The Transit Rider Ballet

I’ve been following the woes of Barrhaven transit users for the past few days. Issues have been cropping up for a while (like they have for everywhere else *cough*Vanier*cough*), and it seems like the city has some solutions in store (advisable or not)…but it also seems like no matter what happens, nothing can ever be solved. Every new solution seems to bring new unforeseen (but predictable) issues.

If you want to get a handle on the complaints, you can check out Jan Harder’s Twitter feed; it seems to be a clearing house for such issues.

One tweet stuck out to me. I’m going to quote the text here, rather than linking to it, because I’m not trying to critique the person who tweeted it or put them on blast or anything. I just want to examine what they’ve said:

OMG thank you. The route I need to get home is full of asshats trying to get off at Baseline, H.C., and Nepean Sportsplex. I don’t mind Fallowfield but if I can’t board a bus BECAUSE IT IS FULL to get me to my neighbourhood because you were too lazy to wait for yours, I get mad.

(I’m assuming “H.C.” stands for Hunt Club.)

There is an overwhelming sense of entitlement here. The bus this user wants belongs to them and not to the other transit users because the other transit riders aren’t going to ride it all the way to the end. It’s the only bus that goes to this neighbourhood (it would seem), so they feel it should be reserved for them.

I cannot fathom feeling so very entitled to public transportation and to excluding others from public transportation.

I don’t take the bus all that much, but I do take it occasionally. Routes 6 and 7 go by my house. If I’m taking them I’m generally going no further than the Rideau Centre, going north, or Billings Bridge, going south. So, aside from taking the 7 to Carleton, I’m never taking a bus all the way to the end of the line, nor am I starting at the beginning of the route. Hell, in the mornings, sometimes I’ll grab the 6 or 7 at Fifth and take it to First (to then transfer to the 56 in order to transfer to the 85).

I don’t feel bad or guilty about this at all. I’m a transit user just like everyone else. I’ve paid my fare (and if I’m going a short distance, I’ve paid disproportionately more) and I have just as much right to the bus as you do (and, conversely, you have just as much right to it as I do).

The other day, my daughter and I were coming home from Billings Bridge. We were waiting for the 6, and we’d be taking it to Fifth Avenue. When we got on, there were already people on the bus (though there were others getting off at the mall). As the bus chugged along Bank, people got on and off. Some of the people who were on when we boarded surely got off before our stop.

It can be quite interesting, watching this sort of route if you travel far enough. You can get on and it’ll be almost empty. You’ll watch it fill up. You’ll watch it empty and fill up again. You’ll watch a handful of people get off at a stop, while a handful get on. It’ll ebb and flow, and it’ll (almost) completely turnover its ridership, sometimes multiple times.

No one in their right mind thinks they are more entitled to such a bus as anyone else. No one in their right mind thinks only people who are riding all the way to the end should allow themselves a spot on that bus.

So why can’t those routes to Barrhaven be the same?

If you’ve been reading my posts or my columns with any regularity, you’ve probably encountered me talking about Jane Jacobs’s idea of the street ballet. I lively street has a multitude of uses and sees a multitude of users. Workers heading to their jobs in the morning, school children off to school, workers coming into the area…later, stay-at-home parents run errands or take small kids to the park…business men empty into the streets at lunch hour…school kids come home, workers leave, residents return from work. Later, people are out to restaurants and bars or hitting the theatre. There’s always comings-and-goings.

That’s what life is like on routes like the 6 or the 7. People coming from St. Laurent need to get to the Rideau Centre. People from Lowertown are going to Centretown. Students from the Golden Triangle are busing to classes. People in the Glebe are going to Billings Bridge.

On these buses, there’s a rotation. Each seat may be occupied by five or six different people. The routes take you through places, not just destinations. There are things to do all along the route and people all along the route looking to something somewhere else. It is akin to the street ballet. It is the transit rider ballet.

But on those long commuter routes, you don’t have that. There are spots where a bunch of people will want to get on, and there will be people getting off along the way, at times, but it’s mainly just clumps of commuters hopping from hub to hub (or from hub, leapfroging hubs, to a final hub).

It is absolutely a failure of city design.

These buses may be packed, but that doesn’t mean they carry more people, more “fares”, if you will. A half empty bus that rotates through riders multiple times will end up carrying more people than the same type of bus that takes, primarily, one group of passengers from downtown to a suburban hub. Throw in the fact that these buses are “deadheads” (they don’t do a return trip because there isn’t sufficient ridership to warrant that amount of bus service going the other way), and it’s incredibly expensive to run these routes.

But the aforementioned tweet does highlight something that, I think, too few of our civic leaders think about. We basically need to types of transit service. No, not two separate transit systems, but we need to understand that the suburban commuter model functions inherently differently than an urban commuter system. We can’t try to cram the two together into the same service delivery model and think we’ll be able to serve everyone properly.

This is, in part, what LRT should help address. It is a suburban commuter system. It’s not really going to help people get around downtown that much. But what we can’t do (and what we have done) is assume that LRT solves all our problems, and can replace our urban transit service.

The city is on the verge of ghettoizing bus service, and if they do, they’ll be doing substantial harm to transit, including LRT (not to mention our economy, our environment, our health…). Hopefully, as more and more suburban and exurban communities get fed up with the substandard transit system we’ve been running, there will be serious political will at city hall to make the necessary changes. Hopefully, we won’t simply switch a couple of trips to express routes and consider the problem solved.

Everyone has a right to get on a bus. We need a city council that recognizes that.

2 thoughts on “The Transit Rider Ballet

  1. Another compelling post. I certainly support the dual systems of urban transit and suburban transit. I share your concern about the “ghettoizing” of public transit [very original and apt use of the word by the way and an expressive phrase, bravo!] that will follow the opening of LRT. Again, very thoughtful and well-written and highly elucidating!

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