Transforming transit

New visions for inter- and inner-city transit

When it comes to intercity transportation, labour organizer and host of Rank and File Radio - Prairies Emily Leedham says there’s “a culture shift that needs to happen, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with the (audio) documentary,” Still Waiting for the Bus: The Unnatural Death of Prairie Intercity Transit.

The documentary was sponsored by the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada (ATU) as part of its National Public Intercity Transit initiative.

Leedham’s one-hour audio documentary features people from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta who have been impacted by the Greyhound and Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) closures.

“We use it to not only tell stories about the impacts of losing service, but also as a means to call for a new national intercity public service, so we talked to people about what they would like to see in a new service and what would effectively meet their needs,” she says.

Leedham says even with alternative companies (with different bus schedules, rates and depot locations) coverage is patchy and inconvenient at best and does not connect Mantioba to the rest of the prairie provinces.

“It’s kind of an educational tool but also a political organizing tool,” Leedham says.

The initiative has engaged those affected by the Greyhound and STC closures, as well as federal election candidates, who the ATU hopes to reach out to again soon.

Leedham says intercity transit also ties into a lot of other issues, like climate organizing, austerity, safety for Indigenous people and public safety more generally with the normalization of car collisions.

“What would a just transition look like? What would shifting our economy away from a carbon-intensive economy look like? We argue that it would fundamentally change the way that we move goods and services and people around, massively shifting investment into public transit as opposed to individual cars,” Leedham says.

“We really make the case that we need to expand public services, we need to normalize the idea of the government investing and spending massive amounts of money into services like these.

“We also talk about the reconciliation aspect, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and in all the reports, public transit comes up again and again and again.”

Leedham says starting conversations about public transportation is key to making those systems accessible and responsive.

“A lot of the conversations around transit can be very technocratic and wonkish, so you get these policy types hashing out the details of what an ideal transit service would look like, and it’s all very inaccessible, I think, to the average person,” she says.

“You don’t have to have a degree in urban planning to talk about transit and what you need. Most people who use this service know quite well what would improve it and are very concerned about making it affordable and efficient.”

She says one of her major takeaways from the project was that these services could have readily been improved and continued with a little bit of research and consultation on the part of the companies.

“When we talked to people about (the companies), the big focus was that neither of these services really consulted the ridership about why ridership was down,” she says.

“There was no public consultation at all, so if you’re having ridership reduced on certain routes but you’re not asking why that’s happening, then that’s pretty irresponsible. It’s an irresponsible way to fundamentally change the way that people have fundamentally structured their lives around this service.”

She says many of the people she talked to noted neither company proactively invested in freight and deliveries to offset cost or modified their service to reflect ridership.

While Greyhound and the STC seemingly did not properly consult the public, Winnipeg Transit is currently open for public comment on the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan proposal.

Kevin Sturgeon, the project manager for the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan, says that Winnipeg Transit is currently in their second phase of public engagement and hoping for feedback on their proposed network design.

“We took the feedback (from the April public consultation) along with a bunch of data that we have and also the direction that we were getting from council,” he says

“We recognize that to address a lot of the challenges that we have, we have to redesign the entire transit network, so that’s what we’ve done.

“We’re proposing an entirely new transit network, so none of the routes that currently exist would exist in their current form.”

Instead, Winnipeg Transit would move toward having a primary transit network – main transit lines with very frequent service, every 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the line – and feeder lines (shorter lines on less-congested roads that would not run as often, but hopefully more consistently), which connect transit riders to the primary lines, coming every 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the line.

Sturgeon says that with a bigger budget, peripheral routes could run more frequently, but “no transit network can afford to run every route at an extremely high frequency.”

Key to the transit master plan is shifting from prioritizing a “one-seat ride” ideal, which Sturgeon says only really exists for those traveling to downtown during rush hour, to a system with more even and consistent coverage.

The new network would designate stops where transfers happen as “junctions,” which could see amenities added and aim for universal accessibility, he says.

“I think what we have today is a very complicated system,” he says. “It is not always reliable. What we are proposing will change the way that people transfer, and some completely new options will exist, but most importantly, people will find that the time they have to give themselves to get where they’re going will go down.”

At the time of the interview, Sturgeon said he had not been able to have a meeting with the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1505 but had conducted staff/driver engagement.

Still Waiting for the Bus is on the ATU Canada SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes pages. Upcoming public engagement events for the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan can be found on the Winnipeg Transit webpage or by calling 311.

Published in Volume 74, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 14, 2019)

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