Can Saskatoon Transit walk the walk?

In the City of Saskatoon’s long term goals for Saskatoon Transit is the objective to increase ridership to 62 rides (annually) per capita by 2023 (see Proposed Performance Measures and Targets on pg 481 here). Currently ridership is just shy of 40 per capita, and as I wrote to the StarPhoenix, in 1966 it was 80.

That’s a pretty lofty goal for a city administration and transit system that saw ridership growth of 3.6% annually since 2009, with the City predicting zero ridership growth for 2015 in the recent 2015 budget.

Adjusted for population growth of 2.8%, the ridership increase since 2009 is only 0.8%, yet the City’s not-very long term goal of 62 rides per capita by 2023, just eight years away. To reach 62 per capita, Saskatoon Transit will have to nearly double actual ridership numbers from about 10 million per year to 20 million per year. This assuming the City’s medium-growth population projections. A ridership increase rate of 8.8% annually. Yes, annually.

There are two major stumbling blocks standing in the way of this goal, beginning with the lack of any coherent plan by Saskatoon Transit toward this ambitious objective. The City of Saskatoon’s Growing Forward process has (and continues to) collect public input, but at this point there does not yet seem to be a detailed plan. The vague concepts I’ve seen at previous engagement sessions seem to be taking transit toward a more ridership based model. Often referred to as “Bus Rapid Transit” along high passenger volume routes over main east-west and north-south corridors, fed by localized neighbourhood feeder routes.

I’m not a transit planner but I never really understood the “coverage” model of transit service. While it’s nice to provide a city’s residents with access to public transit in close proximity to their homes, it often isn’t (probably never) cost effective. If you want to maximize usage you need to provide service to the highest concentration of people who will use it. Encouraging higher density development along corridors doesn’t hurt either. You don’t open a Tim Horton’s in Uranium City SK and expect it to have the sales volume of a Tim’s in Saskatoon. So this move toward a “ridership” model is hopefully a good thing.

The other and arguably bigger stumbling block is Saskatoon City Council itself. The main reason Saskatoon Transit is what it is today is because of what City Council has and has not done over many years. A long procession of councilors over the years have been supportive of transit in words, but when it comes time to put their (or rather our) money where their mouths are, “keeping taxes low” and getting reelected takes priority. Council thinks nothing of dropping (investing) $300,000,000 on a bridge but funding transit is a burden, a “subsidy” to be contained.

Every year at budget time the most important measure of transit seems to be keeping the transit “subsidy” as low as possible. Some councilors talk the talk, consciously eschewing the “s” word in favour of “investment”. Still the talk always ends when dollars are on the line.

When the City planned to improve roads the talk was often about fixing X kilometres of roadway, or Y number of potholes and so on. Goals seemed to come first, then the recognition that achieving those goals will cost money, and a willingness on Council to raise taxes to pay for it. Though even with the targeted roadway levy included in property taxes effectively we still have a tax decrease.

Why not the same for transit? Council should demand specific service, maintenance, and capital replacement standards and then budget accordingly. The City, including Council needs to start pressuring the Provincial government for funding. Stable funding specifically for public transit. Alternatively the City needs to commit a portion of funds from the province that originate from fuel and sales tax revenue sharing specifically to public transit.

City Councilors also need to have the courage to take a stand in favour of public transit. Improving transit will cost money. Bus Rapid Transit will mean favouring transit in road design and and the like. There will be much wailing and nashing of teeth from a vocal ignorant minority about the imaginary “war on the car”. It will be politically unpopular with voters who don’t use and don’t care about public transit, and don’t (or refuse to) recognize the benefits non-users will receive.

Does City Council have this courage? Do they have the fortitude to tell people what they need to hear and do what is good for the long term health of our city? With a municipal election on the horizon in 2016 and a couple of councilors with aspirations to higher levels of government?

I’m not optimistic.

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