The number of "pass-ups" – where city buses are too full to pick up people waiting at stops — increased again in 2019, up 5.2 per cent compared to the previous year, according to Winnipeg Transit data.
Transit officials said last year they were tackling the problem by focusing on the routes where pass-ups occur the most. However, the number of times would-be passengers are forced to wait — often in bone-chilling temperatures — as congested buses pass them by, continues to climb. It’s little wonder ridership has been on the decline in recent years.
There were 16,886 pass-ups in 2019, having increased every year over the past five years. They’re up 41 per cent since 2015. Whatever Transit claims to be doing to solve the problem isn’t working. September 2019 saw the largest number of pass-ups of any month since Transit began tracking them, going back to 2011. There were 3,220 pass-ups recorded that month, eclipsing the previous monthly record of 2,965 in September 2018. Transit says the problem is worse in the month of September as students return to school and are still figuring out their schedules.
Pass-ups occur throughout the year and are not limited to just a few routes. The problem is widespread. They occurred on 45 different routes in 2019 in all parts of the city, including on several rapid transit routes.
The No. 11 Portage-Kildonan route had among the highest pass-ups last year. In December alone, packed buses bypassed would-be passengers 176 times along that route. On Boxing Day, there were 61 pass-ups from 8:33 a.m. to 9:46 p.m. on the No. 11. That’s almost five every hour.
When people have to wait 20, 30 or 40 minutes in freezing temperatures — often without a bus shack — as congested buses pass them by, the choice between driving a car and taking a bus becomes a lot easier to make. For those who don’t have that choice, it means their commuting lives become more miserable.
The problem of bus overcrowding didn’t emerge without warning. It was predicted years ago when Transit officials failed to increase capacity to meet growing demand. Winnipeg’s ridership peaked in 2014 at 49.9 million riders. Ridership was increasing well beyond the rate of population growth prior to that. Yet Transit didn’t expand its fleet and bus frequency, at least not enough to keep pace with demand. As a result, buses became more congested and less reliable. The percentage of buses running late grew and the number of pass-ups increased.
As service got worse, fewer people opted to take the bus.
It’s no coincidence that during the same period, Transit shifted its focus towards the design and construction of its first Bus Rapid Transit corridor, which came at the expense of regular bus service. Had Transit put those resources into regular bus service instead, there’s little doubt Winnipeg would have had superior bus service today.
Even now, Transit officials are more preoccupied with the logistics and preparation of the second phase of its Southwest Transitway (slated to open in April) than they are with improving regular service. And for what? Transit’s BRT line (which will now be called "Blue" not "Blue Line," as originally announced, for reasons Transit officials refuse to say) will at best produce only marginal benefits.
BRT will not be much faster than regular express buses and will only be slightly more reliable during peak traffic periods. If it is faster, it will only be by a few minutes, hardly enough to attract more riders and convince people to swap their cars for bus passes. That’s especially true when the rest of transit continues to be less reliable. Whatever minor benefits BRT produces will be more than offset by deteriorating service in the rest of the city.
What’s even more troubling is Transit is still planning to build more BRT lines after it completes the Southwest Transitway — without any plan to show how it would increase ridership— even as regular service falls apart.
If city officials want to convince more people to get out of their cars and into buses, they should start focusing on regular service again. Because right now, it’s dreadful.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.