Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Green tourism campaign eyes fewer cars to San Juans

by July 16th, 2012

It’s a Pacific Northwest ritual endured by visitors, newcomers and even old-timers who should know better. Book a trip to one of the idyllic San Juan Islands served by the Washington State Ferries’ stolid vehicle-bearing vessels. Then wait for hours in line at the mainland dock in Anacortes, and plot a better strategy for next time. Rinse, and repeat a few summers later. A consortium of San Juans government, tourism, and non-profit officials say there’s a better way, or at least some painless alternatives that warrant stronger promotion. So at a presentation to the Friday Harbor, Wash. Town Council July 19, leaders of the San Juan Islands Scenic Byways Partnership will discuss their plans to accent car-free travel to the popular vacation spots of San Juan Island and Orcas Island, aided by a new, two-year $171,000 alternative transportation grant from the America’s Byways office of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Atop Mount Constitution, Orcas Island/San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

The new grant to promote transportation alternatives comes at a timely juncture.

Growing vehicle traffic to San Juans
Although bicyclists have long enjoyed car-free trips to the iconic San Juans – as the entire archipelago is known – the trend of growing vehicle travel to the islands from the primary mainland terminal in Anacortes spiked in the last year for which data are available, 2011. Data from Washington State Ferries show that peak season third quarter vehicle travel to the four islands served – San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw – grew by an average of 3,000 vehicles or 1.1 percent each year from 2007 through 2011.

Q3 v. Q1 vehicle traffic spread widening
Perhaps even more revealing is the widening of the annual spread between first quarter vehicle travel to the islands on the state ferries versus the third quarter when off-island visitors are most frequent. Third quarter volume was 88.7 percent higher in 2011 than during the first quarter of the year. This was up considerably from a 75 percent spread in 2010, 77 percent in 2009 and 72 percent in 2008. Total third quarter vehicle volume also reached a new high in 2011 compared to the three previous years, at 287,356.

Balancing tourism and environment
For a sylvan and enchanted place that takes deep pride in its natural surroundings and conservation ethos, and which also knows tourism is crucial to the islands’ economy, that growing stream of summer motorists is a mixed blessing. A San Juan Islands Scenic Byways Corridor Management Plan includes emphasis on “expanding multi-modal transportation options to reduce environmental impacts, enahnce community livability and improve visitor access.”

Alternatives aplenty
The Byways Partnership’s own web site encourages visitors planning trips to leave their cars at home or in free lots near the Anacortes terminal. They’re encouraged in advance to use upon arrival their own bikes brought on the ferry or free bikes provided by some hosts. The Byways group suggests local shuttle buses, taxis or rental cars too; as well as rental mopeds and scooters. Some lodgings providers will drive carless guests to and from the ferry dock, or the local airfield where floatplanes coming from Seattle’s Lake Union land.

Survey incentive
To accent alternative transportation modes and gather valuable user data, the Byway Partnership is promoting completion by upcoming visitors of an online survey. It’s intended to be printed out at home, filled out and then turned in upon boarding the Scenic Byway Explorer bus. Respondents doing so will earn a free companion day pass for the bus worth $15.

Subsidized shuttle service
About $78,000 of the $171,000 2012-2013 alternative transportation grant to the Byways Partnership will subsidize the closest thing to public transit on San Juan Island, which is the shuttle bus run by privately-operated by San Juan Transit. The Scenic Byways Explorer will run on Orcas as well for 10 weekends this summer thanks to that slice of the grant, which will also pay for the free companion day passes, said Deborah Hopkins. She’s the leader of the Byways Partnership, and Executive Director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. Most of the rest of the new grant will go for the salary of the partnership’s part-time coordinator, and advertising and marketing.

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Performance metrics in mind
Commenting on the growth last year in vehicle trip totals to the islands on state ferries from Anacortes, Hopkins said, “that is our goal, to bring more and more people to the islands. Our message is ‘please come, but you don’t have to bring your car, here are some alternatives for you.'” Hopkins said the Byways Partnership is planning a follow-up survey with summer survey respondents, including feedback on how convenient it was to get around without cars. She added the partnership will also be counting the number of current surveys downloaded for print-out versus those turned in to shuttle bus drivers, and will be looking closely at 2012 Q3 vehicle trip totals on the state ferries from Anacortes to the islands to see whether or not those numbers continue to grow and if so, at what pace.

Whale off San Juan Islands/Monica Wieland

A series of grants
The partnership’s most recent grant was preceded by three others from the America’s Byways program of U.S. DOT, all four vetted by the state. These were a $25,000 seed grant in 2008-09 mainly to hire a part time project coordinator; a $154,000 grant in 2010-11 to develop the current corridor management plan; and a $33,000 signage and way-finding grant last year. The partnership contributes at least 20 percent in matching funds each time, said Hopkins.

Diverse membership
In addition to Hopkins, the partnership’s steering committee includes representatives of the town of Friday Harbor, Washington State Ferries, Washington State Parks, the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, San Juan County, local non-profits,and the U.S. Parks Service.

Lopez Island and Shaw Island, the two others in the archipelago serviced by the state ferries, have declined to join the Byways Partnership to date. Shaw is almost exclusively residential and has little practical reason to align. Lopez is no less alluring than San Juan or Orcas but is more ruggedly individualistic. A popular bumper sticker sported by Lopez locals reads, “So Many Bicyclists, So Little Time.”


San Juan Transit schedule (main route is the Scenic Byways Explorer)

Visitors guide to San Juan Islands Scenic Byway, via State of Washington

Interactive asset map of Washington State’s Scenic Byways, via America’s Byways (U.S. DOT)

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