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TMCNet:  Bellingham commuters embrace alternate transportation; Ferndale playing catch-up

[December 18, 2012]

Bellingham commuters embrace alternate transportation; Ferndale playing catch-up

Dec 18, 2012 (The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Forsaking the car for alternate methods of transportation has become part of the commuting culture in the Bellingham area. Among city residents, 14.5 percent get to work by bus or bicycle, or on foot, compared to 9.4 percent statewide.

By contrast, Ferndale is below the state average. In that city, 7.5 percent of residents take the bus, walk or ride their bicycles to work.

These numbers come from the latest American Community Survey, released Dec. 6 by the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey includes information gathered from the U.S. population from 2007 to 2011, creating a large enough sample to yield meaningful data for smaller U.S. cities, including Ferndale.

Sampling error in the Ferndale and Bellingham commuter figures means those percentages probably aren't exactly right, but the gap between the two communities is large enough to be statistically significant. Commuter data for smaller communities can't be analyzed with confidence because the sampling error is too large.

Ferndale especially is limited in how it can boost participation in public transit among commuters, but it has begun work on a plan that could improve walking and biking numbers. Bellingham, already a model for alternate transportation, has the inside track on getting even more workers to leave their cars at home.

It's not surprising that Ferndale's public transit numbers are low -- less than 1 percent of commuters -- said Maureen McCarthy, spokeswoman for the Whatcom Transportation Authority. Service is limited, and because Ferndale is a satellite community to WTA's hub in Bellingham, there's not an incentive to significantly increase bus routes to the smaller city.

"To do more than that to a satellite community, when there's no opportunity for ridership in between, it's not cost efficient," McCarthy said. "In that sense, Ferndale is like any other rural community." McCarthy said what's more noteworthy is the relatively high use of transit in Bellingham.

"Compared to other towns of our size, we do extremely well," she said.

The survey shows almost 5 percent of Bellingham-area residents use public transit to get to work.

Both Bellingham and Ferndale are defined in the survey as the cities themselves, plus their surrounding rural areas.

Walking and bicycling to work also are uncommon in Ferndale. Pedestrians make up 1.9 percent of commuters, compared to 6.6 percent in Bellingham. Only 0.5 percent of Ferndale residents bicycle to work, compared to Bellingham's 3.4 percent.

Ferndale is making strides that might increase those numbers, said Jori Burnett, the city's community development director. For instance, the repaving of Main Street in 2011 and 2012 added bicycle lanes and sidewalks.

"You only need to go back a decade, and I don't believe there were any dedicated bike lanes in Ferndale," Burnett said.

Walkers should benefit from a new direction for the city's park plan, Burnett said. There will be more emphasis on laying out trails that go where residents want to go.

"They're going to be more effective. They're intended to connect the community to parks, to schools, to downtown, to residential neighborhoods," Burnett said.

With 10 percent of commuters either walking or bicycling, Bellingham has made alternate transportation a habit. That's more than twice the percentage of walkers and bikers statewide, and three times the national number.

Bellingham continues to promote self-powered commuting. With sales tax money approved by voters in 2010, the city completed a pedestrian master plan this summer. It will start work on a bicycle master plan next month.

The bicycle plan will propose off-road routes or a small number of bicycle-first roads, said Kim Brown, Bellingham's transportation options coordinator. More casual riders, who might otherwise feel unsafe on city streets, could then be convinced to take up bicycle commuting, she said.

"It's identifying a connected network throughout the city," Brown said of the upcoming bicycle plan. "It's, 'Where do we have gaps, where do we need new facilities to make biking safer and more comfortable '" ------ PARTICIPATING IN THE SURVEY The U.S. Census Bureau mails 3.5 million letters a year requesting participation in the American Community Survey. Most people can answer the survey questions securely online. Those who don't take the online survey will be sent a questionnaire in the mail or contacted by phone.

More information is at census.gov/acs.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-715-2289. Read the Politics Blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics.

___ (c)2012 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) Visit The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) at www.bellinghamherald.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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