Ride-along Points Out Transit Pros and Problems
Prince George, B.C. – An excursion this week on the Prince George Transit system has provided some valuable insight into the effectiveness of the system and areas which need addressing.
City Councilor Jillian Merrick says “I organized a transit ride-along because I had mentioned the transit system to councilors and most said they had never ridden it before and so I thought this would be a good way to get them out on the service. And then of course I sit on the Accessibility Committee as well and so members of the committee expressed an interest in participating too. And we have our transit contractor that wanted to be there to show off what they’re doing, so altogether there was about ten of us.”
She says on Wednesday “we took about four different busses in the span of two hours and crossed everywhere from First and Tabor all the way up to McGill and Domano and back down again and all over the city. It was a chance for them to see kind of what ridership levels are like. You hear a lot of noise about empty busses but of course those are just spot checks and when you sit on the bus for any amount of time you see the number of people that get on and off.”
“I think it was especially telling for me, the number 11 from out of downtown at quarter to five, and on the bus it was mostly working women. The bus was full and a lot of women and a lot of people who were wearing uniforms and clearly had come out of fast food-type jobs. A lot of ethnic diversity too, so some of them perhaps were Indo-Canadians so I think it’s just good for people to see exactly what the ridership was on the bus and how important it is to those groups.”
“I think the general consensus was, and it was of course very helpful having the Transit folks on there because they could answer all sort of questions as we were going, so one of the things that we recognized is we could have a lack of planning around the transit system for some of our new subdivisions such as University Heights.”
“Tyner Boulevard is a real challenge,” says Merrick, “it’s not really up to our road standards. When it was first built it wasn’t envisioned that we’d have all this subdivision on it. There’s really no space for bus pull-outs, there’s no a lot of bus stops on Tyner Boulevard so servicing those new subdivisions with transit is going to be a challenge.”
Merrick says the group learned several interesting facts, including that Prince George Transit was the first bus system in North America that was fully accessible and that the busses would lower their ramps at any stop in the entire system. As well she says the transit system was planned so that every resident has a bus stop within 400 metres of their home. “And I guess the conversation that worked on that is, is it better to have broad coverage and accessibility in the community for transit or is it better to have densified, good service for core transit.”
“We’re seeing some communities like Omaha, like Edmonton, going this route where they’re actually cutting the low-volume routes in favour of having high frequency on their core transit routes. That’s something we might explore too because about 85% of our ridership is only on five different routes” out of the 13 routes in the city.”
The councilor says “so we were comparing Omaha, which has about five times the population of Prince George but only twice the ridership. They have an average of 18 riders per service hour in their transit system and we have an average of 31.” She says Omaha was chosen for comparison because it is an industrially-based city with a university and some sprawl issues. “Edmonton is a very similar city although several times bigger but there are comparabilities.”
Merrick says the belief that the busses in Prince George simply are not used is a false one. “I think that stems from earlier days. The transit system had some major investment around 2003, and from 1999 to 2013 ridership has increased 263 percent whereas service levels only increased 40 percent. So we had massive growth in ridership and I’m pretty sure that our transit system is one of the fastest growing in terms of ridership.”
Merrick concurs that a good part of that ridership growth stems from UNBC and CNC student use. “Certainly what happened in 2003 was a re-jigging of routes to be more conducive to the college and university, and of course UNBC got the U-pass in 2008 and CNC came on in 2009. So that was a big boost, both to the revenue of the system and for the ridership.”
“I think a lot of people when they see the bus, when they don’t actually have an accurate picture of how many people are on the bus, they see a couple of people in the seats by the window and they say there’s nobody on the bus. I try and compare it to anybody’s residential street. If you sat on the end of your driveway and watched your residential street at any given time of day there’s probably not anybody on the street. It’s only once in a while that a car drives by and at peak periods during the day. But just because nobody is using the street for 80% of the day, it doesn’t mean you should get rid of your street. It’s about access when people need it.”
“Transit system data from all over North America shows that when you start getting busses on 15-minute intervals, when it becomes a 15-minute interval service it’s becoming like a roadway in that you can walk out at any given time, not have to worry about the schedule and a bus will be there in at least ten minutes. Unfortunately we have very few routes in our system, the #15 is the only one that has 15-minute intervals and it’s only during peak parts of the day.”
“And part of my argument is that, in a world where we don’t have any money for transit, how do we get that 15-minute interval coverage, and that’s really through perhaps cutting routes that don’t get a large volume of use. Unfortunately it really affects the people that do rely on those routes and the overall health of the transit system I suppose.”
Merrick says another problem that has to be addressed in Prince George and across B.C. is “the information that came down from the province recently saying that BC Transit would not be increasing its contributions. The way it works is that users pay about a third, BC Transit pays about a third and the municipality pays about a third.”
“B.C. Transit has said we’re not paying any more money, so if the municipality wants to expand service they not only have to cover their portion but they also have to cover Transit’s portion. And we raised user fees last year so the users are definitely putting in their fare share. Advertising is another option but it’s a relatively minor contributor to the overall revenue of the system.”
However comparatively speaking Merrick says the Prince George system has many plusses. “For every service hour that we have a driver on the road we have 31 people that get on the bus (Only Kamloops is higher at 32 riders per hour). We also have some of the lowest costs. We had about two million riders a year and when we add up all the dollars everyone puts into the transit system it works out to about $3.25 per ride, and that’s a dollar lower than the provincial average. So we’re getting good ridership, we’re operating the transit system very efficiently in terms of what it’s costing per ride.”
“But there’s not, and that’s what I’ve learned on council, there seems to be a lot of money for capital improvements but when it comes to transit, the operational, its bums in seats, its drivers on the bus, hours on the road and when it comes to operational improvements it’s very, very difficult. So now we’re trying to figure out, “what can we do here?” She notes that other communities have used the hotel tax to fund transit instead of it going directly into tourism. Other communities have teamed up with school districts to have transit providing school bus service to reduce duplication.
Merrick says “so there are all kinds of creative things happening and I think it will be a long discussion but we’ve got our service contract coming up on Monday with B.C. Transit, so…”
Editor’s note: In the 4th paragraph of the article above Councilor Merrick is misquoted as saying “Indo-Canadians” when, in fact, her comment was “new Canadians”. The author apologizes for this error.