WHEN did the "public" part of the purpose of the Winnipeg public transit system disappear? That's a rhetorical question, of course. It disappeared from the minds and the dreams and the hallucinations of city planners, the day the words "rapid transit system" seduced their rationality.
We could be glamourous, prosperous hives of tourism and economic activity if only we had a rapid transit system. It's not so much that we need one in any practical sense; it's that we need to have one no matter what the cost, what the impracticality, what the sacrifice to other city services -- starting with that traditional sad-sack of civic life, public transit -- because that's what big cities do.
In Winnipeg, at the moment, rapid transit consists of a dream of a bus corridor that would save students going to the University of Manitoba about five minutes on a trip from downtown. The mind boggles. It's like the jet cars that Popular Mechanics predicted in 1950 that we would all be driving around in today -- shaving five minutes off a half-hour bus trip and the wheels never even leave the ground. Talk about Metropolis!
Anyone who has ever been to university knows that the one commodity students have to spare is time. Five minutes can be frittered away in the cafeteria settling the issues of Mephistophelean malefactions in history or the contemporary metaphysical and moral conundrum of the price of surfboards in St. Louis.
What students don't usually have is much money. And so it came to pass this week that city council's executive policy committee decided to raise bus fares by 25 cents next year so that a few U of M students could get to school a little more quickly.
It came to council like a revelation, apparently, a great, glowing copy of Popular Mechanics appearing above them telling them what tomorrow could be, if only they would act. And so, without any debate, information or reports on possible consequences, they embraced the future.
Embracing the future -- this is Winnipeg after all -- consisted of raising bus fares. This means the students who connect to rapid transit downtown will have to pay 50 cents more a day to connect to the speedy new buses. But it isn't really the students that are the issue here. The issue that city council deliberately ignores is the working poor who have no choice but to take the bus, every day for every purpose. They are the "public" that public transit is supposed to service. They depend on it for their livelihoods and for their lives, at least in the sense of quality; the few suburbanites and post-secondary students who use public transit are not much more than gravy for a council that does not seem to appreciate that a public transit system is a vital function of a city, not an elaborate fancy.