Last week, a gaggle of elected officials and transit agency bigwigs were invited to participate in the Week Without Driving (WWD), a challenge to go an entire week without operating a motor vehicle. Getting rides is allowed, but anything involving vehicle operation is verboten.
Convened by Disability Rights Washington’s Disability Mobility Initiative (DMI), the goal is to give the people who design and implement our transit systems an intimate understanding of what it’s like to navigate them as a non-driving disabled person. Somewhat surprisingly, a number of elected officials from very rural counties opted in.
What I learned, in my brief stint commuting from Seattle to Olympia for college, is that the things that are wrong with the King County Metro system — infrequent service, few late-night trips and large geographic gaps in service —- get worse the further out from a city center. I was especially interested in hearing from elected officials in Clallam and Jefferson counties, hoping to get a glimpse of what it’s like to rely only on transit in places that, quite frankly, barely have any.
I heard back almost instantly from Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, a Port Angeles city councilmember and member of the Clallam Transit board, who said he’d be happy to meet and talk about his WWD experience. Given how far Port Angeles is from Real Change’s Pioneer Square office, I figured no one would judge me for driving.
While Schromen-Wawrin conceded that a motorcycle ride to his seaside city might be nice, he made a convincing counterproposal: Wouldn’t it be very on message to take a bus? I was shocked to discover that this is not only possible, but actually pretty easy. Clallam Transit operates an express line from the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal to downtown Port Angeles, called the “Strait Shot.” It serves the towns and cities that dot the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, which runs along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
As clever of a pun as its name is, it’s also fairly accurate. The bus goes more or less directly from the transit station at the Bainbridge Island ferry dock to Port Angeles, stopping along the way at a sleepy little bus depot outside of Poulsbo, a parking lot across from the Fat Smitty’s restaurant in Discovery Bay, the Jamestown S’Klallam casino complex and the Sequim transit center. The trip down scenic Highway 101 is, with so few stops, nearly as fast as driving. Given gas prices, it’s also comparatively cost effective at $29.25 for a round trip, including walk-on ferry fare.
While the route is defined by spectacular views, it is also astounding to start your day in Seattle, spend the bulk of it in Port Angeles, and end it with an ice-cold Asahi in the Chinatown-International District. Schromen-Wawrin, who met me at Port Angeles’ Gateway Transit Center, said the Strait Shot replaced what used to be a long,complicated four-bus trip.
Although it only offers three departures a day Monday through Saturday and two on Sunday, it does provide a fast and affordable option that didn’t exist before. There is the Dungeness Line, a bus service by Greyhound that drops passengers off at a smattering of Seattle medical facilities and transportation hubs, arriving via the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, but it costs significantly more.
While getting to the peninsula is more feasible than ever thanks to the Strait Shot, what about getting around on the peninsula? Over a smoothie at Silver Lining Cafe, on the northwestern deck of the Port Angeles Wharf building, Schromen-Wawrin said his week of walking, bussing, and biking was going pretty well so far.
Besides our tour of downtown Port Angeles, he had a meeting in Sequim from 3 to 5 p.m. and an obligation to be home and on Zoom for a City Council session at 6 p.m. To do it, he’d take a 2:10 p.m. bus from the Gateway Transit Center to Sequim and bike to the meeting location — there is no local bus that makes the connection in Sequim. Afterward, he’d hustle back to the Sequim station on his bike for a 5:30 p.m. bus and hopefully make it home in time for the meeting. If anything went wrong — overcrowded bike racks are always a risk — he’d take his council Zoom call on his phone.
Not driving on the peninsula was no big deal for us. But that’s the issue, Schromen-Wawrin said. We are both relatively privileged in that our work is flexible. I could have just as easily interviewed Schromen-Wawrin over the phone. For him, a week sans car was not too far from the daily routine he’s been able to create. He and his partner made a conscious decision to seek housing in the heart of Port Angeles’ downtown, so the transit station was both walkable and bikeable.
“[The week without driving was possible] by planning ahead in those regards,” he said. “A lot is location, plus no kids, plus employment. So it was easy for me to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do the week with no driving.’”
The things that made his WWD experience easy, he said, are things that do not pertain to the typical rural transit rider’s life. Anyone with kids, in-person work (especially after the buses stop running) or a disability would have a very different transit experience. The trick to riding rural public transit, Schromen-Wawrin said, is flexibility, something a lot of people don’t have.
“The bus in rural areas has historically been for people who society, as a whole, doesn’t consider their time to be valuable. People who can afford to wait half an hour And that’s the frequent bus. Sometimes, you have to wait an hour. If you want to go to the reservation, it’s every two hours. Further is three or four times a day. So, literally, you’re planning your day around the bus schedule,” he said.
Schromen-Wawrin recounted seeing one poor soul on his trip back from Sequim to Port Angeles who got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and in the dead of night with five grocery bags and a bicycle.
Anna Zivarts, director of the DMI, said she’d observed how much people relied on rural public transit for essential needs like groceries.
Due to the Strait Shot’s limited schedule, she once spent several hours waiting for it at the Gateway Transit Center, giving her a window into how people were using transit.
“Almost everyone getting on and off a bus had a grocery cart full of groceries,” Zivarts said. “They had come into Port Angeles to do grocery shopping. A lot of older folks, definitely low-income folks.”
While it might seem illogical to live in a rural area if you can’t drive, it’s not simply a matter of poor planning, she added. Many people are there because they have to be.
“One of the themes [in the DMI’s research on transit challenges for disabled people] was the cost of housing,” Zivarts said.
This also affects seniors, many of whom retire to rural areas for the affordability only to find that those areas are completely inaccessible once they’ve aged out of driving.
“I think the AARP was looking at data, and, on average, women spend the last 10 years of their life unable to drive and men the last seven. Especially with this demographic bubble of boomers we have that are aging into that age of not driving there hopefully can be more of a conversation about what that means,” she said.
Creating transit that works for disabled people, she said, was rife with ancillary issues. Getting to bus stops to access infrequent transit was a major hurdle for many disabled riders. Connecting sidewalks and creating plentiful curb cuts — two things that are noticeably lacking outside of Port Angeles’ downtown area — is a priority for DMI.
“There should be a safe place to walk and roll no matter where you live,” she said. “Having local electeds be part of the conversation is really key at this point because there [are] now these sort of pots of money available, both through federal funding and state funding. Local jurisdictions are going to have to put together applications and get this funding.”
Schromen-Wawrin, at least, is on board with funding transit and fixing infrastructure.
“We can’t expect transit to fix bad land use planning,” he said. “If people aren’t in walkable neighborhoods, you’re going to have really inefficient transit routes.”
A large, low-income housing property in Port Angeles, he said, was built on the far side of the city’s western residential tracts, making it a nightmare to connect to bus service. The route serving it had to go far out of its way to accommodate the building, making things inconvenient for all involved, including its low-income residents. An idea that the Clallam Transit board hopes to implement is converting many in-town busses to, essentially, public ride hailing services.
A paratransit trip for a disabled person currently costs the agency $36 while a fixed-route bus trip costs only $6. Using technology similar to that which powers communal rideshare trips, the transit authority could send a bus directly to riders, pick up any nearby passengers with similar destinations and then drop everyone off at their exact destination, which is what paratransit currently does for disabled people. By expanding access to this style of ride, it would increase the amount of available door-to-door transit for disabled people at a similar cost while also making the bus more useful for all riders, many of whom find that the fixed routes don’t come close enough to where they live.
Schromen-Wawrin is also keen to expand bus service into early mornings and late nights because frequent bus users are least likely to have a flexible work schedule. Thanks to all that federal money, he said, Clallam Transit was actually sitting on a surplus of $16 million and could easily afford to do it. The only obstacle to expanding service, he said, was hiring more drivers, which they’re keen to do.
However, while it’s a boom era now, Zivarts cautioned that elected officials and transit agency executives should never get too complacent about their funding.
“When that [funding] runs out, we need to make sure that our transit systems survive and don’t end up having to drastically cut service,” she said.
That can’t happen, they both agreed, because rural public transit, even when it’s mostly empty, is absolutely essential. The Clallam Transit route from Forks to Neah Bay, the last village of the Makah tribe, is one of the least utilized routes in their system, Schromen-Wawrin said. But they’ll never get rid of it, he said, because of who it serves.
“For the person who is using it, it matters,” he said.
The same is true for things like the Strait Shot. Its three daily trips serve people for whom that route is, as Schromen-Wawrin put it, “a lifeline.”
Riding back from Port Angeles, I made friends with Daniel Casaletto, a CID-area bartender whose ex-wife and son moved back to Port Angeles to be closer to family. He’d ventured out with his dad, Rob, for some quality time with the kiddo. Tired after a long day, we plopped down in the plush carpeted seats and talked politics, custody arrangements and, of course, public transit. If not for the bus, he and his dad, who hail from New York City and have never had any interest in a driver’s license, would see his son a whole lot less.
It was a long trip, he said, but, “This bus is actually pretty cool.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2022 issue.