ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
News26 Feb 2009

(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.

3 Responses to “Bus Rider Blues”

  1. 28 Feb 2009 at 4:21 pm Rob

    I was interested to read about that enormous spread for arrival-times when you take the bus. Particularly since I might be getting to know those buses soon!

    With the obvious exception of the strike, I had only heard people speak very highly of the bus system. Is it buses not waiting for transfers that results in such wide differences? Are the closest routes to your endpoints low-frequency?

  2. 28 Feb 2009 at 5:25 pm judith scrmger

    polish this up and send it to the Ottawa Citzen, the chair of the transit commission, the minister of the environment and the president of the union.

  3. 01 Mar 2009 at 12:42 pm Ian

    Hey Rob,

    Are you coming to Ottawa?

    The Ottawa bus system is usually pretty good, but I’ve run afoul of it a few times. To use a CS example: it’s like a handy program that crashes on occasion. It’s great when it’s working properly, but then it goes down in flames when you really need it.

    My morning basically works like this. I try to catch the bus at 8:21. If it is on time, I get to my transfer point early and catch the bus there at 8:46, which gets me to the office at 9:10. That’s my basic plan, and it works most mornings. My second bus is pretty reliable because it starts from the station where I catch it.

    Sometimes the 8:21 bus is early. If it’s early and I catch it, I get to the transfer point early and get the bus there at 8:31 and get to work early. This happens maybe once a week. If my first bus is early enough that I miss it, which also happens about once a week, the fun begins.

    The next bus after the 8:21 is scheduled for 8:32. If it is on time or early, I make it to the transfer point in time to hop on the 8:46 connection, and away I go. However, if it is more than 3 or 4 minutes late, I miss the 8:46 connection. After 8:46, the bus to my office switches to running every half hour, and I have a lot of waiting around to do.

    There have been times when the 8:21 bus has been 5-10 minutes early and I’ve missed it, and then the 8:32 bus has been 15 minutes late, which makes for half an hour of standing around in the cold wondering where my bus that is supposed to come every 10 minutes is. On a couple of occasions, they even cancelled the 8:21 bus without telling anyone. This from the email response I got back after I wrote them to complain:

    “Regrettably, on September 19th, the 08:21 trip was altogether cancelled due to a lack of resources.  Consequently, the subsequent scheduled trip experienced crowded conditions; the 08:32 run was, as a result, delayed due to the extra passenger load. ”

    Ouch.

    I will admit I could probably eliminate the worst case scenario by dragging my butt out of bed a bit earlier, but I already have 1 backup plan. I don’t see why I should have to get out there 3 buses ahead of when I really need to. In a perfect world, I’d just catch the 8:32 every day and shave 10 minutes off my commute…

    Also, my office is out in the middle of nowhere so I have fewer options than I would if I were going downtown, for example. So my experience may be a bit worse than average.

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