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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Bus crowding remains an issue for students

By Julia Berkman

Western students are still unhappy with how crowded buses to campus are, even after big changes were made to routes last year.

Right now, Whatcom Transportation Authority sends at least two buses every 15 minutes to more crowded areas like Billy Frank Jr. Street and Buchanan Towers. 

According to Rick Nicholson, WTA’s director of service development, it’s fairly unusual for students to miss class because of bus overcrowdedness.

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If you wait long enough, you’re sure to get a bus. For some students that wait might be more than 10 minutes, Nicholson said.

Eylen Kim, a senior who takes the bus from the intersection of Chestnut Street and Billy Frank Jr. Street, is one of many students who wait for a bus to take them to campus.

“The line for a bus stop stretches two and a half buses full. When you get in line, it’s pretty competitive to get to the front so you can get into the first bus,” Kim said. 

Nicholson said this isn’t a new development.

“The buses pretty much have always been very crowded, so it’s not unusual, but it’s always a concern,” he said.

Last quarter, Kim had to run up the hill to campus for her 8 a.m. final after three buses passed her.

Students pack in tight on a morning bus ride. // Photo by Roisin Cowan-Kuist

WTA is putting out as many buses as they can, Nicholson said.

“Almost 80 percent of students want to get up to campus within a 10-minute window. It maxes us out. We have no more buses to put in service during that window,” he said.

Junior Lindsey Costlow, who lives next to the Lincoln Creek Park & Ride, says she has ridden buses so crowded that people had to stand right next to the driver’s seat.

“It was certainly unsafe,” she said.

These buses were within the 10-minute window Nicholson believes is the most congested.

Since March 2017, WTA completely redesigned their Whatcom County routes. Some buses, like the 44 and 105, were consolidated into one route. More buses were sent to the Lincoln Creek Park & Ride and NXNW, while less routes went down towards Fairhaven and 32nd Street.

These changes have affected students living far away from campus in particular.

Students living on 32nd Street often find bus 11 over-crowded by students who live along the route.

“Those are situations where we really want to hear from people: when they need to get to destinations that aren’t on the Blue Line, but they’re getting left behind,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said students who take the bus to the Viking Union or the Wade King Student Recreation Center are often filling up buses that aren’t on the Blue Line, like the 14 and 11. Those buses have different destinations that can only be reached by that particular bus.

“For people’s health, it’s better to walk short distances,”

Rick Nicholson, WTA’s director of service development, said.


Nicholson, who used to be a bus driver, has also noticed more students getting on the bus to go one or two stops.

“Taking the bus for really short trips is not something we used to see in the past, and we’re seeing more and more of it going on. This affects students who need to go longer distances,” he said.

Instead of taking the bus less than half a mile, Nicholson believes students who live at Buchanan Towers or in the Sehome neighborhood should walk to class.

“For people’s health, it’s better to walk short distances,” he said.

Kaylee Martig, a junior and member of the Associated Students’ Disability Advocacy Committee, believes encouraging students to walk rather than ride the bus short distances may make students with mobility impairments feel uncomfortable.

Martig said students who do not appear to have a disability might feel ashamed to take the bus short distances.

However, she noted if less people took the bus, students who need seats would get them.

“Students with invisible disabilities are often forced to stand on the bus because nondisabled students take the seats in front, not realizing there are people who need them,” she said.

Nicholson’s main message to students is their use of WTA buses is a privilege, and that WTA has tried to accommodate the increase in demand.

“I have heard students say that they shouldn’t have to wait because they’re paying for this service. That is misinformation. The transportation fee doesn’t pay for WTA, it pays for the bus pass,” he said.

Nicholson invites student feedback about their commute.

“When classes start up again in the fall, we’re going to have a public meeting up at Western,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that students need to talk about. The more feedback we can get, that’s all good.”


  1. I’m deeply disappointed in Rick Nicholson’s response to The Western Front. Passive-aggressively blaming students for the overcrowded buses instead of fixing their inefficient service is incredibly bad form.

    Buses to WWU are often filled to capacity, while the average WTA fixed route bus serves fewer than 3 passengers per mile, according to their annual budget. This is not much better than a carpool, showing that WTA is not effectively distributing their fleet around the county.

    Nicholson claims that students don’t pay for WTA’s operation, only for the bus pass. However, we do pay for WTA’s operation, as much as any other Whatcom county residents. We deserve to be treated as valued customers rather than as an inconvenience.

    The student transportation fee per quarter is $26.25 and there were 15,900 students enrolled in 2017.

    WWU gives WTA 75% of the transportation fee. Assuming that 90% of students were enrolled for 6+ credits per quarter, about $845,000 was given to WTA last year directly from students’ pockets whether they ride the bus or not.

    WTA’s primary income comes from a 0.6% sales tax in their Whatcom county service area. Sales tax is a flat tax which has a larger proportional impact on low income people, like students.

    The 15,900 students enrolled at WWU are equivalent to about 8% of Whatcom county residents who would pay this tax, making the student population a sizable stakeholder in WTA’s service. This does not include WWU faculty and staff that also use the bus to commute to work and have to deal with the same overcowded conditions and unreliable service.

    In addition, WWU’s Parking Services pays nearly $200,000 per year as part of a lease-purchase agreement with WTA for the Lincoln Creek Park & Ride. As Parking Services receives no state funding, this payment is made using the funds students pay for parking permits.

    I have also witnessed the risky practice of overfilling buses past the safety line, as described in this article. This happens frequently at the park and ride. I have also been late to class because the buses were full. If this is as rare as Nicholson claims, why do so many people I know have similar experiences?

    Western students pay the WTA three different ways, whether or not they need to ride the bus. In return, they get unreliable and unsafe service.

    Maybe WTA doesn’t realize that Western is growing and has more students than ever before? That would explain why Nicholson is surprised that more students are using the bus service that they pay for and are entitled to use. I guess the director of service development should pay more attention to the people using his service.

  2. Reminder: “Round Table” discussions about the changes and seeking community feedback happened during the summer when many students, faculty, and many staff were not on campus/in the area. I am including WWU, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College, and Northwest Indian College. This was brought to the attention of WTA by several of us who ride the busses.

  3. When I was a student even ~5 years ago riding the bus to/from/through campus was almost intolerable. I often skipped it at great expense of time (since I didn’t have a car and therefore had to walk from York neighborhood). Some people have anxiety disorders, claustrophobia, agoraphobia… essentially leaving the bus situation as it is makes the bus system inaccessible to these folks.

    Intra-campus shuttles could be an option. It isn’t exactly set up ideally for it, but the University already has hella work trucks driving across campus all hours of the day. But if students from North Campus neighborhood could walk to the VU and catch a shuttle to Fairhaven, say, that seems like that could lessen the public bus crowding. (Because the bus crowding also affects members of the community whose bus routes cut through the college, and whose tax money actually pays for the lion’s share of WTA’s operating revenues, and who WTA was originally set up for in the first place!!)

    I am personally disabled and I don’t relate to Kaylee Martig’s concerns. Those of us with invisible disabilities are impacted by people riding the bus less than a half goddamn mile and creating the preposterous crowding conditions on buses, and it’s a pretty fixed equation. Bus crowding could be written as = bus riders / (bus capacity * frequency). If you want to reduce bus crowding, which disabled people need, then either you need to reduce the aggregate number of riders, or increase bus capacity and/or frequency. One makes for a lot of angry privileged students, one costs somebody a lot of money. Either one kind of sucks, but again, the bus is literally being made inaccessible to students who need it because of this issue.


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