Sometimes at night Intercity Transit driver Gary Timm can't see whether there are people waiting at a bus stop.
"It's very dark, and with the lights on in the bus, there's a lot of glare," said Timm, who drives routes 41 and 48 to The Evergreen State College. "Some of the stops, you can't tell until you get right on top of them."
Since IT began testing solar bus stops and flashing beacons last year, Timm said it has made his job easier.
IT installed two solar stops last spring as part of a pilot program. The poles carry a light on top that projects downward onto the immediate area, has a lit panel for bus schedules and includes a flashing beacon on top that can be seen from a quarter to half a mile away.
They are located at Kaiser and Cooper Point roads, and Cooper Point Road and 12th Avenue.
There are also two places where officials are testing standalone flashing beacons: Martin Way and Kinwood Street, and Capitol Way at Union Avenue. Four more are planned in two weeks.
Dennis Bloom, IT's service planning manager, said the new units let drivers know there are people waiting at the bus stops and helps riders feel safer.
"Initially, we heard buses were occasionally passing people by because they don't see people standing there," Bloom said. "A lot of times, people could be standing in the shadow. We were looking for something to flash the driver."
The three-prong solar stop costs $1,100, Bloom said. The standalone flashing beacon is $400.
Officials will continue to test the units this year. If effective, the program will grow, he said.
The Pacific Northwest isn't exactly famous for sunshine, but Bloom said the solar technology doesn't need heavy sun to function. The solar unit can project light for 200 hours on a 90-minute sunlight charge. Batteries for the standalone beacons last about five years and cost about $50 to replace.
"The tradeoffs are you don't have to dig trenches to do the wiring," Bloom said. "It's very cost effective, very efficient. You're not on the grid, you're not paying any electrical charges."
Timm said he can see the flashing beacon at Kaiser and Cooper Point roads on his routes from about seven blocks away. He has seen some riders using the overhead light to read books while they're waiting.
Jerrard Jayme of Olympia was waiting for Route 15 at the Capitol Way and Union Avenue stop this week and used the flashing beacon for the first time. He spotted the bus's headlights a few blocks away and pressed the red button inside the bus shelter.
The light flashed and the bus rolled up to the stop, opening its doors for him.
Jayme has been bypassed before. He has even used the light on his bike to get drivers' attention.
"It is really dark out, so I think it's a great idea, especially in the winter time," he said.