How to make using public transit attractive

Buses have been in the news the last few weeks. A strike was recently avoided and service is back to normal.

For many years, Winnipeg Transit complained that not enough people take the bus. Today, this trend has been reversed and the concern now is that the system is nearing capacity. According to Dave Wardrop, director of Transit, the system had 50 million riders in 2014. He predicts that the city will need 37 new buses a year to meet the demand created by new housing. He also says that growth in 2014 was only .06 per cent, so maybe continued growth needs a reboot.

Now, I haven’t been on a bus for many years – they just aren’t easily accessible where I live and I often need my car during the day. I hear from my colleagues, though, that bussing is no picnic. Older buses are still not air-conditioned in summer and, say some, “You can’t get warm on a bus in winter.”

“The seats are so hard that you break your bones when the bus hits a pot-hole,” said my husband, who has taken a bus after leaving his car at the repair shop. I hear this from others. The seats are not only hard, they are so close together that tall men are forced to sit on the side benches at the front – or stand up.

Not that standing is the safest thing to do. Often, as the bus moves forward, it does so with a momentum-forcing jerk. People fall. Sometimes the driver will stop and wait to ensure that the fallen is okay, but as often as not, the bus just keeps going.

This is a constant problem, says faithful bus rider Joan Cohen: the bus naturally jerks on braking and accelerating. “It doesn’t seem to be something that’s easy to control,” she says in defense of the drivers, “but what would help is if they would wait to move forward until you take your seat or at least get to a seat so you can hang on to something.” Buses today offer overhead straps to support standing travelers, but they don’t help when you are moving toward your seat or moving toward the exit doors. And in the Easy Access buses, the area where the wheelchairs can be accommodated offers nothing for the rider walking to his seat to hang onto. “This is even a problem for big guys like me,” says Jason Wikis. Karl Thomsen agrees and says that he has seen more than one person fall when the bus takes off.

Joan says that another issue has to do with the painted buses, the ones where advertising covers the windows. “Not only can you not see outside to learn when you are nearing your stop,” she notes, “but it reduces the amount of light that can get in, making it hard for passengers to read.” She adds that in fall and winter, when passengers are often travelling in the dark, some buses have the lights on so dimly that seeing print is an impossibility.

On certain routes at certain times of the day, buses are overcrowded. At other times, Sundays, for example, depending on where you live, bussing it is often not a feasible alternative. Buses run once an hour or often not at all. There is no question that scheduling can be a problem for managers.

Casual bus users should beware: you must have the correct change. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from throwing in extra. The single adult fare is $2.60, but apparently many users drop in a toonie and a loonie to avoid fumbling for quarters and dimes. The weekly pass costs $20.25; the monthly goes for $86.65 (which saves $13.20 annually over the weekly pass so might as well go weekly). Buying tickets will save you 45 cents a ride over cash. You can get a transfer if you have to change buses, but the transfer is good only for 75 minutes. Post secondary students and seniors get a break: it’s $60.35 a month for students and seniors can travel for as little as 43.35 a month on both Handi-Transit and the regular service.

“Tickets can be purchased almost anywhere,” says Karl Thomsen. “It’s very convenient.”

In spite of the growing ridership, fueled by immigration (both from rural Manitoba and other countries), the city will subsidize Winnipeg Transit to the tune of $47.3 million this coming year. Public transit is still a drag on the public purse.

However, there is another way to look at this.

Leaving the driving to someone else has its allure and there is probably a market for those who want to spend their commuting time working rather than driving. So here’s a new idea: luxury bussing. Since we have to increase the fleet, this would be a good time to introduce a new level of service.

New buses could be divided into first and last class, first class being equipped with cushioned seats and more legroom. Air-conditioning and good winter heating would be standard. Pull-down tables and electrical ports for cellphones, tablets and laptops would be part of the service and Wi-Fi should be available (for the whole bus – this is 2015, after all!). This part of the bus would be well lit, no window paint allowed. You could even have a fresh coffee vendor service in those handy Starbucks-type cups, to avoid spillage . . .

Of course there would be an up-charge for this service: perhaps double or triple and even more if the luxury commute could be extended to affluent bedroom communities. Who wouldn’t prefer this over ice-covered, snow-blown highways in winter?

Now before you go start ripping up the paper and saying that I am an incorrigible Tory, always supporting the elites, think again. Extra money into the system could elevate the service for everyone. We would be able to accommodate more people and therefore buy more buses. We’d be removing single passenger cars from the road – and we’d be making it possible for the real workaholics to pursue their passion: work!

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