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Market Squared: What would it take to get you on the bus?

There's a lot of anticipation about the realignment of Guelph Transit, but do we really know what it would take to get people to give it a try?
20160201 Guelph City Transit Bus KA

On a nice evening a few years ago I was crossing the street at upper Wyndham and heading to the Baker Street lot past the old post office.

Where I was going and why, I can’t remember. What I do remember was that a very nice man was parked there near the crosswalk, and asked me where Carden Street was. 

I pointed south and told him it was three lights that-a-way, or some such, and he thanked me and moved to get back into his car. Hey, I said, you’re better off leaving your car here and just walking down to Carden because who knows if you’ll find parking on Carden. Meh, he shrugged, he’d rather drive. 

I think of this story whenever I hear an academic debate about improving transit in order to get people out of their cars. Like this past Tuesday at committee-of-the-whole. Guelph Transit General Manager Mike Spicer presented the transit realignment proposed for this fall, which he says will form a base system that will allow Transit to meet current demand and grow organically for future expansion. 

Or as one commenter on put it, “I say failure the new system is garbage.”

Pessimism is understandable. Promises made in the past to improve transit seemed to turn to rot with immediate effect, like in 2012 where the New Year’s hangover had nothing to do with how hard transit users hit the sauce on the 31st. What I will say is that it seems like transit has learned from those mistakes, and hopefully when we get around to September, no one will feel like this was all sprung on them in a sneak attack. 

The big question, as it ever was, is how do you get people on transit? When I’ve talked to people, both official and unofficial, about improvements to transit, that is the question I come to in the end. How do we get people to leave their cars at home, and get on the bus? If you know the answer then you’re more on the ball than I am after years of reporting on this issue. 

The Onion once famously wrote the headline, "98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favour Public Transportation For Others,” a rather snide way to address the fact that everyone hates congestion, but we’d rather everyone else give up their car than be the one to get on the bus or train ourselves. 

A 2014 article on The Atlantic’s CityLab blog noted that according to the American Public Transportation Association nearly 3 in 4 of the people it surveyed felt that more money should be spent on public transit. On the other hand, only 1 in every 20 Americans takes mass transit, which proves that there are still times where The Onion never gets old. 

As the CityLab article pointed out, in 2012 there were 62 ballot initiatives in the United States that had something to do with improving transit, including some that proposed a small tax increase to better fund local mass transportation, and 4 out of 5 of those measures passed. People, it seems, have an easier time parting with their money then they do parting with their cars, but anyone that’s seen an episode of Parking Wars could tell you that. 

An interesting statistic I uncovered, which admittedly may be a few years out of date, came from a General Social Survey by Statistics Canada in 2010. “Of the 10.6 million workers who commuted by car, about 9 million reported that they had never used public transit for their commute,” it said. 

“About 7.4 million of these people thought public transit would be somewhat or very inconvenient.”

Huh. So 80 per cent of the people that never took public transit before to get where they were going daily are of the opinion that the service they don’t use doesn’t work. That’s like saying, “I haven’t seen that new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I know it’s crap.” Now I may know someone that saw that movie and didn’t like it, or I may have read a negative movie review online, but I do not know for a fact that I, myself, don’t like the movie because I haven’t seen it. 

I wonder if it’s the same thing for transit? You can go on Facebook and see that Guelph Transit ranks a 1.7 out of 5 stars, you can go on Twitter and see angry tweets about missed connections or other hiccups, and from that you can infer that our local transit service is uniformly terrible. But what anecdotal evidence doesn't tell you is that most days people make it to where they’re going with a minimum of fuss. 

It’s a chicken and the egg thing. We keep saying that in order to get more people on transit, we have to make it more convenient, but in order to prove a case to make a better service, we need to first get more people on transit. It’s the snake eating its own tail, so is it any wonder why things never get better? 

So let’s break the circle. If making more and better transit is meant to get more people using it, then let’s just dedicate ourselves to that goal without anchoring ourselves to idea that “We’ll tell people we’ll build it, and they will come, and then we’ll build it.” Field of Dreams probably would have played out a lot differently had Kevin Costner just built a pitchers mound as a trial run to attract the ghosts of old ball players, and then built the rest of the diamond if enough ghosts came out of the corn field. 

As to my old friend that had to drive the 500 metres down Wyndham rather than make the six-minute walk, I’m not sure what would make him leave his car where it stands. Or anyone else in the same position for that matter. Maybe if we build it they really will come, but something tells me that’s easier said than done. 

Here’s an interesting question: Mayor Cam Guthrie said at committee that this was the first time in his seven years on council that he was excited for the future of transit, so allow me to ask, might the mayor be enticed to take transit more in the fall once the realignment’s been made? Now I know the mayor’s a busy guy with places to go, and people to see, but hey, aren’t we all that busy too? 

There’s a philosophical side to transit improvement discussions. Along with the questions about where service is needed, and how often, someone should ask the question of non-transit users, the 80 per cent who never have or never will, what would it take to get you on a bus? And be specific in your answer.