Downtown Spokane WA postcard
Downtown Spokane, in 1963. Flikr user Ethan.

As promised a few weeks ago, over the next week STB will have short series on Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s ten-year plan to dramatically improve public transit in its service area. Voters in STA’s service area will vote on a 0.3% sales tax to fund the plan next month. We’ve written previously about Spokane’s transit history and present, and about last year’s Transit Plaza controversy.

First, though, I want to motivate you, average STB reader, and presumed west-sider: Why do you care about Spokane, when it’s seems — and, to be fair, kind of is — such a long way away? Here’s a few reasons:

  • It’s a real city, with a real urban core. Recent, high-quality, Creative Commons-licensed photography of downtown Spokane is sadly lacking, so you’ll have to take it from me, and the postcard up above, that downtown Spokane is endowed with a gorgeous, diverse collection of high rise buildings, from railroad era to modern.
  • It’s got a bunch of people in and around it. With around 209,000 residents in the city proper, it’s the second largest city in the state. (Tacoma is the other serious contender, with 198,000). Its metropolitan area extends east into northern Idaho, encompassing Coeur d’Alene, and about 600,000 people in total. It’s growing, and expected to continue growing.
  • It’s the city for a huge geographic swath of the northern United States. Spokane is the most populous urban area between Seattle and Minneapolis. (Only Boise, population 208,000, and 350 miles to the south, comes close). Like all real cities, the way it is experienced echoes far beyond its borders, because a critical mass of people have experienced it enough for it to feel familiar, making it a shared point of reference.
  • Its got lots of transit riders. Spokane Transit provided about 11 million rides last year, making it the fourth largest agency by ridership in the state (after King County Metro, Sound Transit, and Washington State Ferries) and its busiest routes would be solid routes in Seattle or King County. STA’s top three routes pull in 2,500-3,400 riders per weekday, which is about half of Seattle’s comparable routes (e.g. 6,600 on Route 5, Greenwood local) — a great showing for a city a third the size of Seattle.
  • Its got lots of transit voters. Spokane votes Democratic, and while in an ideal world, we’d have a smart bipartisan consensus in favor of moving people and goods — not just cars — transit at the state level is a Democratic-identified cause. The way we’re going to change Washington’s transportation trajectory to something more sustainable is to grow the number of pro-transit state legislators, and for that we need urban growth everywhere it can happen in the state, not just Puget Sound.

First up, because I know STBers love projects, I’ll discuss the proposed Central City Line. Subsequent posts will cover the West Plains Transit Center and service to Eastern Washington University in Cheney, possible service to Coeur d’Alene, and broad-based improvements to service throughout the area.

Finally, one personal note: I lived without a car in Seattle for four years, and didn’t visit Spokane until I bought a car. That was an omission I regret! Spokane is totally worth a weekend trip, and it’s a really short, cheap flight (or a much less convenient train ride) away. While weekend transit service levels today aren’t quite at the level of real convenience, weekdays are, and it’s totally doable without a car.

49 Replies to “Spokane Transit: Why You Care”

  1. Ha, I’ll be in Spokane (and CdA) this weekend.

    Anyone visiting Spokane and staying downtown should walk across the Post St bridge and then west along the Centennial Trail and past Kendall Yards. It’s a great walk and it goes for miles.

    Spokane is still stuck on big box store development on the fringe of the city. It’s rather horrible given how nice and unique their DT is. However Kendall Yards is the biggest development to hit the city in decades and it is right in the city. It’s not as dense as what we have in Seattle, but such a large development in the heart of the city can hopefully make some changes in the direction of development elsewhere.

    1. As someone who grew up in Cd’A, I highly recommend biking all the way to Coeur d’Alene on the Centennial Trail, continuing out to Higgins Point. It’s a beautiful 35-mile paved ride. If you want to skip the grossness that lies between the beauty of Downtown Spokane and where it starts to get pretty again near Post Falls, just take STA 174 to Liberty Lake and bike the rest from there.

      1. And it is always nice to walk through Manito and Cannon Hill Parks and surrounding hoods. Manito is particularly nice for the botanically inclined.

  2. I agree Bruce we have a genuine problem in the Republican Party. Only a few Republicans – most of whom live on an island south of Anacortes and north of Seattle – support transit.

  3. Thanks, Bruce. What you say about transit there is absolutely true.

    I had a contract at Olivetti Computers in the summer of 1994 and lived at some apartments on Pines Road where Olivetti had a few units reserved for contractors. Olivetti was way out at the extreme east end of town in Liberty Lake, but Spokane Transit had a freeway express which went out to the Spokane Valley Mall and the business park in which Olivetti was located ALL DAY LONG! It made a “flyer stop” in the off ramp of Pines Road on which our apartment was located about a 1/4 mile north of the freeway. I’d guess that’s why Olivetti chose those apartments for its contractors.

    So every morning I walked to the flyer stop, got on the bus, went to work in the boonies, rode the bus back to the other direction flyer stop and walked home. My wife was able to have the one car we brought with us from Texas where we had been living.

    Pretty advanced in 1994, and that bus still runs. Olivetti is gone, though, out of the computer business.

  4. Do you have data to show the city of Spokane voted for Obama in 2012? Spokane county as a whole, voted for Romney and voted conservative on a number of ballot measures.

    1. Legislative District 3 isn’t exactly the Spokane city limits, but it’s close, and it voted Obama 56%, Romney 38%. It’s also worth noting two other things. First, all 3 of their state legislators are Democrats (Senator Billig and Reps Riccelli and Ormsby). Second, they are an island of Democrats literally surrounded on all sides by 3 unanimously Republican districts. (4, 6, 7).

  5. I love Spokane and would move back there in a heartbeat if my wife and I could both find jobs there. We both rode the bus and walked to work (lived in Browne’s Addition). Between the freeway and about a mile north of the river Spokane is a lovely, mostly walkable town.

    If you’re there with a bicycle, be sure to check out the Bowl and Pitcher at Riverside State Park. It’s also on the Centennial Trail.

  6. I went to Gonzaga for 4 years and have visited frequently both before and since (my family have friends there, and now so do I). In fact, I was there last weekend, to officiate at the state B basketball tournament. It’s a city I simultaneously love and hate – marvelous core, transit that is fabulous for a city its size (though sometimes frustrating), but zero walkability outside the immediate core (frustrating as a car-less student) and a pretty strong antipathy toward the student population at GU (that’s something a lot of us experienced).

    I’ve been looking forward to this series!

    1. Watched some of the B games Saturday morning–probably would have stayed all day except the weather was too nice to stay in!

  7. Now, if only there was way to get between Seattle and Spokane that didn’t involve a 7-hour bus ride, arriving in the middle of the night (with no local transit connections), driving 4.5 hours each way, or paying Alaska Airlines $200/person for a round trip ticket…

    A non-stop Seattle->Spokane bus route would make the area a lot more accessible.

    1. If there were sufficient demand to fill the buses, Greyhound would offer than non-stop express bus. But there must not be, because notwithstanding the distortions that the free market creates in human morality, it’s pretty damn efficient at sniffing out overlooked opportunities for prrrrrrrofit!

      1. Oh well, there’s always Craigslist rideshare … (erk)

        Transportation / infrastructure doesn’t always work with “the market,” though, right? Governments have to build the road network and help people traverse it efficiently, and it’s hard to “justify a bridge by the # of people swimming across a river” (Brent Toderian).

      2. Poor service can also lead to lower demand. I suspect more people would be traveling back and forth between Seattle and Spokane on transit if there were a reliable rail line or frequent buses on that route.

        The current low demand will probably prevent this corridor from getting any kind of usable service for some time, unfortunately.

      3. I would love a rail connection to Spokane that didn’t travel late at night and got you there in 5 hours or so (reliably). Unfortunately such a thing doesn’t appear to exist, and doesn’t appear to be even in discussion.

      4. Well, the fact that Alaska Airlines operates 16 flights a day obviously indicates some level of demand. By the time you factor in security and ground transportation, flying is only an hour or so at most faster than a non-stop bus. One would think that at least some people would be willing to accept an extra hour of travel time for a difference of $150 or more in cost.

        It also goes without saying that the “Greyhound” brand is a major turn-off for a lot of potential riders, so if Greyhound were to offer non-stop service, the bus would probably not fill. Someone else (or at least, the same company disguised under a different brand) would have to do it.

      5. “If there were sufficient demand to fill the buses, Greyhound would offer than non-stop express bus.”

        Greyhound is looking at the national picture, how that route compares to opportunities in other states. Since 2000 it has withdrawn from Missoula – Minneapolis, Walla Walla, Seattle – Denver (via Pasco and Boise), the Oregon coast (Portland – San Francisco). They weren’t profitible for Greyhounds stockholders but smaller carriers have picked them up. For a while Geyhound wouldn’t even sell a Seattle – Denver ticket, but now it’s back. (My spot check shows Grayhound running Pasco – Denver, and through-scheduling on other carriers for Missoula – Denver.)

        And BoltBus shows a new and possibly more successful business model. It currently goes from Seattle to Portland, Eugene, Bellingham, and Vancouver BC. I could see it going to Spokane in the future. I could also see BoltBus spreading to all medium-sized cities, and Greyhound dropping small cities and rural service completely (meaning Greyhound would disappear). They’re both owned by the same company. And, it should be noted, Greyhound contributes some startup funds to the state-charted services it withdraws from that no private carrier picks up.

      6. FWIW, Greyhound currently has three runs a day to Spokane. Eastbound on Tuesday March 17: 9:15 am (7:35 travel time via Everett/Stevens Pass), 10:40am (5:30 via Ellensburg and Moses Lake), 11:45am (5:25 same). Westbound on Tuesday March 24: 1:30am (5:30 overnight), 8:45am (8:00), 12:05pm (5:30). The 5:30 runs are close to expresses because the bus has to stop every two hours anyway for driver breaks/smoke breaks. Round-trip fares are $79, $97, and $109. Round trip a month later (April) goes down to $62, and May the same. Also, the website is significantly improved over last year.

        However, Greyound’s service to Spokane changes widely from year to year, so don’t expect this forever. When I first took it to Spokane in the early 80s it went the Stevens Pass route, but then that was gone for years (although Northwestern Trailways ran it daily). Then there had two per day to Spokane on I-90, one local and one express (both stopping in Ellensburg). Then just one per day. And now it’s back to three per day. Sometimes it has stopped in Cle Elum or George or Ritzville, but I don’t think it has done those for years.

      7. Well, the flights are mostly for businesspeople who will pay $200 for a half-hour flight, and for people transferring to other flights who would otherwise have to drive to SeaTac or Chicago.

    2. Its unfortunate that there isn’t a better transit option than Grey Hound or the Empire Builder.

      If Amtrak Cascades ran a few daily routes out there… and if there was enough track to allow reasonable travel speeds, it might be worth going more often.

      I really hate long drives these days though… especially alone. So I doubt I will get back out again soon. Its sad too because I do like Spokane.

      1. I wish we had local travel agencies like they have in Japan. They sell whole travel and hotel packages to local destinations right at the train station. You can reserve your hotel, your train ticket, hop on a train and just go.

        We don’t have the infrastructure for that, but having some sort of charter bus system with a travel desk in one of the unused mezzanines. They could offer weekend trips to Spokane, Portland, Vancouver or closer in places like Snohomish and Leavenworth.

        We might not be at transit usage threshold where something like this makes sense yet, but I think we could be in a decade or two, if our population and transit usage keeps going up.

      2. Some time back, I attempted to convince Amtrak that it would be really nice to have the local cars restored to the Empire Builder.

        See, at one time you didn’t have to worry about the train arriving at midnight in Spokane as there were local cars on the trains. Those particular cars (a few from Portland and a few from Seattle) would be uncoupled completely from the train during the switching operations at Spokane, and be left on the station tracks for the day. The cars would return going the other direction on the westbound train the next night. This allowed passengers to detrain from the cars whenever they wanted, and for passengers returning west to arrive early in the evening and board the local cars at that time before their midnight departure.

        Based on Amtrak’s response, this would have to be something that the state would tackle rather than Amtrak itself. Also, with so many people freaked out about security these days there are issues with people detraining themselves at the station so they would probably need more staffing for the BNSF to be comfortable with having passengers detrain at any hour they pleased.

      3. I think part of the problem with Amtrak the single-track-ness of the tracks through Stevens Pass greatly limits the schedule – logistics in coordinating the Amtrak schedule with freight trains might simply not allow for arriving in Spokane at a better time (at least not without arriving or departing Seattle at 3 in the morning, which would be far worse).

      4. The Empire Builder schedule is set up so that the train will be traveling through Montana during daytime.

        Glenn had an interesting idea, but one big problem is that Amtrak probably doesn’t have the rolling stock for it. If the service were to be provided by the states, maybe they could acquire some of the new bi-level corridor cars. I assume those will be compatible with Superliner equipment.

      5. Specifically, Glacier National Park, which is a major attraction for the Empire Builder, and has no other east-west transit.

        (The rest of Montana and North Dakota also has no other east-west transit near the Hi Line. You have to take a north-south bus to I-90, which run once a day and take 90 minutes.)

      6. Doesn’t have to be the new corridor cars. There are about 30 or so of the old Santa Fe HiLevel cars from the 1950s and 1960s in storage. You’d need to rebuild them a bit to suit modern tastes. However, that is what Amtrak has done with the several Pacific Parlour Cars that are in service on the Coast Starlight. Look closely at those cars and you will see that those are not actually Superliners, but are in fact 60 year old cars that were heavily rebuilt to be compatible with the Superliners.

        The advantage? Rebuilding one of those cars costs about $250,000 to $500,000 depending on what you need to have done to it. A new corridor car will be about $2 million, and will not have the wide seat spacing and/or sleeper compartments that would be nice for a longer distance train.

        The other thing would be to find some private operator able to operate this service on their own and connect their cars to the back of the Empire Builder.

      7. Guys, almost everyone who wants to go to Spokane has a car. No, some don’t; apparently about three busloads per day. Seattle to Spokane is just about the perfect example of what a car is good at: a trip to a city out of range of public transit but closer enough that a flight is not massively better.

        What cars are bad for is daily commutes of 30 miles. Thirty times two time 260 is 7,800 miles or 14 round trips to Spokane. Very few people take 14 round trips to Spokane by car a year while bajillions commute 30 miles per day by car.

        That’s what we need to focus on, not intercity bus service.

  8. Gratuitous fare comment alert. You are warned.

    Spokane’s GoSmart Card costs only $2, which still makes it tied for the third most expensive bus smart card in the US&A, behind Utah’s Fare Pay ($3), and ORCA ($5). At least in Utah, you can avoid the card fee by tapping your private debit/credit card.

    That said, Spokane does not appear to have embraced its smart card. The fareboxes print out transfers and day passes. Magnetic passes are also offered.

    We need to be lobbying the institutions that hold onto our money to modernize the cards they issue, not just to be contactless and support the Europay/MasterCard/Visa standard, but also to be able to hold basic, widespread financial instruments like transit passes. This technology ought to be available in Spokane and Seattle alike within just a few years, if the financial institutions get with the program.

    If they don’t come along, our money may need to migrate to the financial institutions that get with the program. And those financial institutions should realize a lot of their employees (in both Spokane and Seattle) are some of the most hardcore transit commuters. If they want their employers to store their money with them, they darn well better enable their debit/credit cards to hold transit passes.

  9. The only part of Spokane I’ve really been in is the Spokane Valley area, where I stayed in a hotel before running the Spokane-Sandpoint relay. I nicknamed the area, “Big Island,” after the Super Mario Bros. 3 world where everything is twice as big in each dimension as it ought to be — I’ve never seen a place where “automotive scale” was so thoroughly realized.

    I’m glad it’s not all like that :-).

    1. “Spokane Valley” is not “Spokane”. It is in fact a completely separate city, and not a very good one at that.

      1. Is Spokane Valley Spokane’s version of Lynnwood or Silverdale?

        i.e. the sprall-tastic place they put all the malls, big box stores and cul de sac developments?.

      2. I don’t usually think of adjacent suburbs as completely separate cities… anyway, it’s not a cul-de-sac area. The best way I can describe it is… picture a typical Chicago neighborhood, with businesses along a major street and mostly rectilinear residential blocks of side streets off to the side. Or picture a small city (e.g. Bloomington, IL) where there’s a “main street”-type linear business district, but the main street was split into two one-ways a block apart to add traffic capacity. Then stretch out everything in the two horizontal dimensions by at least a factor of at least two (except bike lanes and sidewalks — and signs get stretched out vertically, too). That’s why it’s “Big Island” — familiar elements, bizarre scale.

        Whenever people talk about Seattle arterials being generally “narrow” (outside of a few odd ones that actually are), or the blocks being small, I figure they must be from there.

      3. The Spokane Valley was built up in the 1990s, similar to Issaquah and Woodinville, and has that automobile-scaled exurban look. Before that they were small unincorporated towns with only a few commuters and coverage bus service. Post Falls, Idaho, was also built up around that time, and is just over the Idaho border and a 20 minute drive from Spokane. Coeur d’Alene is another 20 minutes further and also suffered the same.

        But Coeur d’Alene Lake is big!! and beautiful!!! and the freeway runs right alongside it with a great view, so everyone should see it at least once. I don’t know if the trail has a view of the lake. East of that is the Bitterroot Mountains, which look like the Cascades but are also worth seeing, A good reason to take Greyhound to Missoula, which also has its own charms.

  10. I’m not an expert on Spokane (I live in the Tri-Cities), but I can assure you that Spokane Valley is as conservative as they come, the farther east you go…

    Be that as it may, I have used STA quite a bit over the years.

    In the 1990’s, their transit was WONDERFUL, lots of coverage, you could get around.

    Nowadays, their transit could care less about coverage for the less-fortunate. This has soured voters in the more rural areas of their PTBA.

    Spokane County as a whole is SO ANTI TAX they won’t even pass bond measures to fix their cart paths masquerading as arterials.

    All I can say is “Good Luck” unless they make wild promises about their paratransit and re-instating services they cut in the early 2000’s (Mead, Garden Springs)

  11. I’ve always really liked Spokane, although it’s always seemed just on the cusp of a boom or a bust–while never exactly doing either. It’s a very pleasant city that I would not mind living in. Manito Park is lovely, South Hill is as well. Downtown never completely died like it did in some places and new things seem to be happening on the west side of downtown. You get actual seasons and sun, and mountains are not far off. Riverfront Park and the Falls are also very nice…don’t forget to feed the Garbage Goat!

    Took the bus in from the airport on a recent visit and it worked just fine. I hope the STA continues to get support from their citizens. Let us not forget that Spokane once had the Democratic Speaker of the House representing them (Tom Foley).

    For Spokanites (Spokanians? Spokaniacs?) wanting to see how a similar-sized city really saved their downtown, to the point where there are new hotels, apartments and condos being built in what was never a dense area, have a look at Greenville, SC. One of the most pleasant small city downtowns I’ve ever visited. (Spokane’s downtown is larger, but the comparison isn’t inapt.)

    (For those of you with Alaska miles, in-state flights are only 7500 miles each way and you can likely book directly onto a flight leaving within hours. There are several. You could avoid the overnight return train by taking the afternoon train there and flying back. It’s also not an unpleasant drive for most of the way, particularly if you’re on US2, but then I again I like the little wheat farming towns.)

      1. Spocaine, Spocaine, drowned my heart and dumbin’ down my brain
        Spocaine, I LOVE Spocaine

  12. I just moved to Spokane a couple of weeks ago. It took me one commute to fully realize how much better my quality of life is going to be compared to what I was doing on the westside.

    This city is actually set up quite well for some effective light rail development given it’s layout, but it is hard to see it ever really happening.

    1. Spokane is a place I might move to later in life. The cost of housing is much lower, and it has kept some of its pre-automobile gridded heritage, including several 19th century brick buildings. (As did Tacoma and Portland, but not Seattle.) When I first visited in the early 80s as part of a high-school exchange club, it was one of my favorite places on earth. Walking in Riverfront Park, Dick’s restaurant (not the same Seattle’s Dicks), mostly local businesses, the street grid downtown and in the north side, those funny addresses with the direction first (N 5520 Stevens), etc. Later in the 90s I felt it had grown “too big”, which meant more chain stores and automobile-scaled buildings. But I haven’t spend much time there for over a decade, so I’ll probably visit this spring or summer.

    2. What happened to those direction-first addresses? Some people put the direction before numbered streets (123 S 1st Avenue), but now every address I see has the direction before the street (5520 N Stevens). Did the city switch over at some point?

  13. Spokane definitely has good bones, and is situated in a very scenic spot (Spokane Falls, right downtown, CRAZY amazing). Plus, skiing is only 30 minutes away. And, importantly, Spokane’s downtown core never died, so they haven’t had to resurrect a corpse like many similarly sized places. No freeways other than I-90 probably sheltered Spokane from more massive suburbanization. If someone said I had to live their, I could be happy.

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