybe it would only amount to a 15 second savings but in combination with 45 second boardings one train could push a 3 minute headway. One of the reasons we have two trains on two beams though is so they can do maintenance on one train while using the other. With one beam and one train we'd lose this advantage so all maintenance would have to be done at night when the monorail isn't running.

That's enough dreaming for one day. None of it will ever happen because this is Seattle and we Seattlites revel in transportation misery.

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