Public transit and why it isn’t working

Hello Internet, it’s Monday, November 8th, and today is awesome because the dentist appointment I had this afternoon has been moved to next week… through no doing of my own!

(To my lovely hygienist: I am sorry that you’re sick. I do not mean to revel in your pain. It’s just… man, I really dislike going to the dentist. Really really. I hope you understand.)

So, Metrobus is on strike, and has been since Thursday morning. Or to be more accurate, Metrobus drivers, mechanics and administrators are on strike, which means that there are no buses running. I don’t know even close to enough about this particular union action to have an opinion about it (except, of course that the whole business is SUPER-INCONVENIENT), but here’s what I do know:

1) The conflict seems to be mostly about the insurance plan that Metrobus offers its workers. Apparently, Metrobus would like to see more employee contribution to the plan (50/50), and the employees, as you might expect, are not all right with that.

2) The City of St. John’s is running a deficit this year, and are trying to shave $5M out of the budget by December. The City is also the major funder of Metrobus. As a result, Metrobus is feeling a budget squeeze.

3) The union voted overwhelmingly to reject the last offer from Metrobus before the strike (one that included a wage increase of 15.5% over 4 years), which led directly to the strike mandate. 97% of voting union members rejected the offer. This gives me the impression that they feel strongly about what they are doing.

4) Metrobus has been seeing a decline in ridership since 2006.

I don’t know how I feel about this action, but there are a few things I do have opinions about.

Firstly, the reason that Metrobus has been losing riders for the past 4 years is that their service is broken. The routes are long, winding, complicated and confusing. Buses on the routes are infrequent, and often late, because there isn’t sufficient catch-up time in the schedule, so if a bus gets stuck in traffic once, they’re late for the rest of the day. On top of this, the standard cost is $2.25/ride, which hardly seems worth it if you can walk to where you’re going in about the same amount of time that it takes for the bus to get you there. None of that is the fault of the drivers. (I say this only because I feel that bus drivers are on the receiving end of a lot of misdirected anger in their everyday lives, and this strike is not helping with that. If you oppose the union action on the basis that bus service is ineffective even when it DOES run, you are blaming the wrong people.)

Secondly, the cost of living is going up in St. John’s. I know it, and so does everyone else who lives here. It’s reflected in the recent dramatic boost of minimum wage in NL. (For those of you reading this from afar, min. wage here is $10/hr. It was $8/hr in December of 2008.) It’s reflected in the jump in the cost of rental property, and in the price of houses. Folks are worried about their finances: the transit workers, the transit users, and everyone who doesn’t fit into those two categories (ie: roughly 85% of the city). So now is the PERFECT time to make public transit a viable option.

Thirdly, the entire conflict is symptomatic of some short-sightedness on behalf of the City. I am sympathetic to the desire to cut down on spending, and let me not for a single moment sound ungrateful for the things that City Hall has done for its citizens since the most recent election, including, of course, curbside recycling. Curbside recycling is excellent. BUT:

If Metrobus is ever going to be a popular and more profitable service again, it’s going to need revamping. It needs to deliver more bang for our buck, and that means more direct, simpler routes, more routes in general, and more buses on each route.

St. John’s is anything but on a grid, but there are plenty of thoroughfares that could have frequent bus service to get transit users from one section of the city to the other. Topsail/Cornwall/Lemarchant/Harvey/Military (non-St. John’s-ians, I know it’s hard to believe, but that is all one stretch of road) would be a good one. Columbus/Prince Philip would be another. Kingsbridge/Logy Bay/Outer Ring/Torbay would be a good loop. It is not impossible. Put in four or five arterial routes (where buses come in intervals of 10 minutes or less), and then direct all of your capillary routes (the ones that go through neighbourhoods) to the arteries. Institute a route to and from the airport. Run routes to parking lots in CBS, Torbay and other surrounding communities so that commuters can park & ride.

And then, once all of that is in place, raise the price of downtown parking. Parking is already a huge problem in this city, and the council is constantly under pressure to build new lots… but that can’t even come close to solving the problem. If the City and Metrobus can make the public transit system work properly, they can make it a financially beneficial alternative to driving, which will reduce the parking problem. Ridership will go up, Metrobus will run a smaller deficit, and the City of St. John’s will have one more star in every tourism guide.

Is it expensive in the short term? Yes. And that is the number one reason that nothing of the kind has happened yet. But every businessperson knows that the only way to make money is to spend money. And the only way to bring the bus-rider numbers up is to make the bus noticeably cheaper than the car.

The population of this city is booming. Aren’t we approaching the critical mass necessary to make functional public transit possible?