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And the average ferry rider is...

Are you an average Washington State Ferries rider?

If you’re an older, upper-middle class car driver who is relatively satisfied with WSF and does not necessarily 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 will also 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.

Drawing broad strokes from the preliminary results, consultants presented the commission with a portrait of a ferry rider who is a longtime customer, and will need “real” incentives to change well-worn travel habits. They found that customers are largely satisfied with ferry service as it stands, and though they would prefer that fares decrease, they would accept up to a 15 percent increase in fares if the quality of service was maintained or improved.

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, while 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 for work or classes.

The survey probed commuters’ willingness to shift travel schedules. Higher peak hour fares and incentives for off peak riders have been suggested as ways of spreading out demand.

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.

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 at 62 percent.

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 lane should be dedicated for dropping off passengers.

A little over half of surveyed riders said WSF should invest evenly in 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.

Surveyors found that while most customers would like to see fares lowered, they would also 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 the riders discontented with service.

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 changes.

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

Bainbridge resident Debbi Lester of the Ferry Community Partnership said she had not yet seen the full results of the survey, but said the numbers reported for median income seemed higher than reality. She is concerned that the survey will send a message that WSF customers are affluent and can shoulder higher fares.

She said her group will likely conduct its own survey of riders, one that focuses on the economic value of the ferry system.

“We didn’t feel like the survey that went out covered that aspect, how the ferries impact our communities economically,” she said.

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