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Ferry users tend to be middle aged, financially stable

Are you an average Washington State Ferries rider?

If you’re an older, upper-middle class driver who is relatively satisfied with WSF and does not use ferries to commute, then you may well be.

That’s the description provided by the preliminary results of a WSF customer survey released this week. The survey was conducted in March by Opinion Research Northwest for the state Transportation Commission, the body responsible for setting ferry fares and advising policy decisions.

The survey’s objective was to compile a picture of customers and travel behavior while gauging what strategies could help shift demand away from peak hours and increase walk-on use.

Surveyors sampled sailings on each route in the system proportional to ridership, with Bainbridge and Bremerton receiving the most attention. More than 6,000 riders completed the survey and a second phase of the study is planned for July to profile summer ridership. Commercial shipping customers also will be interviewed.

Transportation Commission Member Bob Distler, who led the project, said the random survey of riders gives the Commission and WSF a more accurate sense of who’s using the ferries.

“I think we have a better picture of who is riding the ferries than some people have gathered from all the public meetings we’ve had over the years,” Distler said.

The results from March showed that WSF customers are older, on average, than the state population (54 percent are between the ages of 35 and 64). They’re wealthier too, with a median household income of $81,242. Bainbridge was found to be the most affluent route with a median household income of $95,889 and riders of the Bremerton route had the lowest incomes.

Only 37 percent of those surveyed said they used the ferry primarily to get to a job or school, though 41 percent of Bainbridge respondents and 60 percent of Vashon riders said they are ferry commuters. On peak morning sailings (5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.), 75 percent of riders said they were heading to work or classes.

The survey probed commuters’ willingness to shift travel schedules as higher peak hour fares and incentives for off-peak riders have been suggested as ways of spreading demand more evenly across the day.

Of those peak hour commuters, 22 percent said they could have taken an earlier or later ferry and only 4 percent said they could travel on off- peak hours. One quarter of respondents system-wide supported higher fares during peak hours.

To Distler, the survey suggested that at least a limited number of peak riders are willing to change their travel routine and that even a small shift can help reduce congestion.

“We found that people are somewhat flexible to travel at different times,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be the magic bullet.”

Vehicles are still the most popular mode of travel system-wide, with 49 percent of customers driving onto ferries and another 20 percent riding as vehicle passengers, though the number of walk-ons rose to 50 percent during peak hours. On Bainbridge routes, 44 percent of respondents were walk-ons, bested only by Bremerton with 62 percent.

Overall, riders were supportive of strategies to encourage walk-on and bicycle passengers. More than 70 percent of respondents agreed that cyclists and pedestrians should be given fare discounts and that a separate lane at terminals should be dedicated for dropping off passengers.

A little more than half of surveyed riders said WSF should invest evenly in providing passenger and vehicle services while supporters of a more car-centric or passenger-centric service were evenly split.

Despite the recent clamor of discontent, the survey found that most ferry passengers still think they’re getting a good deal and that most are satisfied with the quality of service.

Only 16 percent of respondents said ferries were a poor value and the number of passengers feeling over-charged has dropped since 2002, according to Opinion Research Northwest. Single-ride passes make up 39 percent of fares while Wave2Go passes are used by 36 percent of passengers.

Surveyors found that while most customers would like to see fares lowered, they also would find a 15 percent increase in both driver and passenger fares acceptable.

Meanwhile, 23 percent of ferry riders are dissatisfied with the service system-wide, according to the survey, and dissatisfaction has increased by 9 percent since 2002. Bainbridge riders were found to be happiest with their ferries, while Vashon was a center of angst, with 50 percent of riders malcontent with service.

Drawing broad strokes from the preliminary results, consultants told the Commission that ferry riders tend to be longtime customers that will need “real” incentives to change their well-worn habits. They found that customers are satisfied with ferry service as it stands, and would be willing to support incremental fare increases if service was maintained or improved.

Distler said that while the survey has brought ridership into sharper focus, the state will need to be sensitive to a wide range of rider perspectives as it moves forward with policy.

“We’re going to have to tread very lightly and very carefully with anything we do,” he said.

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