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
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.
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
Cordata Station to the Border
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]