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Market Squared: Can we not think of the bus as the 'loser cruiser'?

Let's make the system better together!
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For the last few days, Guelph transit has been holding public sessions to get feedback on the proposed route and schedule realignment that will take place this September. The proposal has been covered extensively here on GuelphToday and over on my own site Guelph Politico, but there’s a subtext that’s important and is almost separate from the facts of what transit is planning. It’s how they’re selling the plan and how they’re selling transit in the city.

In short, transit’s got swagger. It’s got attitude! And that’s weird to say about a government agency.

It should be able to prove its 'essentialness' based on the service it delivers. But let’s be honest, our transit system and our transit employees have been the proverbial whipping boy the last several years. Decisions are often forced upon them, feedback seems to fall on deaf ears, and council seems to accept the judgement that transit is just not a good investment for the city.

That has been slowly changing though.

Last summer’s system breakdown with the removal of peak service, a move based purely on a numbers game at council to keep the budget increase low, spectacularly blew up in the city’s face. What it saved in money, it lost in the faith of the people using the service that their bus was going to get them anywhere on time.

Even more astounding, the city said 'relax' because while it generated a lot of bad press and angry phone calls. They had factored into the budget the loss at the fare box from people who got fed up.

Think about that. Not only did the city know the course of action they were proposing would anger people enough to quit using a vital city service, they factored it into the cost. I know there were cold, hard numbers at play, the price of customers lost was not equal to the money saved, even with the eleventh hour addition of helper buses. Can you imagine if the city proposed to save money by doing upkeep on playgrounds less regularly? Or if they closed public pools three weeks early in the summer?

“Helper buses” has become a short hand for lack of imagination, lack of foresight, and lack of planning. This is why it was interesting to hear Transit General Manager Mike Spicer joke about having a swear jar-style situation at transit HQ for the term “helper buses.” It was the first sign I came to see that this time there might be an actual shift in how transit sees itself. No longer is it going to be the city’s punching bag! This is a city service with something to prove, and a lot to gain.

I might have dismissed this as a mere admission of defeat had I not attended some of the info sessions that transit was holding to get feedback on the new routes. First of all, let’s applaud that effort because it’s hard to reach people on the best of terms, and transit’s facing an uphill battle after years of bad news stories from budget cuts, to lockouts, to scheduling missteps. If anyone needed a charm offensive, it’s transit.

But it’s more than an outward approach, it’s a change in attitude internally too.

“We have to earn the respect back,” Robin Gerus told me at Willow West Mall Tuesday. Gerus, like Spicer, is a new hire at transit, and like Spicer he talks very firmly about the possibilities of transit — but it begins with an admission of where the service has fallen down in the past.

Then Spicer himself on Wednesday at City Hall said that transit has “settled for second and third best” in recent years.

Others might say that’s being generous, but it’s a positive spin on an honest assessment that Transit has not been all it can be. Spicer added that they need to help the people of Guelph “buy into what transit is supposed to be,” and “you don’t have to use it to support it.”

Yes! Here’s an idea, let’s stop thinking of transit as the “loser cruiser” and start thinking of our local bus system as an equal city department.

Do you use every park in the city? Every pool? How often do you go to the library, and do you go to every library or just the closest branch? When was the last time you’ve been to the Civic Museum? River Run Centre? Who do you think gets more visitors in a year, Sleeman Centre or City Call?

The idea of city services is that you put the best service forward regardless of the fact of who and how many use it. Or at least that’s the standard for every service but transit. You never hear anyone talk about having too many baseball diamonds that aren’t being used, or how pointless Market Square is because if your kids want to run through the water there’s a sprinkler at home. Granted, you need to have transit service where the people are, which is what the realignment is about, but nobody walks past an empty Margaret Greene Park and thinks “useless!”

And let’s not forget that the whole city is benefited by more transit: fewer cars on the road means less congestion and less pollution. While I’ve always acknowledged the conundrum of how we get more people out of their cars, you have to admit it’s hard to get people to invest in a losing product.

I’m reminded of a scene from The Simpsons where Homer hires a guy to “persuade” Sideshow Bob to leave town only to have him end up a whiny mess that tells Bob he’s mean when he repeatedly refuses. “Come on. Get on the bus. I’ll be your friend...”

So yes, let’s support a better transit system by supporting a better transit attitude.

Let’s make the system better together!

Let’s quit the stress and expense of having your own car!

Let’s get more active, and more community oriented!

Taking the bus is awesome! And I’ll be your friend.