It’s the perfect occasion for a transit adventure to Vancouver, B.C. The brand new Canada Line opens today at 1 pm for free rides until 9 pm. If you’re feeling adventurous and have the time, it is possible to travel from Seattle to Vancouver on public transit by making a series of transfers and some walking or cycling across the border. The journey costs $12 and takes at least 7.5 hours. Back in March, wanting to do a transit field trip up north, I decided to try the schedule on Evan Siroky’s Regional Transit Transfers page. The following (after the jump) is an account of my experience with lots of pictures!
Begin in Downtown Seattle
The journey begins in the early morning on a weekday. It is the only time when the schedules work out. Evan’s schedule assumes that you are beginning in downtown Seattle. Most of us, myself included, don’t live within walking distance of downtown. I live near I-405 and I thought of skipping Seattle but the Bellevue-Everett buses didn’t run early enough. So my first step is to get to downtown Seattle to catch the 510 to Everett Station. I left home with a rolling backpack at 4:25 am for the first Metro route 255 to Seattle due around 4:33 am. I was lucky that Metro added this trip in February, otherwise I would risk missing the transfer downtown if I took the next bus 30 minutes later.
At 4:30 am, the streets were empty and it was still dark. Boarding near the start of the route, I was the first and only passenger but not for long. The bus picked up a bunch of passengers as it traveled through Totem Lake, Juanita, and Kirkland. By the time it got on SR 520, many of the seats were filled. The bus entered the Transit Tunnel and I got off at International District/Chinatown station as it was closest to the 510’s stop on 4th & Jackson. I had plenty of time before the 510 arrived.
After watching the parade of trolley buses heading out for morning peak service, I walked to the bus stop at 4th & Jackson beside Union Station. The 510 arrived on time and it was an articulated bus.
Seattle to Everett
Traffic was light on northbound I-5, not so for the opposite direction with commuters heading into Seattle, and the sky began to brighten. I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and it featured a story on the Kogi Korean taco truck in LA. It reminded me that I haven’t had breakfast, yet. I arrived at Everett Station with about 10 minutes to spare. The next bus to catch is the Skagit Transit (SKAT) route 90X to Mount Vernon. It is parked in the bay next to the Sounder platform.
The 80X Bellingham Express, 90X Everett Express, 411W (Whidbey Island), and 411C (Camano Island) are part of the County Connector services that link Island, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties together by transit. Service began in September 2005 and ridership on the Bellingham and Everett express routes has been strong. Over 200 riders use the 90X every day to take advantage of the connection to Sounder and other buses at Everett Station. Initially funded by a state grant, a 0.2% transit sales tax increase approved last year by Skagit County voters kept the service running.
The Skagit Transit Gillig bus had a high floor with comfy cloth seats much like Sound Transit and Community Transit commuter buses. The fare is $2. I watched Sounder close its doors and depart for Seattle shortly before it was our turn to go. The bus drove up North Broadway through downtown Everett and across Steamboat Slough before entering I-5 for a non-stop 45-minute run to Skagit Station.
Mount Vernon and Skagit Station
Route 90X arrives at Skagit Station in Mount Vernon, the major transit hub for Skagit County and an Amtrak Cascades station. From here, connections can be made to other SKAT routes and Island Transit buses to Whidbey and Camano Islands. I took a 5-minute break inside the Skagit Station building with restrooms, water fountains, and information. I had my first experience with a Dyson hand dryer in their restroom. It works but it doesn’t seem to be much faster than a regular hand dryer. The next bus to take is the 80X to Bellingham which should be waiting at its bay. The fare for the 80X is another $2. Transfers are not given nor accepted on the 80X and 90X.
The 90X bus, owned and operated by Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA), is a low floor Gillig with bucket cloth seats. It uses I-5 and makes a few stops at several park-and-rides along the way with several people boarding and alighting. The 2-position bike rack was full and the driver allowed another person to bring their bike onboard the bus.
I liked the part where the bus entered the mountainous area near Lake Samish. The wet and foggy weather really is refreshing. Soon after, the bus enters Bellingham.
The 90X’s final destination is Bellingham Station, in downtown Bellingham. It has been only two and a half hours since I left downtown Seattle. That’s pretty fast for a transit bus and the connections have been seamless. It is from this point when waiting and travel times become longer.
Like Skagit Station, Bellingham Station has a building with restrooms, seats, and rider information. It also has a WTA customer service office, a change machine, and a transit pass vending machine. An unlimited rides monthly pass is only $20.
I had about 30 minutes for breakfast at a nearby cafe located a few blocks from the station. Breakfast is highly recommended since the most difficult part of the journey is coming up. The next point on my way to Vancouver is Cordata Station. To get to Cordata Station, I had a few choices: the GREEN Line (route 232), GOLD Line (route 331) or route 15. I chose route 15 as it seemed the most direct but schedule-wise, the 232 is fastest. The fare for regular WTA service is 75¢ with a free transfer.
GO Lines: frequent service branding
What I noticed in Bellingham was the GO Line branding for frequent service routes. There are five GO Lines named after colors. Each GO Line is a group of bus routes sharing a common corridor before splitting off to other destinations. Together, they provide service every 15 minutes along the corridor. Bus stops along GO Lines are clearly marked with the GO Line branding on signs and shelters. GO Lines are also prominently shown on system maps.
Cordata Station to the Border
Cordata Station is located north of downtown Bellingham near a business park and the Bellis Fair Mall. It is a brand new transit center that opened earlier this year. I like it that there are clocks everywhere. There’s not much to see here but buses, and I think that’s good enough.
The bus to take to get to the US/Canada border is Route 55 to Blaine/Birch Bay. It is important to not miss this bus as it runs only 3 times a day with a 2-3 hour wait between each trip. I gave my transfer slip to the bus driver when I boarded.
I enjoyed the ride through the semi-countryside as the bus spends an hour getting to Blaine. A large stretch of the route parallels the BNSF mainline and I saw track maintenance vehicles and a short freight train pass by. The route is a Flex route so it deviated a bit from the main route. I got off at the Blaine City Hall stop. This stop is after the bus makes a right turn on to ‘H’ Street.
Crossing the Border
Here comes the exciting and most tiring part. Unlike Detroit or San Diego, there is no public transit service in that takes people across or directly to the Peace Arch border crossing. There has been talk of WTA beginning a cross-border bus service and just that. I had to walk across the border and then to the outskirts of White Rock to continue the journey by bus. If you want to bring a bike, it’ll make it much easier but be aware of limited rack capacity.
After getting off the bus, I walked towards the ocean back to Peace Portal Drive and headed north along that road, went underneath the I-5 overpass (on the south side), crossed the northbound exit road, then crossed to the north side of the street, and walked up 2nd St to the entrance of Peace Arch State Park.
As I walked through the parking lot I saw a Homeland Security patrol truck. Citizens from Canada and the US are free to meet each other in this park but neither can cross into the other country without clearing immigration and customs. There are motion sensors and surveillance cameras that watch the border. There are restrooms at the park for relief.
I walked across the grass lawn and the Canada-bound roadway to a sidewalk/bike path that leads to the border checkpoint building. Traffic was very light heading into Canada.
I followed the signs to the brand new building with expanded capacity to handle Winter Olympics traffic.
The path leads into a small inspection booth that was unstaffed. I waited for a few minutes and was hesitant about walking straight through. I figured that they weren’t doing anything here and walked through the doors to the other side. Then I turned left, entered the main lobby, and walked to a Canadian border agent.
The key to crossing the border is being prepared to show documentation and to answer any questions. A passport or an enhanced drivers license/ID (proof of citizenship) is now required to cross the border. I presented my passport. Here is a sample of the questions the official asked me and my answers:
What’s the purpose of your trip? To study Vancouver’s public transportation system.
How did you get here and from where? On the bus from Bothell, WA. (Her response was: You can get here by bus!?)
Where are you going and how are you getting there? Vancouver, BC by transit. There’s a connecting bus on the other side.
And what route would that be? C51 to White Rock Centre (looks like the official checked)
What’s your job and how long you’ve been working there? An intern at the Seattle Department of Transportation for more than a year.
What are you studying and when will you graduate? Masters in Civil Engineering (Transportation) at the University of Washington graduating at the end of this year.
How long are you staying and what’s your hotel? (I gave my itinerary and reservation info to the official)
After all that questioning for 10 minutes, the border agent cleared me for entry and I walked out of the building with a sigh of relief.
To get to Vancouver from the border, I have catch a C51 to White Rock Centre. From there I take the 351 Vancouver Express bus to get downtown. Note: after September 7, the 351 will end at Bridgeport Station in Richmond on the Canada Line instead of going to Vancouver. Transfer to a train to get to downtown Vancouver.
It’s still a half-hour walk to the nearest bus stop. I crossed the street to the east side by the visitor centre which was under renovation. I saw workers install a large sign proclaiming “Welcome to British Columbia, Canada. The Best Place On Earth.” I found that statement pretentious and tacky, especially for welcoming people from all over the world attending the Olympics. What’s wrong with “Beautiful British Columbia”?
Evan’s directions mentions walking along a high-speed freeway but I found a bike path protected by jersey barriers that took me to the first interchange at 8 Avenue. I walked along the shoulder of the exit ramp, crossed the street by the roundabout, and walked west across the freeway on the north side of the overpass. I saw an out-of-service bus pass by and continued along 8 Avenue, which turns into Marine Drive until I got to the intersection with Stayte St (160 St) and walked up the hill to the stop for the C51. I could’ve continued down Marine Drive and avoided going up a hill but I wanted to kill time as I just missed the C51 that runs every 30 minutes.
Even out in the suburbs, the bus stop had a bench with an advertisement on the back. After 20 minutes of waiting with another person, the bus arrived, except that it was more of a van of the kind used for Metro’s DART or Access paratransit. The van was fully equipped with a validating farebox, automatic stop announcements (audio and visual), 2-position bicycle rack, and wheelchair lift. Every stop was announced, not just major stops. Each stop announcement was preceded by the “Windows Ding”.
I had some trouble when I tried to pay my fare on Translink. At first I tried to purchase a DayPass for $9 but quickly realized that those were only sold at SkyTrain TVMs. Then I tried to pay the $5 3-Zone fare with a $5 bill but the fareboxes only accept coins. The driver just waved me on and told me to pay when boarding the next bus.
When I paid on the next bus, I asked the driver for a 3-Zone transfer and dropped the coins into the farebox. A magnetic stripe paper transfer ticket popped out from the farebox. When I board another bus, I just insert the ticket into the farebox and it will spit it back out with an acknowledgment beep. Transfers are valid for 90 minutes. Proof of payment is required at all times on Translink buses, trains, and SeaBus.
The 351 Vancouver departs White Rock Centre every 30 minutes from Bay 5 which is south of the bay the C51 dropped me off. I was surprised to see two high rises in a suburb so far from the central city. High rises can be seen everywhere throughout Metro Vancouver. I can see them looming in the distance in multiple clusters way out in greenhouse land. The ride to downtown takes a little over an hour with the bus travelling on the freeway most of the time and making drop-off only stops within Vancouver.
Nine and a half hours after leaving my home on the Eastside in the wee hours, I was in the heart of Vancouver and I got there using only public transit buses on the cheap. All that walking made me hungry and I dropped by a sushi bar for a late lunch before checking in at my hotel.
I stayed in Vancouver for a few days to ride SkyTrain, the B-Line BRT lines, SeaBus, and several bus routes. I saw trains testing on the Canada Line in Richmond. I observed many things about Vancouver’s public transit system that I wished we had or did in Seattle and some things from Seattle I wish was in Vancouver. I returned to Seattle via Amtrak Cascades and loved the extraneous leg room on the Superliner coaches but was really frustrated at the snails pace of the train between Pacific Central Station and the border.
If you’re interested in embarking on this journey, I’ve designed a printable timetable with a map of the border crossing route but your mileage may vary and I cannot guarantee that you’ll make it across the border. Also, I haven’t tried the reverse trip back into the United States but a UBC student has done it before and wrote about it. With many agencies facing revenue shortfalls, the County Connector service faces the risk of being cut, so I suggest doing it as soon as you can.
[UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who suggested improvements to the itinerary and upcoming schedule changes. I have updated my printable timetable]