A WTA Bus pulls to the curb to pick up students at Western bus stop on May 19. // Photo by Chris Johansen
The city buses that roll through the historic streets of Bellingham and the narrow roads winding around Western’s campus have taken a futuristic turn.
On Friday, May 17, the Whatcom Transportation Authority geared up its fleet of 61 buses with the ability to serve passengers with free Wi-Fi. According to a WTA press release, the addition of free Wi-Fi was made to make the overall experience better for passengers and pave the way for bus transportation technology.
WTA is also currently working on a pilot program to introduce two more additions, TouchPass and Smart Bus, to its fleet to enhance rider’s experiences.
Students in Whatcom County saw a need for free Wi-Fi on WTA buses and made sure to reach out, according to Maureen McCarthy, community relations and marketing manager for WTA.
“One of the main groups of requesters for Wi-Fi was students,” McCarthy said.
The new additions to the WTA fleet technology came from community feedback about what riders enjoy and want the most in term of bus services in Whatcom County, McCarthy said.
Now that WTA has free Wi-Fi up and running, their next priority is working on incorporating TouchPass and SmartBus to their bus fleet and routes, according to the press release.
TouchPass will allow riders to pay for their bus fare by tapping their smartphones or by showing the driver a mobile app with confirmation when riders enter the bus. With TouchPass, riders will be able to purchase passes and manage their accounts online. WTA is planning to release TouchPass this summer, according to the press release.
SmartBus will allow riders to track their buses and routes in real time. If a rider is on the bus, SmartBus will alert them when their stop is coming up. According to the press release, WTA hopes to release this software early in 2020.
“The biggest and the best change, which comes last, is SmartBus. This is a way to track your bus in real time,” McCarthy said. “It’s a great passenger convenience.”
Each quarter when students pay their quarterly tuition, a portion of it goes towards a WTA fee which funds bus passes for Western students, which they can use for unlimited rides on WTA buses.
Some student riders see free Wi-Fi, TouchPass and SmartBus as having great potential for students, while others see it as more of an opportunity for the general public.
“That would be really cool. It is always nice to know when to catch the bus,” Sam Hagshenas, a Western student who rides the bus four to five days a week, said.
Michael Prostka, a Western student who also frequently uses WTA buses, said he thinks while this may be a convenience to students, it will be really convenient for the general public since students already get so much access with their bus passes.
McCarthy said SmartBus will give students the opportunity to track their buses in real time. Passengers will have information about late or early arrivals and be able to check if they missed their bus.
According to the WTA website, about 75% of students’ quarterly transportation fee is designated toward supplying each student with their bus pass. The other 25% is retained by Western to support other transportation services such as the late-night shuttle.
Technological improvements are the number one request for WTA services, and they are confident that these three changes are going to improve the riding experience on WTA transit systems, according to the press release.