About the Blog:

Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Observations By a Bus Rider (and how we can make things better)

Congratulations Guelph! Your bus service is back to 20 minutes as of yesterday. Convenience is now your friend if you travel on the bus-ways of our fair city. But should we have had to suffer through the summer that was? Obviously, if you’ve been following along with this blog, I don’t think we should have. What fosters transit loyalty? Order. Reliability. Timeliness. Guelph Transit had none of these things this past summer.

It wasn’t entirely their fault, of course. It starts at the top (city council) and in the wake of a significant budget deficit, The Powers The Be saw a convenient and timely transit system as a luxury they couldn’t afford. This even while patting themselves on the back for endorsing a transit hub and consultation group proposals to improve our transit system.

On the subject of the latter, being something of a regular bus rider myself, I offer some of my own tips and suggestions for improving transit and hopefully encouraging increased ridership and dedication from the city to public transit in the process.

1) Treat Transit as a Commuter Service

This should be a no-brainer, but apparently it’s not so much.

Not to name names, but there are certain people that I see on the bus that don’t seem to be going anywhere. They ride round and round on various bus routes only to occasionally get off to have a coffee or visit a store before getting back on another bus to do it all over again. And in this I’m not including the U of G who ride the entirety of every bus route once for fun. That’s a sacred right of passage.

No, I mean the people that not only take up a seat on the bus that could be used by someone trying to get somewhere. These people are also usually the ones talking to the driver as they operate the bus. Not only does this person gabbing to the driver constantly increase the likelihood of a missed stop, but it also makes it difficult for someone unfamiliar with the route to approach the driver for information. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s a sign at the front of the bus that asks riders to not talk to the driver while the coach is in motion.

I know people like this irk some of the drivers, while others either tolerate or facilitate the behaviour of individuals who seem to have nothing better to do then pay $2.75 for a round trip to The Square. For those on the side of irked, I encourage you to speak up. For everyone else, I ask that this behaviour be mitigated. Sure, driving the bus in a circle every 40 minutes must not offer its share of thrills or variety, but the other passengers on the bus are looking from their watches to the Sunday social happening at the front of the bus and wondering what it would be like if their ride was moving faster.

2) Same Goes for Drivers

Let me preface this by saying that most of the drivers that run the buses are paragons of professionalism and ability. However, there are a few, just a few, who think that they’re out for some kind of Sunday drive rather than ferrying people to the places and transfer points where they need to be in a timely fashion.

I don’t just mean this past summer with the effed up schedule either. There are a few drivers that don’t mind talking to their friends on the bus, and as I noted above this can lead to some difficult situations. As well, there’s at least one driver, if he’s running obviously and almost debilitating late, and you should ask him if you’ll be making your transfer on time, he answers with a light-hearted “I hope so.” You hope so? Not exactly the mea culpa I’m looking for considering that we’re 10 minutes from the Square, four minutes before the buses leave and I have to squeeze past a couple of your friends as you chat at the front of the bus. But seriously, thanks for riding Guelph Transit.

Of course, no one’s saying that drivers can’t be friendly, but the bus isn’t a hang out, it’s a conveyance. And as much as I appreciate that drivers spend their day sitting in a chair, and a bit of time stretching their legs is a nice break, I still want to make sure I’m getting where I’m going on time. It frustrated me every time I sit on a bus, waiting to leave the square and watching every other bus take off as I look out the window and see two or three drivers chit-chatting the day away. Sorry, but the bus is supposed to leave St George’s Square at 10:15, not 10:15-ish.

But like I said at the top, 99 per cent of the time, the Guelph Transit drivers do a first rate job in what I can’t imagine is a profession that’s 100 per cent stress-free. But as anyone in marketing will tell you, people are more likely to remember the one bad experience before the 100 positive experiences they’ve had with a service. And Guelph is not like Toronto where some people begrudgingly take the TTC because they know that driving around Toronto is infinitesimally more headache inducing. Guelph Transit needs all the friends it can get.

3) Strollers: Banned or Not Banned.

Picture a busy bus at rush hour, either AM or PM. Now imagine this bus pulling up to pick up a passenger with one of these:

A rig like this, along with mother and additional child(ren), can take up around five seats worth of space. I call strollers like these “Hummers” because they take up a lot of space and are very flashy and have not much of a purpose beyond the first two things.

Also, they don’t fold up easily. That used to be a rule on the bus, your stroller (or cart or similar carrying device) had to folded up before you got on board. But somewhere between then and now, the rule, like pirate law, became more of a suggestion.

Now some drivers still enforce this, but that only adds to the confusion. You can’t really blame someone with a Hummer when one driver will shrug and let you ride and while another will tell you that you can’t get on the bus with “that” even if you just did.

What we need is a new standard, and in this case I think the old standard will suffice: you can get on the bus with your stroller, but it must be folded up. I’m I being an anti-child Scrooge. Not hardly (well, sort of). Part of this is a safety issue. I’ve been on buses where there have been four of these Hummers lined up in the aisle. This could be a major hazard if something should happen that would require a quick evacuation from the bus.

Basically, either Transit has to rein in the Hummers or charge extra for them. Those five seats could let five people sit comfortably or offer an appropriate space for someone that is genuinely handicapped. They are not an indulgence for your extravagance. So if you want a premium, perhaps you should have to pay for it. And before we close the topic, may I point out that many of those strollers are designed for mothers working out. Think about it.

4) Sell Ad Space

See those runners at the sides of the bus above the windows? That’s where ads are supposed to go, and currently it seems that the only ones that use them are Guelph Transit, the U of G Central Student Association, Ontario Health and West 49. If there’s a budget deficit, why can’t transit help make up the shortfall by using space they already have and taking some advertising dollars? This is the biggest question I’ve considered about transit in recent years because in time’s past the space was used. Is there a lack of will? A lack of time? Is ad space that hard to sell on a city bus? I don’t know, but I’d love to learn more.

5) Stop Screwing with the Schedule

In the delivery of any service, reliability is the key. But that goes doubly true if the service you’re providing is a ride en masse from Point A to Point B. In the last three months, transit users have had to endure the shift from 20 minute service to half hour service, then half-hour service with no Sunday service, and then back to 20 minutes again. Combine this with the fact that fares were raised by a quarter this year, and stat holiday service was cancelled and what we have here is failure to make a case as to why Guelph Transit is a “better way” (to borrow another system’s catch phrase).

While it’s true in business that if something isn’t working you stop and try something else, this raises a particular point: is transit a business or is it a service, and if it’s the former, should typical rules of business be applied to it? One of the reasons the stat service was cancelled was because it didn’t make enough back to cover the cost, but what about the cost beyond buses? Were not city events like Canada Day in Riverside Park and John Galt Day on the Civic Holiday better served and better attended because people, typically immobile when transit isn’t running, were able to attend? What about the teens who typically work Sundays. How much money were they out because they couldn’t work those five days in August?

In the bigger picture it makes more sense to have as many options as possible when it comes to transit. Not everybody can have a car because our streets would be traffic-logged and pollution would be stifling. We’d be begging for an alternative.

Also, I find it difficult to hear the city go out and talk about the glorious future for transit while cutting the legs out from under it in the present. It’s confusing at best and hypocritical at worst. I find it interesting that the highly vaunted transit hub is 25th on a list of 25 projects that’s getting paid for by infrastructure stimulus, and by that I mean that it seems the least likely to be completed on time before the March 31st deadline for the federal and provincial money. A cynical person may see this as a pattern.

To bottom line all of this, I add that I realize that no matter how convenient transit is, it will never be so convenient as having a warm car waiting for you in your driveway as you take your time leaving for work or school. It won’t take you to the very front door of your destination (with few exceptions) and it won’t be ready right at the exact moment you leave at the end of the day.

Taking transit is not as convenient as a personal automobile. I know that. But a century of car use is killing us. Think about smog, bedroom communities, traffic congestion, and paving wilderness to create bigger, longer highways. We need a general change in attitude because no matter what happens, no matter if we find a cheap, plentiful alternative to gasoline, it will never be practical for everyone to drive their own car. In the coming election, I’d love to see councillors and challengers affirm a commitment to transit. No more summer cuts – no more cuts period - and more services please.

I like taking the bus, but bad policy makes me hate it. And I don’t want to hate it. Talking a bus should be a matter of civic pride, and easy step to a greener tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the bus system needs an overhaul, it's a totally shoddy operation.. without punctuality, public transportation becomes a waste of people's time when it should be a convenience. I'm not sure I agree with the stroller attacks. Even though they are cumbersome, strollers serve a pretty important purpose to mothers who are evidently riding the bus because they don't have money for a car. Parents keep their infants or toddlers in their strollers because otherwise they can be hard to keep still and it's very awkward to be juggling strollers and kids on a moving bus. Also, strollers with big wheels are helpful in transporting kids over cracked sidewalks and rubble streets, and they have large storage compartments to keep kids stuff in them so that parents don't have to carry things around while using both hands to push a stroller... it seems like you're unfairly targeting underprivileged women as being too much trouble for the public transit system, when they're just trying to get around.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the stroller thing, which is a moot point to me, I agree with this post 1000 times over.

Until Guelph takes it public transportation system seriously, I do not even remotely consider this a "green" city. Many times I've heard the immature mentality that public transportation is for "losers" and "poor people" in this city.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Public transportation is the way of the future. The city should be putting a large portion of their infrastructure money into developing transit. Guelph isn't that big, if the system was properly put into place (with punctual consistent and frequent service) we could take a lot of cars off the road and make the public transit system more cosmopolitan and less perceived as "for losers".

Anonymous said...

I agree with the stroller attack.

What's wrong with those old umbrella strollers? They had mesh bags for storage and big rubber wheels and folded up to take as much space as an umbrella. OK, they are not as durable, I went through three of them, but they were in the twenty dollars range at a time when the hummer version was in the hundreds. If these "underprivileged women" can afford hummer strollers, they can afford an extra umbrella stroller for bus days.

We need more consistency for bikes too. My daughter has a basket on her bike - it's a basket, but it would fail to hold a can of soda - it's intended as a decoration. Some drivers refuse to allow her to load her bicycle because of it. Others could care less. Makes for a very long bike ride some days.