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Market Squared: We need to seriously talk about regional transit

There are places in Guelph where getting to the next town over is quicker than getting to the other end of town, at least if you’re in a car

How do you get to Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge without a car?

It’s a question I see pop up on Facebook or Reddit from time to time when people are trying to get basic info but don’t want to open a second tab in their web browser to Google it themselves.

Long story short, it’s not easy.

Let me try and answer for posterity. If we play our cards right, this GuelphToday column will be a time capsule of a time when intra-regional public transit was more difficult than long division, and scarcer than ice in the Sahara desert.

Basically, you can take the GO Bus and wait an hour at the Aberfoyle park ’n’ ride to take you the rest of the way, or you can pay upwards of $25 to take a Greyhound bus at one of the seven bizarrely spaced out departure times on the schedule.

And that’s just to get you to Kitchener!

If you want to get to either Waterloo or Cambridge, then you have to know your Grand River Transit system. Cambridge though is an especially weird case because you actually drive past it on the present Greyhound route to Kitchener, which takes riders down Wellington Street to Highway 24 on its way to the Charles St terminal.

If you want to get to Cambridge, you have to ride the Greyhound through Kitchener, and then ride through it again on the GRT.

That’s not exactly transit-friendly, and it’s even not friendly given the stated goal of all stakeholders in building this regional tech hub that’s supposed to pave the way to our prosperous future. Having more transit, you see, is supposed to attract the next generation of tech geniuses to our area, and not a lot of creativity is done behind the wheel of a car, unless you’re in a Fast and Furious movie and you’re trying to fight a submarine in the Arctic Circle. These great minds we’re trying to attract should be free to think, and more than that, they’re among the ones who are willing to leave their automobile at home.

So while we’re talking about to hub or not to hub, why aren’t we talking about how crappy it is to take public transit 20 minutes down the road to the next town over?

Why do we have to go to Toronto in order to travel to Hamilton, or the Niagara Region? I know Torontonians that think all roads lead to “The Six” — but we don’t have to prove them right.

The onus on regional transit for the last several years has been on all-day, two-way GO train service, which is important, but it seems like all our chips have been on that. There’s no express bus service between Guelph and Toronto in the meantime, like there is between Kitchener and Toronto. Want to get to Toronto? You can either take the scenic tour of Halton/Peel on one bus, or transfer in Square One in Mississauga.

Fine, you say, I’ll take Greyhound.

You could do that. Hopefully though you can book your day trip to the city weeks in advance and pay for it online with a credit card because that’s the only way you’re going to get a good rate. I was told once that when GO expands, Greyhound contracts. Obviously, they’re a private company and it’s their right, but I think we’ve discovered with a lot of things that privatizing a public service more often than not has its drawbacks.

So why is everyone making it so hard to get around? The answer was revealed, in part, in a presentation brought to Committee-of-the-Whole Monday — the number of “external trips.”

Guelphites making daily trips out of town went up four per cent between 2006 and 2011, the last year for which data is available. That number will have surely gone up in the last five years, and the statistics when they’re released by the province next year will likely reflect that, but the real pity is that the number of trips by private automobile went up by three per cent, while transit use went down two per cent.

Now, any transit discussion starts with the paradox of how we persuade more people to leave their car — not to mention the ease and convenience of having one — behind in order to get on a bus or train, but it seems like we never have any discussion about intra-regional transit at all unless it involves the seven letters in “GO Train.”

If you’re lucky, the topic comes up during an election, but the four years in-between seem all about keeping our local service going without cuts, or the fear of cuts.

Truthfully though, local transit and regional transit should be part of the same discussion, at least so far as co-ordinating with Waterloo Region and the GRT.

What would the difficulty be in reaching an agreement to send a Guelph Transit bus west from the Super Centre on Woodlawn to, say, the train station at Weber and Victoria, and sending a GRT bus the same way eastbound to Guelph, and do it every hour? Or even do it ever two hours, but right now, Guelph Transit is running much longer trips taking people from one end of Guelph to the other.

That’s not to assume I’m smarter than anyone in either government, but I’m saying that if those discussions were happening, no one’s been talking about the results. And then it goes back to the drawing board because inevitably someone new running for council next year will come out and say, “Hey, we should get intra-regional transit going!” and we basically start again from scratch.

Now there are signs of hope. When I interviewed new transit manager Mike Spicer last December for the Guelph Politicast we talked a lot about regional transit, and part of the deliberations for the next Transportation Master Plan, which was discussed this past Monday at committee will also make it a consideration, but like a lot of transit issues I feel like we’re still swinging at pitches in the diamond long after the ball game is over.

But at least improvements to regional transit seem to be on the board now, which is, itself, an improvement.

No one’s asking for door-to-door service when it comes to transit, but there are places in Guelph where getting to the next town over is quicker than getting to the other end of town, at least if you’re in a car.

As the old saying goes, people with a car can be in Cambridge while transit users are still waiting at their corner bus stop.