Overcrowded buses signal trouble for transit

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2019 (1246 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS There’s no consensus on why ridership has fallen, but reliability is undoubtedly a factor, says columnist Tom Brodbeck.

The number of “pass-ups” by Winnipeg Transit – where buses are too full to pick up riders – has increased 76 per cent over the past seven years and continues to soar in 2019.

No wonder ridership is falling.

Transit released new data last week showing how often buses are late, early, or on time. The statistics, available on the City of Winnipeg website, also reveal how often passengers are left waiting at stops as congested buses pass them by. And the results aren’t pretty.

There were 16,046 pass-ups in 2018 – an average of 44 a day. That’s up from 9,115 in 2011. The number has grown almost every year. So far in 2019, there have been an average of 41 pass-ups a day. That’s high, considering those figures don’t include the months of September, October and November, when pass-ups spike every year as students return to school.

Winnipeg Transit pass-ups by year

2011 – 9,115

2012 – 11,099

2013 – 12,923

2014 – 13,701

2015 – 11,975

2016 – 13,007

2017 – 13,901

2018 – 16,046

— Winnipeg Transit

There were almost 100 pass-ups a day on average in September, 2018.

It’s bad enough buses are running early or late more than 40 per cent of the time. It’s even worse when people can’t get on a bus because there’s no room. When buses are that congested, it also makes for an uncomfortable ride. People are less likely to use transit if they’re jammed in like sardines, especially if they have mobility issues.

Transit has become increasingly unreliable. And it’s affecting ridership, which peaked in 2014 at 49.9 million rides and has been declining since. It grew slightly in 2018 by 0.65 per cent. But at 48.4 million rides last year, it’s still well below 2014 levels. The per capita decline is even steeper.

There’s no consensus on why ridership has fallen. But reliability is undoubtedly a factor. According to the city’s annual Community Trends and Performance reports, the percentage of buses running late during weekdays grew from 7.3 per cent in 2009 to 18.3 per cent in 2017. And we now know the number of pass-ups has also increased substantially during the same period.

It may explain why Winnipeggers’ satisfaction level with Transit fell to 66 per cent last year from 89 per cent in 2014, according to the city’s annual citizen survey.

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One of the problems is the city didn’t adequately expand bus service when ridership was increasing faster than population growth in the years leading up to 2014. We’re now seeing the effects of that.

It’s something former Transit director Dave Wardrop warned of in 2014 when he told a city committee there were “storm clouds” on the horizon as Transit was struggling to keep up with demand. Wardrop said Transit had reached its capacity and that overcrowding was becoming a serious problem. He was right.

None of this is due to provincial funding cuts or freezes, either, as some critics have suggested. The Pallister government did freeze Transit funding in 2018 as part of its efforts to balance the province’s books (which it must do to ensure there is sustainable funding in the future for front-line services like transit). But provincial funding grew from $32.2 million in 2011 to $41.9 million in 2017, a 30 per cent increase over six years. That’s an average annual increase of more than four per cent. Even with the 2018 freeze, Transit has been well funded over the years by the province.

The problem is city council and Transit have been so focused on Bus Rapid Transit (which will do very little, if anything, to improve ridership) that they’ve ignored core bus service. The time and resources that went into planning and building the Southwest Transitway should have been used to beef up existing service, increasing bus frequency and improving reliability. Instead, those resources have been wasted on an expensive BRT plan that’s not expected to significantly improve travel times and only marginally improve reliability.

Worse, the city is now making plans for an eastern BRT corridor without any evidence it would improve travel speed or reliability compared to on-road buses.

It’s difficult enough in a car-culture town like Winnipeg to convince people to leave their vehicles at home and take the bus. If buses are routinely running early or late, stranding riders or not showing up at all, people aren’t going to use transit unless they have no other options.

City hall hasn’t figured that out yet. Mayor Brian Bowman and city council continue to focus on building a second BRT corridor while core bus service deteriorates. It makes no sense. And the city will suffer as a result.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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