Have you heard? The Seattle Center Monorail takes ORCA cards now, bringing the nearly 60-year-old system into the fold with King County Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional providers.
The news, which comes as the Seattle Monorail studies ways to improve the line and make it more useful, has brought some renewed interest in the Monorail, a relic of the 1962 World’s Fair that shuttles riders from Westlake Center on the north edge of downtown to the Seattle Center near the Space Needle, the Armory, and the Museum of Popular Culture. It’s functional not only as a transit-friendly tourist draw, but a convenient way to attend events like Folklife and Bumbershoot—or just rise above traffic for a minute.
Whether you’re visiting the city or a local in need of a refresher( or looking forward to riding it to NHL games at the former Key Arena) here’s a guide to the basics of the Seattle Center Monorail.
What’s the monorail’s route? Where are the stops?
Currently, the monorail has a one-mile route between Westlake Center in downtown Seattle and Seattle Center, with just one stop on either end.
The Westlake stop is on the top floor of Westlake Center, on the same floor as the mall’s food court and pretty much directly above Link Light Rail’s Westlake station. You can either go into the mall and head to the top floor—from the transit station, you can either take two elevators from the platform to the mall, then up to the top, or take the stairs by Nordstrom Rack and then the escalators to the top.
There’s no need to elbow your way through busy shoppers (or tempt yourself with a Daiso stop) to get to the upper platform, though. On the Fifth Avenue side of the mall across the street from Nordstrom (the regular one), there’s a three-story staircase or a single elevator that can take you to the top. While it’s not ideal, it’s a challenge highlighted as a potential improvement in a recent study of the system.
Riders can hop on the Seattle Center side of the route much closer to the ground on a low overpass just east of the Armory (and just west of MoPOP, which it runs through before heading southbound). Riders can either enter right from the Armory or on a path in the direction of the Space Needle, both with wide, shallow ramps. There’s a steeper staircase closer to the museum.
What is the monorail’s schedule? What are the operating hours?
The monorail departs every 10 minutes during its operating hours, which depend on the season.
From September 15 through November 27, the monorail operates Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Hours extend and simplify for holiday shopping and tourism season, though: It’s closed on Thanksgiving, but then comes back November 29 open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and weekends from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The monorail is closed on Christmas Day and (most of) New Years Day, although it runs southbound until 1 a.m. the night of December 31 to bring crowds back from the Space Needle fireworks.
How much does the monorail cost? How do I pay?
As of October 7, fare is $3 for adults (in this case, those ages 13 to 64)—and if you use the ORCA card, you get the same built-in two-hour transfer you would on other transit providers in the network.
For riders ages 5 to 12, fare is $1.50. Reduced fare is also $1.50. Non-ORCA monthly passes are $60 or $30 for reduced fare, but that would only work on the monorail. A monthly ORCA card good for $3 fares costs $108 a month, and works on all transit providers in the network.
If you have a $2.75 pass—which is the rate for King County Metro buses and many Sound Transit Express buses—you’d just owe a quarter as you board, which can be paid either in cash or through an e-purse (extra funds loaded onto an ORCA card on top of the pass). There’s no extra cost if you’re using an ORCA transfer from another system, i.e., you hop on the monorail within two hours of paying your bus or train fare. Transfers don’t work from the ferry, and the monorail doesn’t take paper transfers.
In addition to the ORCA card, riders can pay at either station using cash or credit card, or on the Transit Go Ticket app.
If you’re balking at the price tag, it used to be a lot worse: When the line first started running, was a whopping $1 per trip, or more than $8 in today’s money.
Is the monorail wheelchair-accessible?
Yes, the monorail is wheelchair-accessible. Riders can take the elevator from Fifth Avenue and Pine Street to Westlake Station, or take ramps from the Seattle Center Station. Monorail doors are flush with the platform.
Can I bring my bike on board? What about my dog?
Dogs are allowed as long as they’re on a leash and well-behaved, although on busy days, according to a monorail FAQ, you may be asked to hold your dog on your lap. When we asked if bikes are allowed on board, a Seattle Center Monorail spokesperson told us: “Sure.”
Who rides the monorail?
While it has a reputation as a tourist attraction, lots of different kinds of people ride the monorail, although its ridership varies widely depending on what’s going on around it.
In 2017, a city study found that 2 million people per year ride the monorail, although it’s inconsistent day to day. In 2016, daily monorail ridership wavered from a typical daily ridership of about 1,500 to 15,000 or more. Ridership was dramatically higher during major Seattle Center events, like Folklife and New Years Eve—for example, that year, the highest ridership day was during Bite of Seattle on July 16, with more than 20,000 boardings.
When was the monorail built?
Like the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center, and other midcentury-futurist World’s Fair relics, the monorail was built in 1962 as part of the Century 21 Exposition. The event was all about what the future was supposed to look like, so the Space Age look of the monorail was a perfect fit for shuttling visitors from the city center to the campus. It opened a full month before the fair got started, taking its first passengers on March 24, 1962, and “christened” until almost a month later on April 19.
Is the monorail run by the city?
While it was privately run when it first debuted, it was sold to the city for $600,000 in 1965. It’s currently a private-public partnership—while it’s still owned by the city, private company Seattle Monorail Services handles operations.
Will the monorail ever expand?
One mile may seem like a short trip for such a long-running piece of Seattle’s transit infrastructure—but there have been attempts to extend the line. A proposal to dramatically expand the monorail system was approved by voters in 1997, creating an organization and board that would develop plans and seek funding for a 40-mile elevated transit system. While voters approved monorail plans two more times, ultimately voters rejected a final, scaled-back plan in 2005.
It’s not a return to a 40-mile system, but in 2018, Via Architecture released a study commissioned by the city examining ways that the monorail could increase its utility and capacity. Its shorter-term recommendations including opening up Westlake Station so it’s less cramped, with a better-staffed kiosk. The study also recommends better connections between Westlake Station and the monorail platform.
But the study’s biggest-ticket, longest-term wishlist item is a third station in Belltown near Bell Street, although it’s still just a recommendation—and the study doesn’t even advise it until 2035.