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The bifurcated town

This week's 'Market Squared' considers Guelph Transit's attempt to summon the future and why this time it didn't work
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20170903 bus ts 2
Councillor James Gordon, from left, Steven Petric and Mayor Cam Guthrie board the 99 Mainline bus for its inaugral run Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

This week, transit users were able to establish at least a small sense of victory by getting the City of Guelph to reverse a decision to replace the old route map and schedule posts at stops with ones that give you a code, a phone number, and a website to access.

Not to dump more on that which has already been dumped, but was anybody really going to be happy with having to take their phone out of their pocket in sub-Arctic temperatures on top of more new changes to the transit system?

Now I think I understand where staff were coming from. In the end, they probably switched out the paper schedules at every bus stop around Guelph at least three times last year, so why not cut out that thrice annual fiddling, not to mention design and printing cost, by just telling everyone to call for the time to the next bus?

Of course the flaws were galling. Not everyone owns a cell phone. Not everyone has internet access at home. And if you don’t have either of those things, how reasonable is it for everyone to have a paper copy of every bus schedule on either their person or in their desk drawer? The answer is it’s not.

Technology, for all its benefits, still has barriers, and not just the economic ones.

We’re in the midst of a generational shift in the collection and dissemination of information, and what transit (attempted) to do is a prime example.

I was at a town hall to gather public feedback on the Guelph Public Library’s board and their business case for a new main branch downtown. There was a lot of anger in the room because it was felt that staff was fairly far along in the process, and that the public we’re being brought in for engagement a little late in the process.

The library staff and board members present vehemently disagreed, and said that not only is it still early in the process, and that there will be more comprehensive and specific feedback gathered in the near future, but also that the public had already been consulted at meetings last fall.

“When were these meetings?” one older man demanded. “Were any of you there?” he asked the room.

When a few heads around the room nodded, the man threw up his hands and said he’s never heard of these meetings. Case closed then. He didn’t hear about these meetings, ergo, they didn’t happen.

As we’ve discussed before, city communications are a sticky wicket. How do people hear about public meetings, requests for feedback, public notices, town halls, and all the other things an active and engaged citizen wants to take part in?

It shouldn’t be that hard, right? There’s City of Guelph ads in the Tribune, and on the radio. There’s the City of Guelph website, and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. There are signs and posters when appropriate, and there’s always your own social groups through friends, neighbours and co-workers.

Having said all that though, how many times have you heard about something you’d be interested to take part in after it happened?

The paradox is that the inherent promise of flourishing technology was that it would make life easier, but in many ways, it’s also made life harder. You can access anything you want online, all you have to do is Google it, but how are you supposed to Google something you don’t know you need to look for?

Even when we take *you* out of the process, there are still pratfalls. Think of Facebook. If you use Facebook to look up CFL football and Jason Statham movies, Facebook’s algorithms will make sure your news feed is keeping you up-to-date on the Argos and the latest Fast and Furious movies. What it might not do automatically though is tell you when there’s a public engagement session for the new South End Rec Centre.

Guelph likes to think of itself as innovative, cutting edge and sophisticated city, but we complain bitterly about there being no daily newspaper, we put a cork in online voting, we cry outrage about a video store we never go to closing, and while none of that is wrong, we seem unable to accept the changing reality even though we’ve already changed with it.

On that account, I think Transit and City staff saw it as a smart idea to give the people the tools to find the information they need for themselves. This is probably where the future is going, that you get to the bus stop, call up Google Maps and see how far away the bus is and get its approximate time of arrival. Two things stand though in the way of our digital future though.

First, Transit underestimated the value of the quick glance. Looking at the schedule, seeing the time, and knowing you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare before the bus arrives is a great, positive reinforcement feeling.

Second, to be honest, the technology is not always reliable. I have used the Google Maps app to see the progress of my bus, and on at least a couple of occasions I have look at that little dot on my phone get closer to my stop, and then looked up at the road in front of me, and not seen a bus anywhere in sight. If the point is that the app is more dependable than a paper schedule, then the experiment is a failure.

And it’s dependability that fosters our distrust of these technological changes. Will a news site started today have the same 150-year staying power of a newspaper? Can election officials guarantee no hacker initiated funny business with an election held partially online? Can you still find all the movies and TV shows you want easily on streaming sites?

Modern life is not easy, and sometimes the technology makes us think its easier than it is. The internet hasn’t killed newspapers, free elections, and video stores, but it has transformed them, and we have to understand that transformation.

As well, we have to understand why we’re making a transformation. To turn paper schedules on a bus stop poll into a reminder to look at your phone was a silly and limited idea, especially when the provincial government is looking at laws to restrict pedestrians from looking at their phone.

What people always look for is the easiest solution, and in this case, what’s easiest is old fashioned paper and ink. Who would have thunk it in 2018? It’s a good thing that Transit was listening though.