GroveLinks free bus service is open for business

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Ron and Donna Quay of Forest Grove enjoy a free ride around the city Monday as they try out the new GroveLink bus service operated by Ride Connection. The Quays said they discovered new areas of town along the often scenic bus route.Donna Siddall got her first bite from a woman whose car was being repaired.

“She lives about three blocks from where I picked her up,” said Siddall, one of the four GroveLink bus drivers who began trolling through Forest Grove neighborhoods for passengers Monday.

The carless woman had looked up GroveLink bus stops online and was waiting at 7:11 a.m. at the Forest Gale Drive and Gales Creek Road stop, a couple miles from her workplace near Hawthorne Street and 23rd Avenue.

She was Siddall’s only customer from 6 to 8:30 a.m.

GroveLink, Forest Grove’s new, free, local bus line operated by the nonprofit Ride Connection, is up and running and fishing for passengers from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each weekday. On Monday, its first official day of operation, GroveLink provided a total of 18 rides, which are tallied every time a person gets picked up, including repeat pickups by repeat customers.

“I think the low ridership right off the bat is typical for any transit service on the first day,” said Lydia Corran, Ride Connection’s outreach director. She expected the numbers to pick up after Tuesday, when most of the “bus stop” signs were installed, and after people have seen the buses rolling through town.

The service is one of a kind in the Portland metro area, where the few other local transit efforts are limited to seniors or people with disabilities.

GroveLink serves people of all ages three ways: specific stops on a prearranged route; deviations for passengers who call in to request a different pickup location; and — the most unusual part — spontaneous stops for anyone who hails the bus with a wave.

“There’s no other city that’s doing this,” said GroveLink driver Paul Davis.

He and Siddall passed hundreds of quiet homes with potential passengers who could have decided at the last second to step out their front doors and wave down the bus, making GroveLink a door-to-door service for anyone along the route. People walking along sidewalks can also stop the bus with a wave, as long as there’s a safe spot to pull over.

Davis’s single customer in his first two-and-a-half hours Monday used this “flagging service” to get picked up at Forest Gale and Watercrest drives. The man took the bus to Maggie’s Buns, then caught it later at its University Avenue and Main Street stop to return home.

“That’s the convenience of it all — the beauty,” Davis said.

In official ridership calculations, that one person qualified as two “trips” or “rides” and four “stops.”

The GroveLink route is a fun ride even for people who have no special destination, especially on a beautiful sunny morning as the bus tootles along the city’s western outskirts, with broad fields and the looming Coast Range visible through its windows. Further east, the bus travels through neighborhoods sprinkled with historic homes.

Except for the fact that the drivers don’t have a microphone or a set spiel, the trip feels a bit like a tourist attraction.

John Heun, a Cornelius resident and senior at Forest Grove High School, used his bike and TriMet to get to Forest Grove Monday morning just to check out the new service.

The buses’ bike racks hadn’t been installed yet, but the transit-loving Heun peeked inside to get a look at the clean, 14-passenger interior with gray-upholstered seats, a small storage shelf on one side, and a slight new-car smell.

“I really want to support this,” Heun said.

Signs for four bus-stop locations will be slightly delayed, but GroveLink is still picking up passengers at those stops: one at Thatcher and Gales Creek roads, one at 26th Avenue and Williams Street, and two on University Avenue. Route and schedule details are available online (see box).

Siddall got some curious stares Monday morning from pedestrians — most of whom were out walking their dogs or jogging.

Those people may not be interested in the service right now, she said, but “When it starts getting rainy and not-so-good weather, I want people to know we’re available.”

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