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City buses a viable option for youth, South Metro Area Regional Transit officials say

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF WILSONVILLE - Wilsonville's transit provider hopes to encourage youth to use more eco-friendly forms of transportation.

Though South Metro Area Regional Transit (SMART) Director Dwight Brashear said transit is more accessible to Wilsonville students than students in many other cities, he acknowledged that — in terms of ridership and communication with the West Linn-Wilsonville School District — Wilsonville's transit provider has room to improve.

In turn, earlier this year, SMART hired Sheilagh Griffin as the department's transportation demand management technician. In that role, Griffin is assessing the level of ridership at local schools, is working to improve communication between the transit provider and the school district, and is encouraging local students to use alternative forms of transportation to cars.

Griffin previously worked for the Street Trust in Portland and her position in Wilsonville is funded for the next two years through a grant from the Metro regional government.

"I'm convinced it will be successful," Brashear said of Griffin's work. "We will get a lot more students riding."

Griffin noted that, in 2018, about 42% of the people who rode the route No. 4 bus, which travels along Wilsonville Road and passes most schools in the Wilsonville area, were youth. And this April, that number shot up to 46%.

However, the youth ridership levels on SMART's other bus routes did not exceed 20 percent last year. The other most popular routes for youth, the 2X to Portland and route No. 7 to Villebois, hovered around 10% youth ridership. Brashear and Griffin hope that, along with outreach, improving route frequency on lines such as routes 1X (to Salem), 2X, route Nos. 4 and 7, could lead to increased student ridership.

"That's what folks are looking for: frequency and reliability," Brashear said. "I think we will be able to attract more students. If we get them early we can keep them. If we show them the advantages of public transit we can keep them."

Griffin also has visited local schools to observe student travel and has noticed that many Lowrie Primary School students use alternative transportation, such as busing, biking or scootering, while such uses were much less frequent at Boeckman Creek Primary School.

"I had observed at that school (Boeckman Creek) at release time and there were quite a few cars lined up sitting there waiting for their students to come out in the parking lot," Griffin said, also noting that Boeckman Creek's Principal Lindy Sproul expressed a similar concern.

However, Griffin emphasized that the quick assessment wasn't definitive and said she would like to conduct a student and parent survey at local schools asking them how they get to and from school.

The most ambitious project she hopes to facilitate is establishing a plan with the City of West Linn and the WL-WV School District, which Griffin said could include an examination of current Safe Routes to School and potential policy, infrastructure and police enforcement tweaks that could encourage alternative transportation. Griffin said she will meet with district officials in the coming weeks.

"It's worth looking at the streets, what the speed limits are, and are there places where we could benefit from establishing better bike lanes or lowering speed limits?" Griffin said. "What kind of things could improve the situation for kids being able to walk to school?"

Griffin said SMART strives to promote fuel-efficient transportation options — not just increase ridership levels.

"At SMART and the City of Wilsonville, we are very proud and excited about our transit system and we'd love to encourage ridership, and we don't necessarily see active transportation as a detriment to that," Griffin said. "They work very well together. A healthy, active community has all of that going on."

With that in mind, Griffin will lead a workshop about bicycle maintenance and learning to ride clinic at Lowrie Primary School on National Bike Day (Wednesday, May 8), which is a day off school for students.

And on May 9, SMART will place bags on the bikes of students who pedaled to school that show appreciation for their method of travel.

"It's a way for the kids to say 'Oh wow. Somebody recognized that I biked to school today,'" Griffin said.

Griffin also plans to visit school classrooms to talk about the benefits of alternative transportation.

"It's a combination of congestion on the roadways and greenhouse gas emissions," Griffin said. "If we put two people in a car going the same place instead of two cars there, you've reduced it by half. If you put even more there, you can reduce that significantly more."

All in all, rather than dictate policy, Brashear simply wants to know how SMART can help the school district.

"(We want to) build those bridges so that any one of us could pick up the phone, call the principal and engage them in a conversation as it relates to transit and ask where SMART can play a role in helping," he said.

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