Smaller transit systems generally don’t have the funding to have fast, frequent service, nor the demand to justify it. However, over the last few years Whatcom Transit has found a way to make their regular bus service a little more appealing.
It’s called the “go lines” program. No route in WTA’s system has consistent 15-minute headways, but there are signficant corridors where they collectively meet that standard. Beginning in 2005 with three lines, WTA rolled out a color-coded five line system (completed in January 2008) that connects Downtown Bellingham with major destinations, such as Western Washington University, the Alaska Ferry, and the Amtrak station, in addition to all of the city’s planned urban villages.
All five lines guarantee 15-minute headways on weekdays from 8 am to 6 pm, with longer waits at other times. In some cases this involved adding a few trips to meet the standard. The Red Line (to the Amtrak station) also achieves 15 minute headways on Saturdays. WTA and the City of Bellingham have also worked to give signal priority to buses on certain segments of the system.
Each of these lines (Red, Blue, Green, Gold, and Plum, map (.pdf) here) have distinctive signage. Unfortunately, “the fleet is not big enough” to allow the buses themselves to be distinctively marked, according to WTA spokesperson Maureen McCarthy. There are also some other routes that share part of a go line’s path, resulting in some potential confusion.
In spite of these problems, the Go lines have been a hit. For instance, according to McCarthy, ridership on components of the Green Line increased 260% after the go line was introduced. Indeed, in 2008 WTA had the highest ridership increase among small and medium-size systems in the nation (32%), and in 2009 experienced a 5% increase in an environment where most transit agencies had significant decreases.
Like virtually all other transit agencies, WTA is facing a funding crisis. Fortunately, they currently only assess a 0.6% sales tax, giving them room to raise more funding without involving the legislature. There is a ballot measure in April that seeks to raise taxes to 0.8% to simply maintain existing service. Polls indicate this measure is likely to pass.
Smaller agencies are often a good source of innovation in simple and low-cost ways to improve service by making it easier to use and understand. Here in King County, we already a suffer from a surfeit of bus brands, and it’s not clear we need another one. However, the Metro bus system is virtually incomprehensible due to the glut of peak-only and otherwise not-that-useful routes. Some effort to highlight more broadly useful routes (like the 15-minute map that Oran has been tinkering with) would make the system more usable for newcomers.