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.

55 Replies to “Go Lines: Bus Branding in Bellingham”

  1. WTA has done excellent job of providing good, reliable bus service for Whatcom County. Most routes ‘pulse’ at either the downtown transit center, the new Cordota transit center north of town, or both,making transfers a breeze.
    Serving a small population like Whatcom Co., with limited tax resourses has been a challenge for Rick Walsh and company. The GO Lines are extreemely popular, especially with the campus population, easy to understand and frequent enough to use without a schedule or pocket watch.
    The 2/10th tax increase couldn’t go to a better bunch of operators, mechanics and support staff.

    1. WTA’s General Manager’s name is Richard Walsh, not Rick Walsh. Their director of service development’s name is (or at least was in 2007) Rick Nichleson.

  2. WTA has been improving their service for years and the connection between WTA and Amtrak is great. The bus stop is just outside the station door, the bus comes every 15 minutes and the ride to downtown takes about 10 minutes. Now, compare that service to the connection in Olympia between Amtrak and IT. At the Olympia Amtrak station, the bus stop is easy to find, but the service is mostly 30-60 minute headways and the ride to downtown Olympia takes about an hour. Hopefully the election result will allow WTA to continue their fine service.

    1. I fully agree with the note about Olympia. Trying to use Amtrak from Seattle is an all day trip, and then some. Forty-five minutes from Ballard to King Street, ninety minutes to Lacey, than another hour or maybe two to downtown Olympia. If you want to attend a hearing, you better hope that it is an afternoon session. Coming back isn’t much different, and I’ve used Intercity and Sound/Metro for that. Long day to testify for three minutes.

      1. Yeah Amtrak isn’t really an option for going down to Olympia for meetings and hearings for the day… I do the 590/594-603 fairly often though, and it works out pretty well.

  3. Great post Martin. I agree with you on your points from the transit perspective. I’ll add that as an infrequent rider of WTA their system and go lines are incredibly easy to use and the Amtrak connection opens up the entire city to outside visitors from transit. They also do a great job branding each bus stop with the color of the line.

    If WTA does not secure new revenue they will be forced to drastically cut service including all Sunday service. To learn more about the campaign go to http://www.preserveourpublictransit.org/

  4. Proof positive that improving bus service can result in very large percentage increases in transit ridership, presumably at very low cost (although cost is not mentioned in this article).

    1. It is not entirely accurate to ascribe WTA’s record increase in ridership to their Go Line program. The Go Lines were implemented in 2005. That implementation involved a pretty big increase in total service hours and a significant reorganization of the network. There was a modest increase in ridership in the first year, but the increase in ridership was roughly proportional to the increase in service hours. WTA’s record ridership jump occurred between 2007 and 2008, which coincided with the implementation of Western Washington University’s U-PASS program which began fall quarter 2007.

      Unlike UW’s program, Western’s program is completely mandatory. Every student pays a $25 fee per academic quarter and is provided with a “free” bus pass. They get the pass mailed to them whether they use it or not. This was a policy change from the previous system in which Western students had the option of purchasing a discounted bus pass at a cost of $30 per quarter (normal price $60), an opt-in system. About 50% of Western students purchased bus passes under the old opt-in system. In spring of 2007, the students voted in a referendum to assess themselves the mandatory fee. Since there were now 13,000 students paying $25 per quarter, rather than 6,500 paying $30 per quarter, the mandatory program generated surplus revenue that the university used to contract with WTA to increase night bus service in the “dense” neighborhoods near campus.

      The central change, however, was not the added revenue or the extra service. The key change was that the marginal cost of riding the bus just dropped to zero for 13,000 college students. The law of demand (econ 101) tells us that the quantity of a good that is consumed will increase as the marginal cost decreases. Driving the marginal cost to zero increased the number of students who chose to ride the bus by several thousand a day, and in a small system like WTA that amounts to double digit ridership gains. The other major contributing factor was $4 per gallon gasoline in 2008.

      Both of these drivers show the critical importance of price in determining mode choice, not service quality. Service quality is undoubtably important, but price matters much more than many transit advocates realize. Price works both ways: lower prices for transit and higher prices for driving (or parking).

      If you wanted to maximize metro’s ridership and had $100 million a year to do it, what would be the most effective use of that money? Cut fares to zero. Of course, that would not function, because demand would shoot so high that there would not be enough room on the buses for all the people who wanted to ride, which is exactly what happened in Bellingham the year Western implemented its U-PASS program.

      1. I agree with everything you said expect the last part. Large fare-free systems have not worked in the US or for what I know anywhere else. U-PASS, all-day passes, employer subsidized, etc are fundamentally different than fare-free systems because the population segment that uses it are limited to those populations that you want to attract.

        Check out this report.

        Based upon the findings of this synthesis, it is concluded that a fare-free policy might be appropriate for smaller transit systems in certain communities, but is ill advised for larger transit systems in major urban areas. Additionally, the results of this research demonstrate that a more effective way to increase choice ridership in larger systems would be to offer incentives such as reduced fares to students and the elderly, all-day passes, or pre-paid employer-provided passes to workers in areas served by transit. All well-informed transit professionals that were contacted for their opinions spoke strongly against the concept of free fares for large systems, suggesting some minimal fare needs to be in place to discourage vagrancy, rowdiness, and a degradation of
        service. It is also concluded that people are more concerned about issues such as safety, travel time, frequency and reliability of service, availability and ease of schedule and route information, infrastructure at stops, and driver courtesy, than they are about the cost of fares. When fares are eliminated, substantial revenues that help pay for such service characteristics are lost.

  5. It’s very impressive what they have done in Bellingham. I only ride the system once a year when the Lynden Lion’s Club hold their annual model railroad show in October. My hope is that they will work towards expanding their service between Lynden and Cordata Place to every 30-minutes. It would allow me to stay until the end of the show – since I work there.

    Given the distance I travel – I don’t really mind paying two fares to get to Lynden from Fairhaven. Transfers are only good for one transfer and you have to surrender the transfer on the second bus. It takes three buses to go from Fairhaven to Lynden.

    1. I’ll second this note. I recently took Amtrak to B’ham, the red line to downtown and a connecting bus to a waterfront meeting. Everybody ran on time and I easily and inexpensively made the meeting. Had a decent dinner, then caught the train back, also on time!!! There is an excellent book of routes and schedules available on the buses. Now if Fairhaven could get some of the old book stores. back.

  6. This is a great example of how integrated network planning, operations and branding create something great than the sum of its parts and Metro should take notice. It’s not enough just to put as many buses on the street as possible.

    Martin on your last point I would add that service differentiation is an important branding tool when it helps users (and more importantly non-users) better understand the system as whole. I think the best example I have seen of this is in Denmark. Bus service is broken down into 5 categories.

    Red – Letter A – Frequent Service
    Grey – Letter N – Night Service
    Blue – Letter S – Rural service
    Green – Letter E – Express service
    Orange – No Letter – All other service

    Besides service type all other branding is consistent and unifying. Think of it like Pepsi, Pepsi One, Diet Pepsi, etc. You know it is still Pepsi while allowing you to better understand all of Pepsi’s offerings.

    Metro currently does this geographically (100 south, 200 east, 300 north, 500 ST, etc) but no attention is called to it and I’m sure few regular riders have realized it. With that said I think more riders realize that numbers close together likely serve similar areas. The 71,72,73 are an example. The 71,72,73 are also an example how coordinated route planning can be used to create very high service levels for a common portion of several routes. Unfortunately these routes are not branded as such so anyone that isn’t familiar with the system would have a harder time realizing this. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to tell tourist or new UW students that the 71,72, or 73 all go to the same place for most intents and purposes.

    So in my opinion Metro in a way “wastes” branding resources by calling equal attention to frequent, all-day service and peak-hour, peak-direction service. And in that way I think there certainly is room for one more bus brand, something like “FrequentRide” to complement RapidRide. Rapidride is frequent, corridor based routes as were “FrequentRide” or whatever you want to call it would call attention to neighborhood and local routes that are as frequent (or more) as Rapidride but local in nature. How this branding is done could probably be debated to death but I for one certainly think that this is a smart way to improve the system at minimal cost.

    1. Oh and don’t forget the power of colorful and distinct lines on a map. I see the GO lines are well differentiated from other bus routes on the system map. Anyone interested in system maps check out this paper. It gives you a good rundown of the different types of system maps and how best to design them.

      1. It just makes me envious that Europeans have these rural and intercity routes. Whereas in Washington you have to start early on a weekday morning to get from Seattle to Vancouver, Portland, or Long Beach on local buses, and forget about visiting the Cascades on a weekend.

        When I was in Germany my friend and I decided to go to Liege for a weekend. From Aachen there was a local bus to Eupen, then another from there to Verviers, then another from there to Liege. All running hourly on both Saturday and Sunday. I got a 12 zone ticket for the first driver which was good for the whole trip. Aachen and Liege formed a triangle with Maastricht, if you wanted to go to the Netherlands.

      2. Between Seattle and Vancouver there are 5 QuickShuttle buses and 5 Greyhound buses daily (and don’t forget about the train!). We certainly don’t have Turkey’s very complete inter-city bus system, but we have reasonable inter-city bus service for a country where most everyone has a car.

      3. I would call it an indecipherable mess. Peak routes have the same amount of information as high frequency core routes. Metro understand this with RapidRide and is making a pretty concerted effort to brand it well, including maps.

      4. Interesting comment given that most of the maps shown in the paper you linked does not differentiate between high-frequency core routes versus peak routes. However, calling it an “indecipherable mess” isn’t constructive.

        The Regional Transit Map does use color to indicate who operates the route. Hours of service are in table format on a page following the subarea maps so that information is available. Given the scale and the area covered with each subarea map (e.g. all of southwest Snohomish County), how would you improve the map?

      5. I would propose redesigning that table for “frequent service” and define it as some standard that routes need to meet. See this:

        as an example.

        Minneapolis does something really simple on their regional system map, just overlaying a transparent yellow highlight (like a highlighter) on routes with frequent service. No need to use individual colors although that would be preferred. Swift would be differentiated, along with other 15-minute service routes, creating 2-4 classes of routes.

        I think this should be a Sound Transit initiative to create a unified frequent service network branding for all agencies in the region (with consultation of the partner agencies).

        BTW, when is the updated Regional Transit Map Book going to be released? If ever again?

      6. Oran,

        I think part of that process would be to standardize start and end times for enhanced levels of service. For instance, for some reason the SLUT doesn’t start till about 10am on Sundays, unlike most other service. It’s impossible to capture that on this chart.

      7. Yeah sorry Kaleci that comment isn’t that helpful. This is just an issue I have been frustrated with for a long time. First off I think we are talking about different maps.

        I’m only talking about Metro’s system map. It tries to do too many things and so it doesn’t really do anything well. It is helpful to maybe generally find a route but not detailed enough to actually know where it goes exactly, by it tries to be detailed so then it gets really messy and confusing. Also Oran has some photos up of errors with the map so it isn’t well proofed.

        Your right that the maps shown in the documents aren’t based on headway but that the idea of this paper was to show how cities in western europe (about 20 years ago btw) best handle different sized transit systems. Frequency based systems are only way this can be done.

      8. I personally think that map book is awesome. It doesn’t differentiate frequent routes or anything like they were talking about, but it is extremely useful. I hear they’ll make another one soon, and I’m excited for that!

    2. LA has done something like this with it’s transit service. The local, express, arterial BRT, and transitway BRT all have separate branding with different colored buses. They don’t have the letter prefixes but the route numbers are grouped by service type.

  7. My son goes to Western and uses the new Plum Go route daily. Between the convenience of the Go lines and his bike, I haven’t heard from him recently about needing a car.

    1. I attended Western for a year getting my Masters degree. I loved taking the WTA. It was wonderful. One thing that Martin didn’t mention is that a major reason for the dramatic increase in bus ridership is that the WWU students voted to add a fee to their tuition to pay for transit passes. All WWU students automatically get a transit pass. (Viking Pass). I lived on campus and the busses are so packed along Lincoln Way it is absurd! Sardines in a tin can describes it well. I make it a policy to be about 10 minutes early for the bus. For WTA it was about 3 minutes. Traffic isn’t so bad so bus schedules are more reliable.

      Bellingham is well served by WTA. Whatcom County is more spotty, unfortunately… They do their best with what they have.

  8. Does having a train station that is conveniently located and well integrated with the local transit network produce higher train ridership? According to Amtrak, Bellingham’s ridership in FY2009 was 63,805 with 3 daily departures (4 from mid-August to the end of the FY in September). Olympia had 60,604 riders with 10 daily departures.

      1. Amtrak doesn’t work for students. My son’s up there this year and the transit service is great but Greyhound provides the weekend link back to Bham (cheaper than we could drive him up in our Subaru at zero dollars per hour for our time). Amtrak service (it’s a nice ride) might be worth the extra dollars but the schedule is the deal breaker. And then there’s the “Amtrak” service that puts you on a bus and cost more… what’s the point. The public transit bus service is the cheapest and the best if you can time the routes right but it’s geared toward a morning commute into B’ham and evening commute south. Friday nights back to Bellevue can’t be beat… except by a friend driving back in her Prius.

        WTA does a great job. A little easier problem than King County. But then our rail “solutions” just seem to be making that problem even more complex.

  9. WTA is planning to run Light Rail, from Bellingham to Everett. Trains will run every 10 minutes. Construction, using the 2/10th increase should be completed in a couple of years.
    (Source: wishful thinking:)
    Was it the Pacific Electric that ran that route about a 100 years ago?

    1. From Bellingham to Mt Vernon and Seattle to Everett by the Pacific Northwest Traction Co. There was a gap from Mt Vernon to Everett covered by North Coast Lines Motorcoach.

  10. One things metro could do in a breeze:
    First, have route prefixes for all area transit agencies to help understand things better. (C for commuter, F for frequent all day, S for streetcar, A for arterial – rapidride, swift, anything where you pay at station) the key word here all. If metro does this, but CT keeps Swift as 100, no help.

    Once this is done, we could create one system map and highlight frequent routes one way, arterial routes another way, commuter routes on more way, streetcars another, other routes their own way, and rail/ferry line their own way.

    1. For certain lines like the 3 and 4, 26 and 28, or possible 15 and 18, they could change it to F1a and F1b, or something like that, so we know that where the are together, frequency is high, but when they separate, that is not the case. This could also work with routes like the 7 and 5, where certain buses stop or terminate at different places.

      1. See and that is kind of the point of why this isn’t done. Because you have to run some “inefficient” service to keep system structure the same. On the flip side though this is exactly why it and for example rail based transportation are so easy to understand. Because an effort is made to keep operations simple.

  11. Inside Bellingham, there are almost no routes after 6 pm. Not less frequent service, but NO SERVICE.

    I want to ride. I really do. I will even vote for this tax increase.

    (Somebody, please correct me if I’m wrong!)

    1. Outside of Bellingham (i.e. in the County) there’s no service in the evenings. After 7 PM on weekdays and Saturdays in the city of Bellingham, the GO Lines run hourly until between 10-11 PM (depending on the route), with service to WWU running every 30 minutes until 11. Very infrequent, definitely inadequate, but not quite “no service”. On Sundays you are correct in that there is basically no service after 7 PM.

      And yes, a tax increase will go a long way to towards helping things. On the flip side if Prop. 1 fails, then there very well might be no service past 7 and definitely nothing at all on Sundays. It’d be a shame to see all this work put into making small/mid-sized transit so successful be dismantled.

    2. WTA service does drop off substantially after 6:00 p.m. This lack of evening service is in fact the #1 complaint among Western students and much of the population at large. Most of the Go Lines do provide evening service, albeit at 1-hour headways. Non-Go Lines generally do not provide evening or Sunday service.

      1. Well, it looks like B’ham Resident and I posted his/her comment while I was typing mine. His/her description is more precise than mine.

      2. Okay, STB really needs to offer an edit comment feature so that I can avoid embarrassing grammatical errors like “B’ham Resident and I posted his/her comment while I was typing mine.” You get the idea though.

    3. Well, it’s been covered but the point is the demand off peak is much easier to serve in Bellingham and Whatcom County. A Western student can arrive via Greyhound on a Sunday at 9PM and still get transit back to Campus. If you’re trying to get to your ski cabin on Mt Baker highway you might not be so lucky.

  12. It is sad to see that after all these years, WTA still has not upgraded Route 14 to a Go Line (map). Route 14 runs from downtown through the densest neighborhood in Bellingham (Sehome) to WWU, then south through the second densest neighborhood in Bellingham (Happy Valley) to Fairhaven and the Amtrak station. The route currently runs every 1/2 hour and has higher ridership than most of the Go Lines except for the Blue Line.

    Sadly, there remains an anti-Western bias at WTA (somewhat akin to the anti-Seattle bias at Metro). Western gets more service than other neighborhoods because 1/2 the riders on WTA are college students. This leads to some resentment on behalf of the lower density neighborhoods, which, like the suburbs here, seem to think that having empty buses running by their houses is a wise and fair use of their tax dollars.

    1. Focusing transit service into downtown Seattle to the exclusion of the suburbs would be a bit short sighted. If you look at where the growth is targeted for the next several decades, most of it will not happen in Seattle. And its not like the suburbs aren’t changing to better support transit. Just look at downtown Bellevue, or the mixed use plan Bell-Red corridor in bellevue, or the new, dense, walkable development going on in Dowtnown Redmond. Heck, downtown Redmond has a walkscore of 95 – a walker’s paradise.

      To accomodate the growth in the next decades, the suburbs need to change, and they are changing. And they most definately need transit service adequate to support that change.

      The alternative is a dense, urban seattle surrounded by low density tract housing as far as the eye can see.

      1. I disagree. BCC just became Bellevue College. OK, step up an do something like WWU and provide student subsidized passes; makes even more sense in Bellevue than B’ham. Seattle lost focus when they ceded control to Metro.

      2. I attended BCC a few years ago and they do have subsidized transit passes. They’re not as good a deal as UPASS available to UWB and Cascadia CC students though.

      3. According to someone at work that’s only taking one class every enrolled student is eligible for the Bellevue College discounted pass which is different than WWU where you have to be carry 12 or more credits. It’s only $120 which seems like a screaming good deal to me considering unlimited bus rides on Metro Transit, Sound Transit and Sounder.

      4. I have only one 4-credit class at the UW and I got sent a UPASS with my enrolment validation sticker. I returned it because I got a better deal from work. $54 vs $99 per 3-month quarter.

      5. Both are a good deal. WWU is has much a lower fee but provides much less. Of course you pay a lot more in student fees at UW than students at Western or Bellevue College. I was surprised (pleasantly) to find out that WWU had substantially lower student fees than Central. UW is the most expensive in the State which shouldn’t be a surprise being in the most expensive place to live and providing the most programs. I’m a bit surprised you are able to enroll at UW with only a 4 credit load. That’s a pretty unusual situation compared to a community college (which is still the primary focus of Bellevue despite the name change).

  13. I saw a few months ago that WTA is on the top of the list of future transit agencies to get ORCA. Any way this might happen soon?

    1. Wheres this list at?

      One would think Intercity Transit, Skagit Transit, Mason Transit, and Jefferson Transit (whom all actively connect with ORCA properties, and issue non ORCA Regional Reduced Fare Permit’s) would be added first since their riders would have direct benefits. For the RRFP holder they would not have to exchange their RRFP (at cost?) for an ORCA one should they wish to use Transfers in the puget sound region, and all parties involved would be able to use the e-purse feature.

      Of course given the current economic times, I wouldent hold my breath at any more additional agencies becoming ORCA properties.

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