In Appreciation of Washington’s Rural Transit
The politics of public transportation frequently reflect an understandable but potentially pernicious urban bias. The commuter and intercity transit markets seem to attract the most attention from both planners and armchair futurists alike. In Washington State, for instance, most of the transit buzz concerns rail expansion in the Seattle area. This is all sensible, of course, because density is the fundamental requirement for the success and efficiency of transit services, and cities will naturally draw such investment to themselves. But often lost in the mix is recognition of the importance – or even the existence! – of rural transit services.
Each land-use style generally has its own transit focus. Cities care most about their intra-urban needs, while suburbs focus almost exclusively on the commuter market. Urbanites often incorrectly assume that transit availability will diminish steadily the further one gets from a city center, and that rural counties will offer no transit at all. Those with outdoor inclinations may think that accessing things like beaches and trailheads may be impossible without a car, such as this recent comment on the Seattle Transit Blog:
You just hate cars and don’t even have one! How do you get to see the natural glories of our state without one? Rely on going with someone else who has one then? I don’t have that option I’m afraid so if I want to go to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, I take my car. I could take the train to Mt Vernon but there are only two trains a day.
That comment got me thinking: either there is very little rural transit or it exists yet most people just don’t know about it. So I started working on a couple of sketch maps that detail everywhere one can travel in Washington State on public transit. It quickly became clear that cities, suburbs, and rural areas provide impressive services relative to their size. Yet connections between systems are generally terrible: between the cities and the countryside are the Transit Deserts of the exurbs. In Western Washington the largest Transit Desert is the stretch of I-5 between Tumwater and Vancouver. The respective counties – Lewis, Cowlitz, and to a lesser extent Clark – are conservative rural counties with distinct identities that have nonetheless become more exurban over time. Transit here is restricted to limited local-only routes and a couple (only twice-weekly!) intercity routes run by other counties! Despite being along the major north-south thoroughfare in the state (I-5), they offer far less transit service than both the sparsely populated coastal counties to their west AND the rural counties east of the Cascade mountains. If one wanted to travel, say, from Vancouver BC to Portland OR exclusively on public buses, it would be easier to do so via the Olympic Peninsula and Astoria than down I-5!
Here’s a draft of the first map. It shows all taxpayer-funded transit services (at scale) in Washington State. It’s not intended to show frequency, quality, connections, or anything else except the fact that IT EXISTS.
All public buses, ferries, Amtrak, commuter rail, and light rail are included. Non-public services such as Northwest Trailways and Greyhound are excluded. There is an impressive amount of rural coverage. Whatcom Transit has three routes (25X, 70X, 71X) to the Canadian Border. Skagit Transit (#717) and Community Transit (#230) both pierce the foothills of the Cascades. Clallam Transit, Grays Harbor Transit, and Pacific Transit provide comprehensive service on the entire Olympic Peninsula. Despite the paucity of weekend services, the connections between ferries and buses (see SailRail map below) in Puget Sound are generally convenient. East of the Cascades, Link Transit serves an enormous area from Leavenworth to Chelan.
The second map is intended to be more useful. Grossly not-to-scale, and omitting a great deal more than the first map, map #2 is a topological rendering of Greater Puget Sound intended to show the interconnectivity of bus, rail, and ferries. There’s just so much more out there than people realize!
Please, if you are in these areas do try to utilize these services, and go out of your way to thank operators and county planners whose work clearly goes unsung. Services are perennially threatened – both Kitsap Transit and Community Transit have eliminated Sunday service – and they could use your patronage and support!