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Market Squared: It takes everyone to make a bus run on time

It's less than a month until Guelph Transit realigns, but there are issues that go beyond schedules, and they're only partially the service's fault

Many local transit nerds are counting down to Sept. 3, the date when Guelph Transit will begin its new, realigned schedule which will hopefully build a base, and garner more ridership as a result of a better, data-driven service. 

That’s the hope anyway. 

Not to put a pin in the optimism balloon, but for those us that believe that an efficient transit system is the cure for gridlock in the city, and have tried to be supportive through all the cut backs and hiccups, we’ve heard that story before, and it always ends the same. 

Now that’s not to say we doubt the sincerity of Transit general manager Mike Spicer and his team, and I will note that the pending realignment is a bold move that makes a lot of sense when you look at the math, but the thing is that it’s going to take more than the planners at Transit’s main office to make this new schedule work. 

And no, I don’t just mean the drivers, although, yes, they are a factor. 

Some of us that take the bus daily have noticed a sort of laissez-faire August attitude permeate the atmosphere as drivers seem a little more relaxed about leaving Guelph Central Station on time, and then only hitting the gas pedal when they’re five minutes out and a dozen stops away from returning to Central. 

Of course, it’s well-known that August is Transit’s least busiest month in terms of ridership, it was the logistical basis for the 2014 lockout, but there needs to be a year around adjustment to the idea that Transit is *commuter* service, and not Sunday vespers. 

By that I mean the people that stand up at the front of the bus and talk to the drivers as they’re going about their route, and usually right underneath a sign that says, “Do not talk to the driver while the coach is in motion.” It’s not there for decoration, but because, as scientific studies continually prove, our brains aren’t very good at talking and driving at the same time. 

Of course it speaks to the friendliness of many of Guelph Transit’s drivers, and certainly whenever they help old ladies get on the bus they should be rightly recognized for their community service, but let’s consider the unpopular opinion: there are limits to friendliness. And while it’s nice that drivers have a great relationship with their riders, driving the bus is not the time to hang out with your friends. 

Indeed, I’ve seen seen many of the usual suspects hanging out at the front of the bus, talking to driver, and occasionally that driver will blow past someone waiting at the side of the road, sometimes in inclement weather. Other times, people are trying to get on the bus with strollers, or mobility devices and have to wait for the friend to decide what they’re going to do to get out of the way. 

Why does this matter? Seconds count. When a bus has to make a 40 minute route in 30 minutes (admittedly a problem that the realignment hopes to address) every little divergent counts agains the clock: traffic, construction, not being able to pull back out on the road, the number of stops being made, the number of people getting on and off, and yes, the number of people stuffing the entrance because they want to chat with the driver. 

Of course, our bus drivers don’t want to be unfriendly, especially to a friend, but there has to be a polite way to ask them to sit and down and tell them they’ll catch up with them at lunch, or after work. Most employers don’t take it well when your friends come in to the office and hangout with you as you try and do your job, so why should it be so different on the bus?

Let’s not forget that a bus driver’s function is beyond the drive. It’s also about assisting people to get where they’re going. Not everyone getting on the bus is an old hat, and not everyone is sure where their stop is, and they could use a little help to make sure they arrive precisely where they need to go. It’s a little hard for someone to get that attention when someone else is crowding the driver just to shoot the breeze. 

On top of that, I’ve seen people ring the bell to get off at the next stop, and the driver doesn’t stop because, you guessed it, someone’s taking their attention off the job. A transit operator has got to keep their eye on traffic, another eye on the bus interior, and be aware of the stops, who’s asking for a stop, and who’s waiting at a stop. The last thing they should want is to hear your thoughts about the Blue Jays, or the weather, or whatever. 

If you can’t tell, this is a windmill I’ve been tilting at for a while now, and here’s one more: laziness. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people wait, and wait, and wait for a bus at Guelph Central Station, get on, and then get off again at St. George’s Square or out front of Old Quebec Street. Instead of the three minute walk, they waited five minutes to ride the bus for 30 seconds. And I’m referring to able bodied people in good working order, so stop now before you head to the comments section. 

Now I realize that trying to tweak human behaviour by pointing it out in a website column is about as useful as solving an algebra problem by chewing gum at it (so to speak), but it needs to be pointed out. A lot of anticipation and hope is being carried in the trunk of the realignment, but it’s not going to mean anything unless everyone pulls their weight. 

The last time transit realigned over five years ago, a lack of communication and preparedness generated a blowback, but people put the blame on the idea of realigning, and by and large the ambitions of Transit were paired back to something that looked closer to how Transit was like beforehand. Not based on evidence that the old routes worked better, but because people hate change. 

But those people are on transit already, and the City is desperate to get more people to join them and not just the students. In order to do that, current transit users are going to have to embrace some change too. Primarily, the idea that the bus is a city service, and they are not just bumming a ride from a friend.