When Bob Hendricks talks about his reasons for giving up his freedom to drive, his sense of humor shows why he handled the situation so well.
“Well, there was a loose nut on my steering wheel,” he says with a chuckle.
Turning serious, the affable 82-year-old Bellingham resident explains why he knew it really was time to sell his car and hop on the bus.
“I was making mistakes; I was having senior moments,” he says of the year he turned 75. “I was trying to be prudent.”
Now he is a huge fan of the Whatcom Transportation Authority’s bus fleet.
“The bus could not be more convenient,” he says. “I live near a stop that goes both directions every 15 minutes on weekdays (from shortly after 6 a.m. to shortly after 7 p.m., plus extended hours for non-high frequency service). “I’m a total advocate for our bus system.”
The former Maryland resident discovered a big bonus for people who turn 75: They can ride the bus free by showing their gold card.
“We have 61 buses on 30 bus routes for our fixed-route service (plus the paratransit fleet),” said Maureen McCarthy, WTA manager of community relations and marketing. “That includes our four high-frequency Go Lines – the Blue, Green, Gold and Plum lines. We serve about 20,000 people each week day when Western Washington University is in session.
“About 40 percent of our regular rider ship is Western students,” McCarthy said. “The service grows about five percent each year. It’s based on what is least restrictive and most inclusive for passengers.”
In 2015, the latest year for which complete statistics have been compiled, there were nearly 5 million fixed-route boardings by WTA customers, covering more than 14 million passenger miles. The typical passenger travels nearly three miles per trip.
The cost is $1 per trip (with no transfers), with a maximum charge of $3 for one day. A monthly bus pass costs $25, and people 65-74, riders with disabilities or military veterans pay $13.
In a nine-year span beginning in 2006, WTA ridership increased 53 percent.
The paratransit system
Julie Guy, a 91-year-old Bellingham resident, has used the WTA’s paratransit service since giving up driving about four years ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else,” said Guy, who moved to Bellingham 15 years ago and enjoyed a four-decade career with behind-the-scenes work in television and radio. “I can’t say enough about how wonderful the service is. Not having (enough) balance and not having strong legs is why I started using the service.”
She refers to the dignity and independence the drivers allow as often as possible.
“These drivers could not be kinder,” she says. “I have a roller I walk with, and the drivers always stay behind you to make sure you are safe. They help (directly) if you ask or if you obviously need help.”
Guy says other passengers are a huge bonus.
“I really enjoy chatting with them,” she said.
For those with special needs, the WTA offers curb-to-curb paratransit service for those of all ages for $1 per ride and free for those 75 and older.
“If people are eligible for paratransit, they can ride free on the fixed-route buses,” McCarthy said. “Riders are encouraged to use the fixed-route buses as a first choice. For example, we have many riders in wheelchairs.”
Paratransit eligibility is determined by Janet Malley, WTA’s mobility coordinator, sometimes in cooperation with medical professionals.
“Paratransit is disability-based, not age-based. It’s important for people to know there is an eligibility process for paratransit,” said Malley, who noted that eligibility is generally determined in no more than 21 days.
In 2015, paratransit registered more than 200,000 boardings, an increase of six percent in one year. The needs of paratransit riders are not always obvious.
“We have people with hidden disabilities, such as chronic pain, cancer treatments and heart problems,” Malley said.
Riders must call for paratransit trip appointments no later than 5 p.m. the previous day. If they must cancel the appointment, a minimum of two hours’ notice is required before the trip is to begin.
For hours and more details, call 360-733-1144.
Bellingham’s Kathy Dooley, 60, began using paratransit about two years ago.
“I developed back and leg issues that made it very difficult for me to walk,” she said. “I gave my car to my daughter. I’m just so grateful paratransit is here. It’s an immense benefit to the community.”
Dooley vividly recalls when she was a paratransit no-show.
“I was disqualified once for oversleeping and for not canceling on time (for a short period), and I’ll never let that happen again,” she said with a grin. “And the drivers are great people. I enjoy getting out and visiting with the other riders.”
There are other options for getting around without driving.
Retired Bellingham residents Bob and Helen Jacobson travel often and are familiar with how to save money by taking early morning flights from Bellingham International Airport.
“The last thing I want to do is ask a friend to pick me up at 4 or 5 a.m. for the drive to the airport,” said Bob, 71.
He has the technical cell phone skills to use Uber or another such service, but he sticks with Yellow Cab.
“I know the company, and I trust the company,” Bob said of Yellow Cab.
Abby Fulbright, a 19-year-old Bellingham resident, is a typical millennial when it comes to her knowledge of how to use and benefit from high-tech communication skills. That includes using Uber drivers.
“I love Uber,” she said. “It’s all about the app (on her smart phone). The drivers really get there fast and, with your phone, you can see where your driver is.”
Fulbright encourages seniors to consider using Uber, advising them to learn from someone who does.
“It’s really easy to learn to use Uber,” she said. “I’d always be happy to help someone learn.”
Maggie Hanson, an 88-year-old Bellingham resident, says she still hopes to drive again. Meanwhile, Hanson has found a way of mobility that works for her.
“I had a small stroke last year and had to (at least temporarily) give up driving,” said Hanson, who is well known for her work in local, state and national Democratic Party politics. “That can be a major setback for an elderly person. So what I’ve done is to hire a friend to provide paid transportation. That way, I can get out four or five times a week.”
Bellingham’s Kate Birrer, 73, and life partner John Lawler, 76, both still drive but also have discovered how convenient the bus can be, especially on trips to downtown Bellingham.
“I’ve taken the bus all my life,” Birrer said. “I like to leave my car home when I can. I live only 2½ blocks from a Green Line bus stop. We often go downtown to the library or to have coffee.”
Indeed, life can be a lot more fun when you aren’t paying into or thinking about parking meters and lots.
She urges seniors to look into a variety of services offered by Bellingham at Home, a program at the Bellingham Senior Center and part of the Whatcom Council on Aging.
“(Bellinghamathome.clubexpress.com/) helps people stay at home as they age,” Birrer says. “The Bellingham at Home program helps provide transportation through a network of volunteers.”