The current disruption of Winnipeg’s transit service is related to the budget. If more buses are acquired and more mechanics are hired, the problems can be resolved.

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Opinion

The current disruption of Winnipeg’s transit service is related to the budget. If more buses are acquired and more mechanics are hired, the problems can be resolved.

The bus shortage is symptomatic of a larger issue that has nothing to do with completion of the Southwest Transit Corridor (STC) but, it raises questions about how more transitways can be financed. Winnipeg Transit already relies on provincial and municipal subsidies to pay half its operating costs. Unless the transitways can attract more riders, the additional costs must be borne by taxpayers and existing riders.

Nothing is going to happen quickly, but it is time to take a fresh look at the way Winnipeg Transit is operated, and to consider whether it is time to experiment with new approaches. Completion of the STC provides such an opportunity.

Winnipeg Transit’s route network is wasteful and inefficient because it was not designed to serve the current sprawling settlement pattern of the city. Transit operates a central hub at Graham Avenue and individual bus routes serve as spokes. As new suburbs are added, routes are extended and buses travel farther, serving the city’s expanding footprint. Consequently, service outside the main corridors of the city is generally unattractive to potential riders and a financial drain for Winnipeg Transit.

The fundamental problem is that the buses do not go where people want them to go, when they want to them to go there. Service can also be inconsistent and inconvenient with long transfer times. Ridership wouldn’t soar even if bus fare vanished; few people would choose an hour-long "free" bus trip over a 20-minute car ride. The Winnipeg Transit monopoly model was created after the Second World War, when the last of the private transit services ceased operations. Since then, buses have operated as a public utility with subsidies that are now north of $80 million annually. Public transit services have not experienced the significant productivity gains that followed the deregulation of air, rail and truck transport. While the urban transit network may require more oversight, perhaps it is time to reconsider a larger role for the private sector.

The STC provides an opportunity for a reversible experiment. STC stations could be served better by mini-buses that operate more frequently than large 40-seat buses lumbering half-empty through suburban neighbourhoods. Rather than add new buses to run on the transitway, transfer the existing feeder buses from their suburban routes to the STC, and open up the feeder service to privately operated mini-buses.

Imagine a system in which riders could reserve a ride on a mini-bus with an Uber-type service that would arrive at their door and get them to the nearest rapid-transit station. No waiting in the cold, wondering whether the bus will arrive at all, let along on time. A system with greater convenience, better reliability and faster transportation would, no doubt, prove attractive to a larger percentage of the population.

The city could continue to regulate fares charged by private mini-bus companies and dictate operating conditions (equipment, region, etc.). We already have a privately operated Handi-Transit system that provides some experience.

The disruption created by the current shortage buses and mechanics highlights the chronic problem of transit service in Winnipeg. Ridership per capita in Winnipeg has fallen from 98 rides per person in 1986 to 63 rides per person in 1996 and in 2006. It crept back up to 70 rides per person in 2014 despite years of high fuel prices that made people think twice about using their cars. The inherent problem is obvious.

Rapid-transit corridors are necessary and an essential part of Winnipeg’s future. Increasing the speed of travel is a crucial improvement. The transitways could be more affordable and effective if available resources were not wasted providing an obsolete service model in the suburbs. There is an opportunity to try something different. The STC could be configured with privately operated mini-buses to offer a superior service for those living beyond walking distance of the transit stations. If it works, it could provide a model to help finance the other five transit-ways that the mayor has promised.

Treating the symptoms of the transit system failure doesn’t make the problem go away. The future — with or without rapid-transit corridors — is one of increasing public subsidies, higher bus fares or both, in the current system. After so many decades of a failed experience, surely it is time to try something new to suit Winnipeg’s 21st-century demands.

 

Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.