Service is key to boosting bus ridership

For people who have grown up in a culture that highly values cars, the bus remains something of a mystery.

Like someone encountering a strange and confusing religion, the bus novice finds there are many secrets to be revealed. When does the bus come? Where does it go? How do I get on? How do I get off?

The fare box on one bus happily consumed my friend’s $10 bill before anyone could stop her. We all looked down, embarrassed to inform her that the driver cannot make change.

Fortunately the transit learning curve is short. Armed with schedules and tickets and with key bus-check numbers memorized, passengers can navigate the city with confidence. This is fortunate since transit is going to figure more prominently in the urban and inter-urban streetscapes of the near future.

Hamilton’s transit director recently revealed what most crowded bus riders already know, that “valid service demands far outstrip our available funding and our available capacity.”

Targets for Hamilton’s transit ridership predict that the transit’s share of the daily trips made on all forms of transportation will double to 12 per cent by 2030.

While no one is going to force cars off North American roads, the way we use vehicles is likely going to change.

Even if you’re not up on the current discussion on peak oil or the latest climate change disaster, it’s perhaps time for us all to rethink our over-reliance on cars. Influential voices such as author Howard Kunstler warn that we need to “start thinking beyond the car.” He’s not talking futuristic helicopters or personalized jetpacks. “Need something to do?” he asks his readers, “Get involved in restoring public transit.”

That Hamilton could be doing more is a given: the Transportation Master Plan shows expenditures on transit have been in decline for years, with a corresponding decline in local transit’s modal share: between 1986 and 2001, the share of trips handled by transit went from 12 per cent to 7 per cent. In the same time frame drivers increased their modal share from 63 per cent to 64 per cent.

Hamilton is locked in a car-culture embrace that can only be described as unhealthy. Compared to 10 years ago, the average Hamilton resident uses 15 per cent more fuel for transportation.

Hamilton fares badly compared to 10 other Canadian cities in terms of per capita transit use (fourth lowest) and per capita annual fuel use (second highest). We also have the second highest amount of arterial and expressway lane metres, second only to Oshawa.

Transit is the best way out of the traffic jam we’re stuck in, but how do we get people to make the switch? According to a national study conducted by McCormick Rankin Corporation, experience shows it starts with service.

“Even with much lower fares, people are not going to take transit if it does not provide service that is convenient, reliable, comfortable and safe. When service is improved, new riders will be attracted.” (Urban Transit in Canada: Taking Stock)

Peter Hutton takes a similar stance. Hutton advocates for improved public transit as a regular rider and as a member of the Hamilton Transit Users Group (TUG), an Environment Hamilton project that gives transit users a voice.

Hutton is a practical guy who knows transit. His starting point? “Let’s do some planning to make small incremental steps to improve the system for everybody.”

He also recognizes the need for equitable long-term financial planning, something “everybody can buy into and support,” he says.

Hutton proposes that Hamilton council commit to raising new revenues for the HSR in at least equal proportion from fares and taxes. The current cost recovery guide is a 55:45 ratio with fares carrying the burden of revenue generation.

“Why 55:45? We could use transit funding as a tool to fight poverty, making a conscious decision to a 50:50 funding split,” argues Hutton. A British Columbia Transit study found similar size cities (150,000-400,000 pop.) average 52 per cent of their funding from fares, investing a higher percentage in taxes to support transit.

Another significant boost to funding would come through reforming “area rating” of transit within the urban boundary. Extra tax revenue could fund immediate service expansion in conjunction with gas tax money, explains Hutton. Because of area rating, currently only about 75 per cent of Hamilton residents are paying to support transit.

A culture shift that views transit as a public good needs to happen in the minds of those currently alienated from the service, he suggests.

“We’ve got to start seeing transit as a positive rather than the somewhat traditional negative ‘drag on the coffers.'”

Recent signs are positive: we’ve got new buses, plans to extend service and add bus rapid transit routes.

But perhaps the two American tourists my wife and I encountered on a bus in Vancouver best embody the attitude for success. Employing Yankee ingenuity they bartered with the driver, (who played along with them) and quickly determined they could ride the bus for the entire route, seeing much of the city, for the same fare as going a couple of stops. They thought this a fantastic deal, and happily boarded, smiling as though they had just won the War of 1812.

Now all we need to do is match the service to their smiles and we’re on our way.

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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