I’m ashamed to admit that when I found out I was going to be transferred from The Dalles Chronicle to the Hood River News, my first thought was something along the lines of ‘ugh now I have to drive to Hood River.’
Not that I don’t love Hood River — it’s a beautiful city with a vibrant community — but I live in downtown The Dalles and had been able to easily walk to work at the Chronicle. Now, I have an 18 to 25-minute commute twice a day — more if I’m covering something on a weekend — and running through a full tank of gas a week.
So, I was inordinately excited when I found out about public transit options in the area and overly eager to try out Columbia Area Transit (CAT)’s new routes in Hood River and The Dalles. I have been a public transit connoisseur since I was 13 and my parents allowed me to ride TriMET from our home in Hillsboro to Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland alone for the first time. My dad practiced the route with me first: Validating my ticket, boarding the MAX blue line eastbound to Gresham, exiting at Library and Ninth, transferring to the Portland Streetcar one block over and disembarking at 10th and Couch.
He must have done a good job because it’s been 10 years and I still have that route memorized.
In those 10 years, I’ve somewhat-successfully navigated public transit systems in New Orleans, San Francisco, Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, Munich and Amsterdam — so I was confident I could figure out Hood River public transit.
Since CAT offers free fare on its fixed routes through July 13, I set out last week to try a few of CAT’s fixed routes: The Dalles intercity route, the Hood River weekday city route and the free weekend “Pink Trolley.” The trolley, which runs through September, is by far the most noticeable of CAT’s services driving around and definitely the most fun.
The open-air trolley looks and feels like a cable-car lifted straight out of the 1900s, so much so that the rider can get lost in the summer breeze and the whimsy of it all. I certainly did when I hopped on Saturday afternoon with no clear destination in mind, just to ride around town. I encountered other passengers doing the same thing, as well as tourists looking to avoid the horrendous downtown traffic and locals getting between downtown and the heights.
The weekend trolley makes nine official stops (see graphic for details) and is a free service, but donations for Hood River Shelter Services are encouraged and the driver accepts tips. Both the donation box and the tip jar sit just behind the driver.
Though it may look like an old-timey cable car, it drives much like a school bus, the driver remarked. The biggest difference between the two is also the greatest challenge, he added: School-bus routes are often mapped out with their size taken into consideration while the trolley route wasn’t, so the driver is stuck navigating tight city streets and clipping a couple of curbs making sharp right turns.
After the driver stopped for a couple a few blocks away from a stop and thanked them for getting his attention, I asked him what the right way to flag down the trolley is. “It’s supposed to be an arm above your head and a couple of waves,” he said, “it makes it easier if you’re facing the street and make eye contact with the driver,” he added, as it’s often hard to tell whether someone is asking him to stop or just waving hello.
All of CAT’s routes have designated stopes but theoretically, CAT allows passengers to flag down any of the buses at any safe spot along the route.
However, because I am a very self-conscious and awkward human being, I have never successfully flagged down trolley, a bus or any other moving vehicle (I jumped into the back of jeepney once in the Philippines, but I don’t think the same rules apply in Hood River) and, typically, I rely on traditionally marked stops and bus schedules.
So, as a bonus challenge, I decided to flag down the bus at least once while trying out the three routes. I mustered up the courage to try it Friday afternoon, when I left the Hood River News office with the intent of getting off at Rosauers to grab groceries for the weekend.
Well — first I chickened out and went to one of the route’s 14 official stops, each conveniently given a name and a number along the route (see graphics for the schedule and route details). I caught the 3:36 bus from the Library station — which ended up being the 3:43 bus due to traffic.
The driver, Bill, cheerfully asked where I was going and once he confirmed I was on the right bus, apologized for being late and kept on his way.
The CAT buses are each about the size of a large van, with a large open space in the back for bikes, wheelchairs and standing-room and 12 fabric seats near the front, one equipped with a child’s car seat. Though I was the only one waiting at my stop, nearly every seat was filled when I climbed aboard.
A woman who boarded later commented on the traffic, saying that this is the worst it’s been in the 20 years she’d lived here. “It gets worse and worse every year,” Bill said, “that’s why people should take the bus!”
A couple stops later, two backpackers asked for help understanding their tickets — they’d accidentally booked a ride at 3:40 a.m. instead of 3:40 p.m. like they thought. They ended up hitching a ride with the bus to Safeway and directed the driver to their motel nearby.
While we rolled along, I asked Bill if the bus picks people up in between stops and he answered sure, so long as it’s along the route and there’s a clear curb to pull over to. Passengers can ask to get off anywhere along the route too, he added, just let the driver know ahead of time so the driver can accomadate for the request.
After embarrassing myself trying to get off twice thinking the bus was as close to Rosauers as it was going to get, I got off at the official stop in the Rosauers parking lot. When I came out with my shopping 20 minutes later, pulled up the vague map of the route on my phone and started walking towards the next stop and, within a couple minutes, I saw a CAT bus driving up. I stuck my arm up and waved twice — and to my utter amazement, the bus stopped.
The driver, John, asked me where I was heading; I said into town and he replied that he drove the Upper Valley route to Odell but could take me six blocks or so to the hospital stop. Thanking him, I agreed and got on. Along the way, he called the other driver, Bill, on the bus radio and asked where he was along his route, letting him know that a passenger was trying to get into town. Bill said he could be at the hospital stop in 10 minutes or so, John let me off and directed me to the stop less than a block away. I looked down at my phone and when I looked up barely two minutes later, the city bus was already rounding the corner. Bill laughed a bit when he recognized me and remarked that he’d saved me a few steps trying to get back into town.
Monday morning, I took the route I was most excited about: The Dalles to Hood River. If this worked out, maybe I could drive to work less. The Dalles Intercity Route consists of four stops: Two in The Dalles: 201 Federal Street and the LINK Transit center; and two in Hood River: The Port Transfer Station and Waucoma Center.
The bus schedule for this route was a bit more confusing than the others since the two Hood River stops are part of the City Route, which runs every hour or so, while the bus only goes all the way to The Dalles about once every two hours.
Since I live downtown, I walked to 201 Federal Street (the Veteran’s Services Center) expecting a purple and white CAT sign like I’d seen elsewhere to tell me I was in the right spot. Unable to find one, I looked around and saw another commuter who looked like she was waiting for the bus and just stood awkwardly near her. At 7:27, she turned to me and asked if I was waiting for the CAT bus and a little too enthusiastically for 7:27 in the morning I said yes, I am — I’m so glad I’m not the only one. A few minutes later, the bus pulled up and the driver apologized for being late, as he’d been asked to pick up a passenger in Mosier who didn’t show. The bus stopped briefly at the LINK transit center on the other side of town but as nobody was around, it went off with just the two of us.
The ride itself went smoothly enough and despite arriving late, the bus arrived at the Port Transfer station right on time — 7:55 — where it then became the regular City Route bus.
The only problem I had with the trolley and city bus is that their routes are one-way loops — so using public transit to get to the library (Stop 12) from the Port Transfer station (Stop 1) a half a mile away means riding the entire city loop — but the route only takes 40-minutes to an hour from start to finish and is condensed enough that all the downtown stops are within a 10-minute walk of each other, so the lack of reversibility is mostly a non-issue — definitely not enough to deter me from using it again next time I don’t feel like driving to work.
Even though fare was free this week, I figured I’d have to pay to ride eventually, so I went on CAT’s website to research fare. Like most people I know, I very rarely carry cash unless I specifically need it for something — like transit fare. Usually I make my way an ATM and buy a cheap coffee to break a $20 bill into something a driver would accept, but when I went to check the price of fare on CAT’s website, I found they allow you to pay fare on Hopthru, a universal mobile ticketing app.
“Hopthru is an easy, new way to pay for rides on CAT buses. You won’t need cash or exact change when you are ready to ride, just your smartphone or tablet. Hopthru is free and easy to set up. You’ll be able to buy CAT bus passes anytime, anywhere. Getting started is as easy as 1-2-3!” claimed the website.
Step One: Download the app. Easy enough — text a number for a downloadable link or search for it in your phone’s store. The hardest part was getting it to download on my office’s Wi-Fi but once it was actually on the phone, the app itself worked smoothly.
Step Two: “Tap ‘Buy Passes’, then choose Columbia Area Transit from the list of agencies. Next, select your ticket type (One Ride Ticket or 20 Ride Booklet). Your information will be safe and secure in the Hopthru app. You can buy as many passes as you want and use them at your leisure.”
Okay — The app askes to access your location when you open it, then asks for a phone number to send a confirmation code to. I get a text instantly, type in the code, and then the app asks for a full name and email address. As soon as I typed those in, I was taken to a home screen that gave me the option to buy passes. Yes, please. Since the app serves multiple transit agencies, it asks you which you want to buy tickets for. Select CAT, choose rider type (“General” was the only option) and ticket-type (one-way trip or 20-ride pass — I got the single) A one-way pass is supposed to cost $1.25 — but, as I happily discovered, the first one-way on the app is free—so I wasn’t charged. I did have to pay for a second one-way, however, so I entered my card information and I was good to go.
Step Three: “When you are about to get on a CAT bus, just activate the pass, then show the screen to your driver. It’s that easy! Passes are valid for one hour after activation and can be opened without any internet connection.” When you click on a ticket in the app, it asks if you’re sure you want to activate it and tells you the time it’ll expire. Click “yes,” and the ticket activates.
Welcome to the future.