(First, here’s your soundtrack.)

As I’ve probably mentioned once or twice before, I ride the bus to work every day. I ride the bus to the grocery store. I ride the bus downtown to the market for shortbread cookies because I don’t have a presidential motorcade and 50 secret service agents.

This was all well and fine until December, when the Ottawa bus drivers went on strike, and stayed on strike until February. Lucky for me I could car pool to the office and walk to the grocery store, and so I survived, but the whole experience left me with a few unpleasant conclusions. For starters, I think that all the talk of boosting public transit in this country and all the talk of “green alternatives” to cars might be just that: talk. When we get right down to it, nobody really takes transit all that seriously. Sure, there are people who depend on transit. I can’t really count myself among them – I could probably afford a car if I wanted one, or at least a taxi now and then. Those people who can’t afford that are going to ride the bus regardless of whether anyone takes transit seriously, and those are the people most hurt when the busses disappear for two months. A related lesson: nobody takes people who take transit seriously, either. Both sides in the labour dispute seemed quite indifferent to the people whose lives were turned upside down. “Well, anybody who matters can just drive his car,” you could almost hear them say.

Cities like Ottawa often say that they want to boost transit ridership. “It’s good for the environment. It’ll cut down rush-hour gridlock”, etc. I wish they’d put their money where their mouth is. The experience of the strike has made me realize what’s really preventing widespread adoption of transit-as-primary-means-of-travel by those who can afford other options: people don’t see transit as reliable enough. Even when the strike isn’t on, riding the bus can be a little unpredictable. I leave the house within the same 5 minute period most mornings, but depending on my luck, I can get to work as early as 8:55 or as late as 9:40. If I had the kind of job where one has to show up at a fixed time every day, taking transit would be massively inconvenient. Because the bus can be so unpredictable, people who have alternatives are unwilling to rely on it. The people who can’t afford cars are going to ride the bus no matter what, and because they put up with the unpredictability and show up on the side of the road every morning, they get taken for granted. And because “anyone who matters” isn’t taking the bus, there’s little incentive to improve the reliability. After all, if the bus is late, who are we inconveniencing? Poor people and students. And they hardly pay property tax, so who cares about them, right? But oh, we wish more people would leave their cars at home and ride the bus. Wouldn’t life be grand if we all took public transit?

Keep dreaming.

Forget price – the bus is already cheaper than owning a car – I really think predictability is the key to a successful transit system. People who can afford cars aren’t going to start riding the bus if they can’t rely on it. And as long as they’re not riding, transit won’t be taken seriously. And as long as it isn’t taken seriously, it isn’t going to improve.