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Market Squared: Missing bus syndrome

There was a lot of hype about the changes to Guelph Transit's routes and schedules, but they can't seem to get over the same old problems with the system

A lot of great effort, energy, outreach and consultation has been exerted by the City of Guelph and Guelph Transit to promote the new schedules and routes. The hope, of course, is that these changes would foster increased ridership, but how can Transit get more people on the bus when they keep dropping the ball on the basics? 

I’ve been asked a lot about what I think about the changes to Guelph Transit, and I’ve tried to play it cool. Aside from the regular routes I take to get around, I can’t say I’ve done any kind of audit, or comparison, between the old system and the new. 

There is one thing I do know though, and that is despite the everything done to enact the new changes, Guelph Transit is still dealing with old problems: many of us are going to the bus stop, and a bus never comes. 

This has been a bugaboo on the down low for years. I used to record a show at CFRU on Sunday morning, and it required me to get the first bus out in order to get to campus, and at least half-a-dozen times over a two-year period, that first bus would never come. 

Why? Because Transit would be a driver shorter, and it seemed that my route would draw the short straw. In other words, someone called in sick, and rather than quickly finding a driver, or better still, prepare in advanced for this predictable eventuality by having another operator on standby, bus riders were basically abandoned by the service they pay for twice – once through their taxes, and again through their fare. 

Let’s put this in terms everyone will understand. Imagine you put out your garbage before leaving for work, and you get home and it’s not collected. You call Waste Resources, and they tell you they would have picked up your garbage, but they were a driver short and couldn’t get to your street. Don’t worry though, they’ll pick up your garbage next week. 

Would you settle for that? Would your neighbours? Would council and staff listen and empathize? Of course they would! Everyone can relate to not wanting week old garbage hanging around their house. 

I’ve often felt that this is the crux of the situation: the problems with transit could not be related to by members of upper city management or council because they don’t take the bus. 

That’s how we get maneuvers like pushing for a lockout of transit workers in August, and cutting peak and holiday service. Combined with the general perception that the bus is the conveyance of the poor, seniors, and students, and you get a picture of where transit sits as a priority among city services. 

Now I will note that there’s been some appearance of change. Many councillors have been talking about their first hand experience riding the bus, and Transit’s talked a good game the last several months about generating a data-driven, staff-informed new route and schedule system that would form a base for building a more expansive transit system. Look at Transit’s Twitter feed to see how that’s working out. 

What I’m struggling with now is whether or not Transit’s reach has exceeded its grasp? Forget realignment! As I said, what I’m calling “Missing Bus Syndrome”, has been around for a long time now, and that problem seems to come down to a matter of staffing. If one person doesn’t come to work than the entire transit system seems to fall apart. 

The root of this, I think, goes back a few years when an audit of staff overtime showed that a disproportionate amount of overtime payouts were going to Transit employees. More fuel for the fodder that our buses are a money pit because its own budget is not good enough to provide their service, and that clearly is their fault apparently. 

Not so fast, because the fact of that matter is that transit operators were being asked to do things outside their contracted duties. Management was changing the demands of the job, and not doing the accompanying co-ordination with the union about what their workers were being asked to do. 

It’s worth noting at this point that the Amalgamated Transit Union 1189 is presently renegotiating a new contract with the City of Guelph. The old contract, the one that came out of the 2014 lockout, expired this past June. 

But back to the curb, where our hopes and dreams for a better bus system seem to have left to fester. I hate making myself an example, but to illustrate my point, I will. 

I was heading downtown on Saturday, and for the second time in two days, my bus didn’t come. When the following bus arrived, I told the driver my sad story. He told me to call the Transit office, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. Again, this was Saturday. 

After finishing my errands I returned to Guelph Central Station to get my bus home, and as I saw all the buses arrive, mine was conspicuously absent. I saw two drivers talking nearby, and I asked them about the odds of my bus arriving. Oh, they said, that route is running once an hour because we’re down a driver. 

Fortunately, I had an alternative bus that would drop me close to home. But what if I wasn't that lucky? 

My encounters on this and other transit issues have always been about the ladder. When you talk to the drivers, it’s the fault of management. When you talk to the management, it’s because they’re not getting support from council. And when transit comes up at council, usually as part of proposed budget cut, they say the number of riders don’t make a case to spend more money on the system. 

In other words, it’s the citizens fault that more of us don't want to take an unreliable system that’s not supported by our government because *we* don’t support it. Riding the tea cups at Disneyland doesn’t make you this dizzy. 

But to go back to Saturday, suppose there was someone at the Transit office with access to the social media to post about the reduced schedule. Or suppose the drivers got a piece of foolscap and a sharpie and made a sign that said, “Sorry, this bus is only ever hour today.” Or I suppose Transit could go completely crazy and staff properly, but that does seems unlikely at this point. 

Before signing off, let me say I hate writing this piece. I hate having to be this critical of our transit system. I well and truly wanted to believe that these changes were going to make transit better in this city. However, almost one month into it, it’s clear that improvement is still a pipe dream. 

After all, when you’re at the University Centre, and the the two buses on 10-minute service don’t show up for 20 minutes and you’re running late for council, the last thing you want to hear from a city employee is call the office. At 6 p.m. 

I suppose that driver could have told me, “tell someone who cares,” but that would have been rude.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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