By SUSAN RIEMER
Five months after launching on the island, King County’s Community Van program is growing, with nearly 30 volunteer drivers recruited and an increasing number of requests for rides.
“I would say that the investment Metro made into the program is paying off,” said Community Transit Coordinator Janet Welt. “Islanders are using this program to fill transportation gaps — and to build community.”
The vans — black with a vibrant yellow stripe — are noticeable about town, and are part of a program that is a partnership between King County Metro and the Vashon Maury Island Chamber of Commerce. Islanders and guests can request rides on and off the island, for anything from a trip to the grocery store or movie theater to — as occurred last December — a pre-holiday trip to Ikea. While destinations vary, program requirements are set: A Metro-approved volunteer driver must be at the wheel and two or more passengers must be served by the ride. Advance notice is required, as the trips need to be publicized, typically either via Facebook or online at CommunityVan.org.
Welt began her position last October, and the program opened to its first rides in November, providing free rides in both November and December. Since then, the program has steadily expanded, with increasing numbers of people requesting rides, volunteering as drivers and finding ways to use the van for their organizations — from the food bank to the fire department.
Over one recent weekend, Welt said she fielded eight trip requests, and shortly after that five trip requests came in one day.
“That was a milestone,” she said, adding that bookings have been steady since then. In all, the Community Van has provided about 20 trips since it started.
The food bank is working to enlist drivers, and Welt said she has received six applications from people — both board members and customers — who want to take people to the Sunrise Ridge facility during distribution hours.
At the food bank, Volunteer Program Manager Raechel Hetrick said that many who use the food bank want to give back, and serving as a driver is one way to do that. She noted that she believes that as the van service becomes more well known some who have been relying on the food bank’s delivery program will start coming — now that they have transportation — and will appreciate being able to select their own groceries again.
She encouraged people who are interested in using the van to email or call the food bank or Welt, and that those without access to phones or computers should stop by the chamber office or food bank to connect in person.
At the fire department, the Community Van has been pressed into service as well. Three people who plan to serve as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) head off-island to King County’s EMT class in a van twice a week, according to the district’s Raechel Ehlers. Their use of the van allows the district to save money, by not covering the costs of three individual drivers, and it allows for “bonding time” to and from the class, she added.
Members of the district’s high school Explorer program have also used the van — traveling in it to a drill and to tour each of the district’s fire stations.
“We do not have a big passenger van, so it is really nice to have it as a resource,” Ehlers said.
The Vashon Chorale also had a member train to be a driver for chorale-related events, and at Vashon Community Care, a volunteer driver will soon bring people to its weekly Music Mends Minds program.
Island Liz Illg signed on as a driver shortly after the program started. She has a background in transportation planning and is no stranger to the driver’s seat after touring extensively via motorhome.
“I love public transportation. I think it is an important aspect of modern life,” she said. “It is what brings us together.”
She volunteered because of her interest in activism, she said, “and getting people to show up when they want to and need to.”
In fact, Illg drove seven people last week to the meeting of the Washington Utilities and Transportation commission meeting, which several islanders attended to speak up about climate change concerns. Next, she is thinking she might like to take a group of islanders to tour Bainbridge’s BARN for a future trip.
“I am more into the exotic things,” she said.
Some might argue about whether or not going to Ikea is an “exotic thing,” but Illg took that on as well last winter with Pat Seaman, (who works at The Beachcomber) and her adult daughter.
It is a tradition for them to go every year before Christmas, but getting there this year was a concern.
“The driving in that area has gotten too daunting for me and takes all the pleasure out of the outing,” Seaman.
In all five people went on that trip and had such a good time they plan to do it again.
While such far-flung trips are welcome, the fire district’s Ehlers has recently begun driving the van to and from Dockton, hoping to drum up business from there. She parks the van at the Dockton Fire Station so it is easily accessible to other volunteer drivers in the area and visible to people in that community. She has been hoping to transport early-morning travelers to town or to the ferry dock in time to to exercise before she starts her work day, as the busses do not work in her favor at that hour. She is looking to leave Dockton between 6 and 6:30 a.m. — and riders are welcome.
In Welt’s role as the Community Transportation Coordinator, she says she provides van rides when she can, noting that when single riders contact her for a trip, she tries to find other riders to go along. But she also points people to other modes of transportation on the island, whether that is Uber drivers, the Vashon Shuttle or the Vashon Senior Center’s transportation program for off-island medical appointments — even the ebikes across the parking lot from the chamber.
“I do not take any riders off of busses. We fill the gaps. We supplement. We work closely with other transportation providers — that is my job,” she said.
Welt noted there are still transportation challenges on the island. She fields a lot of calls from the north end ferry, but the largest unmet needs are individuals on the south end of the island who want to get into Vashon town to run errands and people who need to get to medical on-island medical appointments. Those trips can be hard for the the van program to provide, as two passengers are required. Sometimes the person will have a companion that can go along, Welt said, but not always — and other passengers can be hard to find. At the Vashon Senior Center, Executive Director Ava Apple also spoke about this challenge.
“King County needs to loosen up restrictions on the program. That may work in other places, but not here,” she said.
The Community Van is part of a transit program intended to better meet the transit needs of areas that would benefit from services other than fixed-route bus transportation, and a variety of services are in place in other King County communities, such as Duvall, Bothell and the Snoqualmie Valley. It is a two-year pilot project and will be evaluated as it grows and develops. Cathy Snow, who manages Metro’s Community Connections program, said that the program will be evaluated after a few months of islanders paying for rides — which began in January — and performance benchmarks will be developed based on that activity.
King County provides the chamber up to $25,000 per year to administer the program; it also provides the three vans and their operational costs, which averaged $94 per month last year.
Looking ahead, those involved with the program encourage people who might want to drive or would like a ride to contact Welt at 206-773-7003 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rides are $2.50 round trip; all forms of Metro payment options are accepted.