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Next Door to BC, the Bus Is Free

Fare-free transit on Whidbey Island is a 20-year success story.

Dave Olsen 6 Jul

Dave Olsen is a bicycle and public transit consultant, researcher, and advocate who lives in Vancouver. This article is part of his series funded by readers and supporters who made tax deductible donations to the Tyee Fellowship Fund for Solutions Reporting.

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[Editor's note: This is the second in a five-part series funded by you, the readers who donated to a Tyee Fellowship for Solutions-oriented Reporting. To find out more about Tyee Fellowships, click here. To learn more about the series' author, Dave Olsen, go here. Or listen to the audio interview with Olsen by Katherine Gretsinger.]

Have you ever imagined a world where riders of public transit pay no fares, the atmosphere on board every bus is calm and friendly, and all buses not only have bike racks and are wheelchair accessible, but are completely free of advertisements?

Do you want to experience the real thing? Then come along on my visit to Whidbey Island in Northwest Washington State. After all, the journey is half the fun, right?

First, I rode my bike into downtown Vancouver and took TransLink's 351 to White Rock. The fare: $4.50.

Just over an hour later, I got off the bus, got on my bike and rode five kilometres across the border to Blaine's City Hall. Crossing the border was surprisingly easy, despite the non-existent facilities for cyclists (I guess "terrorists" don't ride bikes). After a yummy Mexican-American meal, I was ready for Whatcom County's (WTA) new commuter service.

WTA's 70X bus took me to downtown Bellingham in just less than an hour. The fare: 75 cents.

In Bellingham, I transferred onto a Skagit County bus called the 80X. The fare: 75 cents. Another hour later, I was at Skagit Station in Mt. Vernon, Washington, right beside the train station. Island Transit bus 411W was gleaming in the light as it waited for us to arrive. No advertising anywhere on this immaculately clean shuttle-type bus. The fare: nichts, nada, zilch-o!

Welcome aboard!

The operator was the first of many I would meet who personified Island Transit's philosophy: friendly folks putting people first. Their management team told me that skills such as driving, dispatching, office administering or maintaining vehicles can be learned. But the people skills are the special ones that make their entire system shine.

Island Transit operations manager Frank Vande Werfhorst had alerted the driver that I needed a ride beyond the last stop so Mark became my tour guide as well as the operator of my bus. I had a look at their Harbor Station in Oak Harbor, which is a deluxe passenger waiting area with three spacious shelter/huts that keep the wind and rain out and provide a water fountain and telephone. The station includes a well-equipped office where drivers can eat and rest between runs. I couldn't believe it was 10 years old, it looked so new.

I was dropped right in front of my bed & breakfast and would have felt embarrassed for the service if this evening wasn't so frosty and dark.

The next day, the real fun began. I met their executive director, Martha Rose, and many of her staff while I came to understand the miracle that they've created over the past 20 years. Despite the pressure to conform, the pressure to make users pay, and the pressure from conservative politicians at all levels, Island Transit has been fare-free from day one and is proudly so today.

Here are some numbers to compare what Island Transit did last year to what BC Transit accomplished in the Regional District of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

  Island Transit (includes vanpool) BC Transit in Nanaimo
Service Population 79,252 92,300
Ridership 1,101,711 (902,793 for buses; 198,918 for vanpools) 2,317,763
Service Kilometres 4,548,706 (2,804,721 for buses; 1,743,984 for vanpools) 2,263,992
Service Hours 71,031 (all buses) 94,333
Vehicles in Service 56 buses; 101 vans 31 buses
Operating Budget $8,392,677 ($0 from fares; all from a 0.6% sales tax collected in Island County) $6,906,910 ($3,065,488 from fares)

The first thing that sticks out for me is ridership. Every operator I saw in the Island Transit system counted every passenger that boarded and filled out a tracking sheet at the end of every run and shift. I trust their numbers.

Compare this method with the one used in Nanaimo. Steve New, the senior vice president for the Municipal Systems Program of BC Transit, explained the count for Nanaimo this way: "Revenue passengers are those who pay a fare once, do not include transfers, calculated from sample surveys of passengers by fare category, tariff product sales data and reported revenue." I've never seen these surveys being conducted despite riding Nanaimo buses weekly for years. I've never seen a full bus in Nanaimo, either.

Back on Whidbey Island, the Island Transit buses that meet (and wait for) the ferry to and from Everett, Washington were full in the mid afternoon while the commute-hour times packed multiple buses.

A multi-modal paradise

All of Island Transit's buses are bike rack equipped and wheelchair accessible and have been for many years. TransLink in Vancouver promised that all buses would be bike-rack equipped by 2005, but many still operate without racks today (the new trolleys don't allow bikes on their racks at night!).

For folks with disabilities, Island Transit also offers a Para-transit service with door-to-door service. This is often achieved by using their regular buses which can deviate up to 3/4 of a mile from the regular route.

Their bike-and-ride lots even feature beautifully-roofed racks for locking your bike, and are located at the entrance of every one of their car park-and-ride lots.

Recently, Island Transit replaced their two-bike racks to racks holding three. TransLink claims three-bike racks are unsafe and told me they won't use them. On Island Transit buses as well as WTA and Skagit County buses, I put my bike in all three positions and didn't experience any problems.

Even better, if the racks get full on Island Transit, the operator will allow the fourth or more bike to come on board, as long as there is room. Operators aren't allowed to do this in the Lower Mainland or Nanaimo.

I've been passed up too many times to count, both in Vancouver and in Nanaimo, when there were two bikes already in the rack. Once, in Nanaimo, a driver tried to drive away with my bike after refusing to allow me to get my panniers from the bus stop. He even looped around after that, passing me by without a single bike on his bus rack. I reported this immediately and followed up with repeated requests, but a year later the driver's supervisor finally responded that the matter was closed. No explanation and no promise to prevent a similar event in the future.

Getting around is definitely better on Whidbey Island.

Safe space on wheels

One of the many side-benefits to fare-free systems is that they create another safe public space. Martha Rose, Island Transit's Executive Director since 1988, told me about how a book club was formed on one of their buses.

That runs counter to the prejudices some people have about fare-free transit. On my trip down to Whidbey Island, the WTA bus operator kept telling me how homeless people would sleep on fare-free buses and how the unwashed would drive away the regular riders. (I guess he assumed homeless folks or people who don't shower as often as he does don't qualify as regular riders.)

That operator's pessimism is not uncommon among transit officials clinging to the status quo. "If there is no fare charged, vandalism might be unmanageable. I believe there must be some payment, no matter how low, so that there is respect for the service, the system, and our fellow passengers." So stated a staff person for GO Transit in Toronto. The problem is his view is based on pure conjecture, and fear of the unknown.

Such warnings certainly didn't pan out on my trip to Whidbey Island.

Island Transit has developed a simple and seemingly effective policy around dealing with behaviour that is unruly, or disturbing to others: "The operator is the captain of their own ship." This is backed up by a state law regarding unlawful bus conduct. A bothersome rider first gets a written warning. The next time, his or her riding privileges are revoked. These privileges are only restored after completing a Rider Privilege Agreement. Although this procedure is undoubtedly more easily implemented in a smaller system, its fairness was obvious and its effectiveness seemed irrefutable.

And unlike the transit systems in Nanaimo and Vancouver, Island Transit has further protected their employees by installing a camera system in every vehicle. The big brotherness of it is acknowledged, but the safety of their operators simply takes priority.

"Show me another transit system in Washington State," said Island Transit operator Odis D. Jenkins, "where the teenagers more often than not say 'thank you' when they get off."

Penny pinching

Island Transit is not immune from funding struggles. In 1999, State Initiative 695 eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax as a source of revenue for transit systems, taking away 60 per cent of Island Transit's funding at the time. They've since more than doubled their 1999 operating budget by doubling the local sales tax collected (60 cents, up from 30 cents, for every $100 spent in Island County). The district could legally increase the sales tax by another 0.3 per cent, or 30 cent per $100 spent, if and when local voters are asked to approve it.

Currently, the maintenance/administrative "barn" Island Transit uses is stretched beyond thin. There is one washroom for over 90 employees. There are two maintenance bays for 56 buses and over 100 vans. The desperate need for a new maintenance facility is made more urgent by their new, soon-to-be delivered 40 foot buses, which won't fit into the existing bays. These new buses are needed because their 35 foot buses are filled to capacity.

The brain trust behind Island Transit really looks at the big picture. They were the first in Washington State to reuse their oil by installing a waste oil burner and in so doing, reduced their heating costs dramatically. They recycle all of the water they use to clean their vehicles, which is a critical resource on any island in the Pacific Northwest. And recently, many of their bus shelters were outfitted with solar-powered lighting systems.

One of the many things we could learn from Island Transit is how they've worked with the Washington State Ferry system to prioritize walk-on, cycling, and vanpool travelers. Buses meet every ferry (at a half hour frequency from 4:40 a.m. to 11 p.m.), drop their passengers within steps of the ferry, load ferry travelers and depart the terminal before any car traffic starts to unload. Vanpools load and offload the ferry first and are guaranteed never to wait even one sailing.

Blessedly ad-free

Not one Island Transit bus, shelter, or van had advertising on it. Not inside, not outside. Although they could be promoting themselves in these spaces, it was refreshing and liberating to not have this public space consumed by private corporations. I couldn't remember the last time I was able to lift my head up while traveling on any public transit vehicle without closing my eyes. And I knew instantly when an Island Transit bus was coming!

Actually, why do transit systems anywhere allow advertisements for cars and trucks? BC Transit and TransLink both claim they make money from advertising, but how many customers/clients/riders have they lost because of it? If you bought a car, would you allow the manufacturer to plaster the inside with ads? Do you think grocery stores would accept ads on their grocery carts from other grocery stores?

Returning home was as easy as getting down to Whidbey Island except now I was used to stepping off and on buses at will with no worries about fares or transfers. It simply seemed archaic to see fare boxes, and worse, to try to find the correct change. The operator on the Island Transit bus that took me -- for free -- to Mt. Vernon didn't know I was a reporter but chatted with me the entire way, nonetheless.

This transit island definitely has a different approach to life, and it's one I'd like to live.

Tomorrow, we'll look at Belgium to explore the fare-free system that has changed the face of transit in many European cities and towns.

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