BOISE — The Treasure Valley isn’t known for a plethora of public transportation options, but there are more ways to get around without a car than you might think.
Valley Regional Transit, the metro area’s public transportation agency, shoulders the largest burden of carrying riders in and around Ada and Canyon counties with fixed-route buses and specialty programs to help move people in unique circumstances. VRT buses in Boise gave more than a million rides during fiscal year 2019, plus another 86,300 rides between Ada and Canyon counties; Nampa’s buses gave 46,000 rides during the same time period.
There are 17 routes in and around Boise, including the network’s one route through Garden City. VRT also has four intercounty routes, with an express route each from both Nampa and Caldwell into Boise, as well as one with more stops between Nampa and Meridian. There is also express service between Nampa and Boise State University. An additional three local Canyon County routes also connect riders in and around Nampa and Caldwell.
The majority of the routes run between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, and a few routes on Saturday. VRT hopes to both add more frequency, destinations and longer run-time hours in the future to grow ridership up to 800% through its ValleyConnect 2.0 strategic plan, but without a dedicated funding source, progress toward those goals has been gradual.
System ridership overall dropped 5.7% in the last fiscal year, but there were big gains on routes where VRT increased frequency and later hours since early 2019. This included double-digit gains on the Vista and Broadway avenue routes, which had significant service enhancements in the past year. The city of Boise has been increasing its contribution to public transit the past two budget cycles, and is preparing for another round of service enhancements to attract more riders on March 30. VRT will:
- Extend State Street service out to Ballantyne Road in Eagle during weekday peak hours
- Add 1.25 hours of 15-minute frequency service weekdays on State Street
- Add 30-minute service on State, Fairview Avenue and Vista Avenue on Saturdays
- Add 30-minute service on Broadway Avenue until 9 p.m.
- Maintain 30-minute service to Harris Ranch
- Maintain service to Garden City
For riders who cannot take the traditional bus due to the hours not covering their shift or mobility issues, there are other programs from VRT as well. The Night Ride program allows for any qualified low-income resident to get a $3 dollar Lyft ride anywhere from Nampa to most locations in Boise in the hours the bus doesn’t run on weekdays and Saturdays. There is also the ACCESS bus, which is a paratransit service to get those with disabilities directly to their destination during the hours the fixed-route buses operate.
VRT also offers the Lyft Transit Connections program, which provides $2 Lyft rides to and from multiple bus stops on the routes covering State Street, Fairview Avenue, Five Mile Road and the route between Maple Grove Road and the Boise Towne Square Mall.
Kaite Justice, mobility collaborative program director, said VRT is trying to accommodate more people who need service outside of traditional hours that doesn’t involve full bus service.
“It doesn’t make sense to operate a big bus all night long, so we’ve looked to different solutions such as using a Lyft where we’re paying per ride instead of paying to have a vehicle out there all the time,” she said. “I think it’s all about finding some adapting and flexible solutions that serve those needs instead of the traditional bus.”
The bus is not the only public transportation option for commuters. Ada County Highway District also operates the Commuteride program to encourage residents to get to and from work without driving themselves. A major cornerstone of the program is its vanpool program, which pairs large groups of riders with a van to take them to and from work. Riders drive themselves, but in exchange for the monthly fare, ACHD pays for gas, insurance and maintenance on the vehicle.
The monthly fares vary, but to get from Nampa to downtown Boise is $80 per month.
Commuteride Manager Maureen Gresham said the vanpools have the most success in bringing value for its riders when the commutes are of a distance of 15 miles or more. They are also multi-employer, so as long as the van is going to the same general area, it does not matter whether or not the riders work at the same company.
“The majority of our vanpools are actually Mountain Home Air Force Base,” Gresham said. “They all meet together at a park and ride where the van is, they jump in the van, go to work, and at the end of the day they go back.”
Gresham’s department also runs an app called Share the Ride Idaho where commuters can put in their address and destination and learn about a variety of options for how to get to work without driving. This includes connections to nearby vanpools, car pools they can join, walking or biking routes or public transportation options.
Through this app, residents who commute without driving and log their routes on the app are eligible for rewards badges as well as a guaranteed free ride home with a taxi paid for by Commuteride. This can help if residents have to stay late at work and miss their ride home or have to leave early to take care of a sick child or another obligation.
Commuteride assisted 968 vanpoolers in 2018 and overall had 2,059 commuters in its program getting to work without driving themselves.
BIKES & SCOOTERS
There also are options for people looking for a people-powered way to work. Boise GreenBike, a bike share centered in downtown Boise, is still operating as it has been for years with 127 bikes on the road in various locations for riders to use. The program is set to change to a larger fleet of electric bicycles sometime in 2021 as the program phases out the technology currently being used to power the bikes, but for now it will remain the same.
It costs $5 per hour to ride one of the bikes, or there are monthly or annual memberships for $15 or $70 respectively that allow a free hour per day and an additional $5 for another hour. GreenBike recorded more than 24,000 trips in 2019, covering 62,897 miles.
GreenBike Executive Director Dave Fotsch said traditional bikes are an important part of how Boise can deal with growth by giving people a simple way to get short distances downtown as without driving as it becomes increasingly crowded.
“We can’t make the streets downtown any wider, so we need ways of getting around that don’t involve a single-occupancy vehicle,” he said. “Not everybody wants to ride an e-scooter, especially older people who might not feel as safe. Having a bike is another way to go from point A to point B without getting in their car.”
E-scooters in Boise are another option for short-distance commuting, but they are priced higher than the GreenBike. The dockless scooters appeared in Boise in October 2018 and there are now three companies licensed to operate in the city: Bird — which also operates in Meridian — Lime and Spin. As of last summer, e-scooters had traveled over half a million miles in Boise with roughly 477,000 rides.