Free Transit + Pierce County Trails Day = Must-Do Transit Trekking

While you are waiting for the Washington state edition of The Transit Trekker Manual to drop, you don’t have to wait to try some regional transit trekking. And you can do it on the cheap. Saturday, July 30th, Pierce Transit is offering free transit and paratransit to make it easier for everyone to enjoy Pierce County Trails Day

Special note: Our region’s heat wave should be on the wane by Saturday, but be sure you are prepared for warmer temperatures with lots of water or other hydrating beverages. Other tips for hot weather here. Pierce Transit just announced they will offer free trips through July 29 to anyone needing to get to a cooling center.

When I heard from Executive Director at Forevergreen Trails Larry Leveen that Pierce Transit was considering offering free transit for July 30th, Pierce County Trails Day, I was understandably extremely excited, because it’s obviously a boon for transit trekking. And Larry and I are both on the Leafline Trails Coalition  leadership group and he very kindly connected me to everyone here for the following conversation with three of the people who helped make Trails Day a Transit 2 Trails Day: Pierce Transit CEO Mike Griffus, Pierce County Councilmember for District 6 Jani Hitchen:, and, yes, Larry himself. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.  (Links to all the resources mentioned in our talk are in the interview, and also listed at the end. And, don’t miss your chance to win a free digital copy of the Transit Trekker Manual: read on for details.)

Pierce Transit CEO Mike Griffus in a bike helmet and holding the handlebar of a bike stands along a beach with foothills in the background.
Pierce Transit CEO Mike Griffus looks like he probably rode his bike to this beach, but you can take your standard-size bicycle on most Pierce Transit bus bike racks to reach lots of Trails Day destinations.

Transit Trekker: I want to start with Jani and Larry. Give us a brief overview of Pierce County Trails Day — what it is and why it’s happening.

Jani Hitchen: From my perspective on the county council, I see it as a day to encourage people to go out and spend time in our many wonderful green spaces. It gives a specific date and day for us annually to appreciate our parks, get some people out into our parks and community trails that maybe haven’t been, and really brings together community organizations to get people outside. We know that’s so important to mental health and physical health.

Larry Leveen: This is the sixth annual Pierce County Trails Day that [Forevergreen Trails has] organized. We recruit hosts of activities from all over the county — individuals, official or unofficial groups, organizations, government agencies, faith groups, any entity or individual is welcome to host an event as long as it’s free, open to the public, and takes place on Trails Day, or the day before or the day after.

Our goal is to encourage habits of healthy activity, and also stewardship and care of our natural areas and parks and trails. So we try to offer something for all ages and abilities and folks across the county, many of whom are in Pierce Transit’s service area.

Transit Trekker: That’s an excellent segue, Larry, because the next couple of questions are for Mike. Mike, I understand that Pierce Transit has a certain number of days per year that it can offer free transit. Can you tell us why Trails Day is one of those — how it made the cut?

Mike Griffus: We really value the local partnerships that we have with Pierce County, Metro Parks, and other municipalities, and especially now we think it’s really important for people to get out into nature. The mental health and physical benefits of being out in nature are extremely important, especially with the pandemic. And so, when this came up, it was, to me, pretty much a no-brainer decision. This is something that I think will be a benefit to the community. Just being outside, especially in the Northwest this time of year — it’s beautiful out there. And I think people really appreciate having the access to this, and it will give more people access. So that was why we did it. We do other things like [taking] people to vaccination clinics for free…[and] parking buses for students to use our wifi [during the pandemic] —things like that. And I think it’s just something to benefit the community. So for me it was an easy decision when people asked, Could we do it?

Transit Trekker: I didn’t realize you had used the buses to provide free wifi for students. I love that kind of resourcefulness. I love the low hanging fruit. And so what will your agency do in terms of measuring ridership on Trails Day and assessing its success? 

Mike Griffus:  We’ll have our fare boxes covered up. But our operators keep track of the people who are getting off and on. So we’ll know [when people] are using the trails and we can measure that against the normal Saturday boardings that we have and see if it really made a benefit. I think it will.

Transit Trekker: I look forward to seeing that data at some point. This next question is a little long and leading question, I acknowledge. Serving a place like Mount Rainier National Park in particular seems like an obvious choice for Transit to Trails. Is there anything formally or informally in the works at your agency to develop more service to recreational destinations? Are you talking with agencies like Clallam Transit that runs their year-round Straight Shot to the Olympic Peninsula and just launched the seasonal Hurricane Ridge shuttle? Anything you can tell us there?

Mike Griffus: Pierce Transit is a public transit benefit area. And we collect sales tax from people who are in our service area. Mount Rainier is not in our service area. It’s a four-hour round trip. So [that would require] a lot of resources. We’re also governed by charter rules. So this would be considered a charter trip, we would have to compete with local charter agencies if we were to provide that kind of service. So we’d probably have to find some kind of funding partner that was looking at that and wanted to do this. And then if we could find that partner, then we’d be happy to try and put in some kind of service. I’m not sure it would be frequent. But it would be at least a trip to get people up there.

Right now we have an operator shortage, like most people do throughout the industry. And so our focus is really getting back to pre-COVID-level service. We’re only at about 85% of that service. And so we really want to restore our service before we start thinking about other things that we can do out of the area. Our service area is 292 square miles. So we’re covering a big chunk of area [already] — Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Spanaway Lakewood, Edgewood, so a portion of our sales tax always goes to providing service.

Transit Trekker: These next couple of questions are for everyone. When I tell people about Transit Trekker, I’m finding that most people are really, really receptive to the idea of improving access to outdoor recreation using transit. But what do you say, when you encounter people who, if you talk to people about this, what do you say to people who are skeptical?

Mike Griffus: I haven’t had anybody that’s skeptical about it. Most people think that it’s a really great idea. But what I also tell them is that this is a way for transit to provide equitable access to trails and into the parks. And I think if you talk about equity, it really, really does hit home, that we can provide this service, free of charge. So that’s one of the things that I tell them. We do get some federal support for transit. And I think the federal government right now is looking at ways to improve mobility for everybody. And I think this plays right into it.

Jani Hitchen:  For me, it’s about barriers. And so anyone who says, ‘Why would we even bother, nobody’s gonna ride,’ — well if a family in Parkland, that goes to Lakewood, or a community member from Gig Harbor, or some of our adjacent areas that ends up in one of our parks in Tacoma and they’ve never done that before, we won. That’s the goal— to get people out into our green spaces and using them, because then they will get back. 

The other part is the possibility of taking somebody and giving them an incentive with their family or a teen to try public transit for the first time because there’s a destination at the end that’s intriguing to them. And maybe that person then goes, ‘Hey, this worked, you know, I got where I wanted to go. I tried it. I had fun at my event. I got back home.’ And now they’ve successfully used public transit. And so it now will be something that’s in their repertoire and memory the next time their car is in the shop or something goes wrong or family comes to visit, and they need access to transit. They’ve had a positive experience. So for me, that was one of the reasons I was excited about this partnership.

Larry Leveen: Trails Days is partially a celebration, partially helping out all of our park and trail managers with stewardship events. But really, it’s about normalizing habits of healthy activity. And I know that as I plan this, each year, I try to break down as many barriers, I try to think about what are all the barriers for people potentially getting out putting down their phones or getting away from their screens or what have you, and making it as easy as possible to participate. We’re a fast-growth county, and lots of people are either moving to it, or moving within it. And maybe they’re getting their household set up and their kids in school. And before we know it, time goes by, maybe it’s the rainy season, and they’re not getting out. And, you know, in my outreach with the public, some, many folks don’t even know where to access their local trails. And so that’s part of why we do what we do is to break down barriers you meet here at this place in time, give them a map pin, hopefully, they have a smartphone or some way to navigate there and someone, an expert in a particular area, whether it’s you know, biking, walking, hiking, birdwatching, plant ID, you name it, will be there and help you. So we try to break down barriers. And Transit to Trails is an extension of that. If transit is something new to you, then, you know, having to deal with the fares, just put that aside. This is fare-free time. And we have the extra incentive of a whole bunch of outdoor activities to take part in. On our website, we have a map of all of the activities. And there’s a special map pin symbol for those that are served by transit. And it tells you the route number that is served. And there’s even the link to Pierce Transit’s awesome trip planner resource and a whole bunch of other resources. So you can get to parks and trails, via transit, throughout the year. So it’s about breaking down barriers and normalizing these behaviors of using transit and other healthy behaviors like being active outside.

Transit Trekker: I love to push the idea that transit is active transportation. It’s not technically included in the definition, but it offers the link to other forms of active transportation. And I think what you said fits right along with that.

Larry Leveen: Indeed, I always like to say that for folks who walk, bike or roll transit is their BFF. It extends all of our trips.

Transit Trekker: Exactly. 

A lot of other nations have really good transit access to more remote recreational destinations. And I’m wondering what you all see as ways to make that happen here. Name the one or two top-line things that need to happen to make that happen here for us?

Mike Griffus: This is a start for us on this project. I think once people see how valuable it is, it’ll be great for them. And the other thing I just wanted to mention is, not only are we providing free rides on our fixed route buses, but we’re providing free point to point rides for paratransit-eligible riders also, so they can go anywhere within the service area… I think that it’s really something that people may want to explore further funding.

Jani Hitchen: I’m not sure that I have a lot to add to this one. I’d love to hear what Larry has to say. I just think that this was a great first step. And I’m excited. I’m very excited to see what data we get out of this and how it’s perceived and received by the community.

Larry Leveen: When you compare to other countries, I think part of what’s challenging for us in the States is our land-use patterns, because land-use planning locks in mobility patterns and habits. And we have a lot of low density land use that encourages car dependency and makes it difficult for transit agencies to have efficient operations. And if we can address those things,the underlying issues, then we set transit up for greater success. And if trip distances are smaller for folks, if we have more mixed use, so you’re where you shop, or where your kids go to school, or where you might work, or other destinations that you want to access are closer than you have a greater incentive, or a greater opportunity, potentially, to use modes of getting there and back other than driving alone. But certainly, we have to shift how we fund mobility in this country. And also in our state, we need to better fund mobility options, including transit. This is really an affordability issue. We’re seeing just really staggering inflation, and the cost of fuel, especially, affecting households, economies, and transit is a major boon in that regard, should you have access to it, and we need to fund it so that there’s more access for folks and better service. And those are just crucial social justice issues and climate justice issues as well. And accessing the outdoors is just one of the many reasons that that’s important. It’s fun. So hopefully luring people out with these fun activities via transit will help get them on that path and making that life lifestyle habit. But it’s connected to larger societal changes, for sure.

Transit Trekker: I’m definitely on Team Fund Transit. It provides so many returns on investment that are often not calculated in whatever that official metric is —the cost per seat ride, I’ve just started digging into some of the budgets. And it’s just such a thin analysis when there’s so many more benefits that it generates. 

I skipped a really important question that I wanted to ask you, Jani, in particular, because you are an elected official. I’m wondering if you can talk to us a little about how you became a Transit to Trails booster.

Jani Hitchen: I represent Pierce County, and go to the National Association of Counties events and activities. And in that work, there was a county that had used some of their ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] dollars to create a program [for] transit to every single park in their community all the time. And it was free for anyone…the whole community could [ride]. And they did very intentional outreach in the community during the pandemic and continued access to green space because they saw the health benefits and mental health benefits. You know, when we talk about individuals driving and parking at a park, you know, that’s it. They’re a single person in a car, if they were taking transit, we’re reducing fuel and the greenhouse gasses. And so I was intrigued and came back and started asking questions, which I’m getting notoriously known for in the Council. And then hooked up with Larry to talk about his program, learned a little bit about what was going on at King County and then reached out to Pierce Transit to see if there was a way we could do a pilot. And so that’s kind of the long story of how I got here. I heard about something going on in another county and said, That’s a great idea. How do we do that here?

Transit Trekker: From each of your perspectives, how can people who are reading this support Transit to Trails?

Mike Griffus:  What we would like to see is people who have experienced it, tell everybody how easy it is, use their social media, talk to their friends, just let them know that riding transit is not difficult. And it also provides a wellness aspect. I know when I go out and I ride the buses, my step count is up for the day. And I think that’s one of the things that we like to tell people is really transit and wellness activities go hand in hand. [Ed. note: Speaking of social media, get ready to take photos and use the #Transit2Trails hashtag and check the Forevergreen Trails Trails Day page for details on how you can win a digital copy of the Washington state edition of The Transit Trekker Manual.]

Jani Hitchen: I completely agree with Mike. I think one of the ways is for those that typically would drive on their own, if you can find a park that you are going to go to anyway, can you make it there on a bus this 30th of July? And if you can, even though it may be something you wouldn’t need to do? Do it, just to give it a try. And then try and encourage other people to do that with you. Maybe make it a big social event.

Larry Leveen: Supporting transit comes in the form of shifting how we do funding. Just before this interview, I was at the Puget Sound Regional Council’s transportation policy board, bringing the message that we need more equitable funding for its member counties. And also, we need to all keep an eye on the Federal Transit to Trails legislation sponsored by Senator Booker [and Rep. Jimmy Gomez].They’re going to, I think, keep putting that forward. A few years ago, there was some pilot funding and I think that King County Metro did a great job of accessing that funding. And I would love to see Pierce Transit have an opportunity to access that kind of federal funding for Transit to Trails. And you know, in the meantime, they’ll work on hiring more drivers and supporting their standard, set service. And while the advocates are kind of looking out in the distance, and supporting future opportunities, we look forward to working together, more going forward to support Transit and Transit to Trails.

Transit Trekker: What transit trips are you planning on Trails Day?

Mike Griffus:  I haven’t planned any yet. But I’m sure I’ll be out there somewhere in the system on that day.

Jani Hitchen:  I’m gonna hop on bus route 4 and then catch 212 to head over to Lakewood because I wanted to go to an event in my district and so I used the tools online to figure out what I had to do. I’m going to bring [an audiobook] because it’ll be a little bit longer than when I would just take my own car, and hang out at Fort Steilacoom to go see the Waughop Lake because it’s been a while since I’ve been out in that area.

Larry Leveen: That was probably my answer, too, to head over to Fort Steilacoom and Lakewood. And as I click the map, I can see I need to access transit route 212 to get there. There’s a lake walk event hosted by the Chambers Clover Creek Watershed Council and friends of Waughop Lake. So, Councilmember, I hope to see you there.

Jani Hitchen: That’d be good.


As for me, I am currently torn between checking out Charlotte’s Blueberry Park or joining the Campfire Coffee ride, but wherever I end up I’m looking forward to a Transit Trek in Pierce County! 


Pierce County Trails Day Resources

*Pierce County Parks and Recreation has no comparable resource at this time.