Saskatoon Transit, “Choice” Riders, and Hard Decisions

Fortunately the illegal lockout of Saskatoon Transit riders ended before my bike commuting season ended. I switched over to Transit just after Remembrance day, so my bike commuting season for 2014 was about 7 months. So if I was to answer the question in the National Household Survey (NHS) detailed in The 4%? I would have to answer that cycling is my primary means of commuting to and from work.

On the actual commuting front, so far so good. I haven’t encountered any major problems, other than a few slight weather related delays. I suppose I’ve been fortunate. From the complaints on Twitter and on the Bus Riders of Saskatoon Facebook page, I appear to be in the minority. But since I’m white, male, and middle class, I’m used to that. (insert uproarious laughter here)

I’ve gotten involved with the Bus Riders of Saskatoon organization that got its genesis in early September when Saskatoon Transit announced just before the labour day long weekend that they didn’t have enough operational buses to provide full service. It dawned on me one day after attending one of the meetings that I was a minority, at least in that group. I’m a “choice rider” of transit. I use transit as my primary means to commute outside of biking season, but I have a vehicle and could drive to work. But I don’t, and I don’t really want to. The reasons I use transit are some of the very things Saskatoon Transit must improve upon in order to attract more riders. The people who use transit because they have no other viable option aren’t going anywhere.  I have a kid in high school that needs the bus to get there and back. One of the “captive riders”.

If the City of Saskatoon wants to mitigate congestion (as they claim) they need to attract more riders like me. Choice riders. They need to do things like:

  • Speed. No, I don’t mean that kind of speeding. Transit is a viable option for me because my commute by bus is about the same length of time as by bike or by car. Without the cost of parking and fuel, and without the hassle of driving. I can read, tweet, blog, or whatever while someone else deals with idiot drivers. But commuters who live in Evergreen, Rosewood or Kensington neighbourhoods are not going to choose Transit if there is a significant time penalty. I wouldn’t.
  • Reliability. There is no excuse for not doing this. Riders are (mostly) understanding of unforeseen and unpredictable delays. Car accidents, trains (curse you Canadian Pacific), and the like. But when a bus is chronically late, then there is a systemic problem that can and should be corrected. The same applies to buses “running hot” or ahead of schedule.
  •  RELIABILITY! There is no excuse for cutting service just as school and university is about to begin in September because HALF your F&$%ing fleet is inoperable. NONE. A large source of this problem sits in City Council chambers. Our elected officials who are more concerned with getting re-elected than taking necessary steps to properly fund Saskatoon Transit. Over the last 13 years, City Council has budgeted on average just under $2,000,000 per year to replace buses. Enough to buy approximately FOUR (4) new regular buses or not quite enough to buy three articulated ones. That equates to a 45 year replacement cycle. Yes, their planned replacement cycle for a bus is 45 years. The 2015 budget is less than $1,000,000. That’s the equivalent of an 81 year replacement cycle.
  • Frequency. It’s nice when you travel to another city with a decent transit system and you don’t have to think too hard about what to do if you miss your bus. Oh, hey, there’s a coffee shop. I’ll grab a coffee and by the time I get back to the bus stop, the next bus will be here. Next to a proper capital replacement program, this is probably the most costly thing to accomplish. Adding capacity means adding more buses and their operating costs. I know that, so do you.

City Council (current and past) has continued to under-fund public transit in Saskatoon over many, many years. Public transit is almost always viewed as a drain, hence the constant and frequent use of the word “subsidy” whenever the City’s portion of Transit funding is mentioned. Not once have I heard a Councillor use the phrase “car subsidy” when discussing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on roads or bridges. Councilors frequently express support for improving Transit but their actions at budget time belie their statements of support. I have no doubt that if City Council thought they could get away with cutting funding for Transit entirely without the political embarrassment of being the only “big city” in Canada without public transit, they would.

The reality is that funding of public transit in Saskatoon isn’t even sufficient to maintain the status quo. Over the years the service has slowly degraded. Transit seems to have tried to mitigate this, though at the cost of an inadequate capital replacement and maintenance program. You can only refurbish a 20 or 30 year old bus so many times. I’d like to think that Transit actually tracks their life-cycle costs on each unit in their fleet. With this information they would be able to track maintenance, repair, fuel and capital costs and project when that vehicle is no longer cost effective to keep. Or rather, when replacing it with a new vehicle is cost effective. I would not be surprised if they didn’t.

Sadly, getting Saskatoon Transit back to “adequate”, let alone improving service is going to cost money. In the future I hope to present various options that could be considered, since the administration appears too timid to tell City Council what they need to hear. It will require this City Council, and future ones to make hard and potentially politically unpopular decisions. Sometimes those decisions have to be made.





3 thoughts on “Saskatoon Transit, “Choice” Riders, and Hard Decisions

  1. Pingback: University Bridge and Bus Lanes | yxesimonsays

  2. Pingback: Cost Effectiveness Guide for Saskatoon Transit

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