For Our Big Problems, the First Step Is Trying

For decades, we’ve been told that public transportation won’t work in northern Door County, despite the fact that dozens of other seasonal destinations like ours have pulled it off. We’ve been told Door County is too rural, too unpredictable, that people here just plain like to drive too much. 

You’ll hear those arguments at the bar, from town board members, and from business leaders who look at the transportation problem and respond by shrugging their shoulders. 

But this fall Sister Bay, Baileys Harbor and Egg Harbor disproved those accepted notions by using the groundbreaking tactic of, um, trying something

Almost 2,000 people got a ride to or from Sister Bay’s Fall Festival via village shuttles and a bus running between Baileys Harbor and Sister Bay. The week before, 550 people took advantage of the park-and-ride supplied by Horseshoe Bay Farms to and from the farm and the Village of Egg Harbor for Pumpkin Patch Festival. 

When Louise Howson took over leadership of the Sister Bay Advancement Association (SBAA), she made public transportation a priority.

“Tourists expect it to be available,” she said then. But she was also driven by public-safety concerns. Working with Brynn Swanson and Katie Hohmann, her counterparts in Baileys Harbor; along with forward-thinking business owners, she pushed to bring Uber and Lyft to northern Door County. They’ve staged driver sign-ups, staffed booths at festivals, brought company officials here to recruit and invested in marketing to publicize the availability of the services. Two years later, there aren’t yet Ubers on every corner, but they’re available. 

This summer the Village of Sister Bay charged SBAA with resurrecting the shuttle service that had flopped in 2017 due to poor route planning, vehicle breakdowns and unreliability. Howson, knowing that transportation systems landed outside her area of expertise, brought in transportation expert Sophie Parr to map a new route. The result was a much more reliable, more visible and more used service in Sister Bay during the summer. 

The bus launched in July and ran Thursday through Saturday, shuttling 4,000 people during three months. It didn’t work perfectly – daytime buses were barely used – but it’s a first serious, well-executed step. And at $35,000 to acquire and staff the bus, it was cheaper to just try it than hiring a consultant. 

“We learned that daytime routes need to be more frequent than every half hour,” Howson said. “People didn’t know if they wanted to get stuck in a place for a half hour, but in the evening when they’re eating and drinking, they’re fine waiting.”

Just a couple weeks before Fall Fest, Hohmann and SBAA’s event assistant, Miluzka McCarthy, spitballed the idea of running a shuttle from Baileys Harbor to Sister Bay, knowing that many revelers would be staying in Baileys Harbor. Within 24 hours, Hohmann and Swanson had recruited enough sponsors to get not one, but two buses. Businesses recognized not only the safety benefits of the shuttle, but also the customer-service benefit of offering an easy, safe, parking-hassle-free option to get guests where they wanted to go. 

It’s a lesson we learned at the Door County Half Marathon 12 years ago, when the lack of parking in the park was seen as a hurdle. (I handle public relations for the race.) We offered shuttles to get people in and out of the park on race day, but we worried that we wouldn’t be able to persuade people to use them. We miscalculated.

It turned out that our runners loved the shuttles, and we quickly switched our marketing to feature lodging sponsors on the shuttle route and market the service as a big part of an easy race day. We also made shuttles a staple of another of our events, the Door County Beer Festival.

It turns out that a huge percentage of our visitors are more than happy to give up their cars and focus on enjoying their vacation if we just give them the option. 

Not only do these shuttles get people to and from destinations safely and conveniently, but they keep hundreds of cars from clogging roads and filling parking lots. (The best parking solution isn’t parking lots on prime real estate, but eliminating the need to park in the first place.)

Sister Bay has laid down a model, and for a weekend at least, Baileys Harbor showed there’s plenty of demand to connect communities. Thanks to Horseshoe Bay Farms, Egg Harbor saw how ready visitors and residents are to create new habits. 

It goes to show that for our big problems – add housing, child care, health care and our worker shortage, for instance – our first step shouldn’t be expending energy arguing about what won’t work. Our first step should be to try something. We can throw our hands up later.