Justin Duke

Hidden elevators

A couple months ago, Seattle expanded their light rail to Capitol Hill.

I live in Capitol Hill, and suddenly I found myself taking the light rail much more often.

Previously, I’d have to go downtown to catch it, which was usually where I was trying to go anyway so that kinda defeats the purpose. The only convenient place it took me from downtown was the airport 1.

But now, there’s a light rail station five blocks away from my apartment!

The light rail is great, and if you’ve ever taken a tram or subway before you can imagine exactly how it works. You take an escalator down a couple of floors to a place with a lot of linoleum where you either purchase a ticket or swipe a fare card. You wait. A thing picks you up and then drops you off at one of around a dozen stops.

I love the light rail.

  • I can take it to the International District to pick up some hangover dim sum.
  • I can take it to Pioneer Square and binge on surprisingly affordable artisan pasta at Il Corvo.
  • I can take it to the University of Washington to catch a show at the Neptune. (Or just go and eat something on The Ave. Most of my travels revolve around food.)

My entire city travel calculus has been upended for the better. Suddenly someone like me — who doesn’t have a car and feels mostly guilty whenever he orders an Uber — has near-instant access to the entire city.

By far the worst part of the light rail experience, though, is leaving the light rail station. You have to take a narrow escalator about one hundred feet to the surface. The escalator almost by definition is not large enough to capably handle an entire crowd of folks getting off the light rail.

See, I subscribe to a very simple law of escalator decorum:

  1. If you’re standing on an escalator, go to the right.
  2. If you’re trying to actively walk up an escalator, go to the left.

Surprisingly, this is not a universal thing! Instead, the escalator becomes a traffic jam: a microcosm of poor traffic choices. People get packed like sardines at the base of the escalator, trying to jump on:

However, there’s a secret I recently discovered.

Capitol Hill’s light rail station has an elevator.

It’s not even a particularly hidden elevator. It’s sitting there, twenty feet away from the escalator, inconspicuous but in plain view.

It is extremely fast. It is clean and never cramped. I usually only ever see it used by bikers; I have never been in this elevator with more than three people.

But the first thing people do as soon as they get off the light rail is see the horde of people crowded around the escalator, and they inevitably follow suit.

At this point, like 30% of my joy in taking the light rail is using the elevator at the end. It feels like finding a shortcut through life — largely because it is a shortcut through life, even if that shortcut only lasts fifteen seconds and saves you some bruised elbows.

I am spending a lot of time recently launching new projects, both at work and in my personal life. 2

Deliverables always seem to have a certain arc towards completion: ideation, development, feedback, marketing, retrospective. And each one of those steps has its own series of steps, and so on and so forth: a kaleidoscope of processes.

All of those processes are there for good reasons! The internet is littered with essays about the importance of idea validation, of warnings about people who fail to market after launch, of how you need to use a 2016 tech stack to make a tech product in 2016.

There are lots of signs pointing to the escalator, and lots of people already on it.

And there’s a comfort in sticking to the escalator: it’s steady, it’s reliable, and you get the warm feeling of I’m doing the same thing as everyone else, so there’s no way I’m the only one who messed up. (Plus, if an escalator breaks, it’s still stairs.)

But it’s still worth it, I think, to look for the hidden elevators. Even if they only save you fifteen seconds.


  1. An Uber to SeaTac costs $40. An Uber to the Westlake Station light rail, plus light rail fare, costs $7.50. [return]
  2. I wrote about one of them recently. [return]
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