Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Service is key to boosting bus ridership

For people who have grown up in a culture that highly values cars, the bus remains something of a mystery.

Like someone encountering a strange and confusing religion, the bus novice finds there are many secrets to be revealed. When does the bus come? Where does it go? How do I get on? How do I get off?

The fare box on one bus happily consumed my friend's $10 bill before anyone could stop her. We all looked down, embarrassed to inform her that the driver cannot make change.

Fortunately the transit learning curve is short. Armed with schedules and tickets and with key bus-check numbers memorized, passengers can navigate the city with confidence. This is fortunate since transit is going to figure more prominently in the urban and inter-urban streetscapes of the near future.

Hamilton's transit director recently revealed what most crowded bus riders already know, that "valid service demands far outstrip our available funding and our available capacity."

Targets for Hamilton's transit ridership predict that the transit's share of the daily trips made on all forms of transportation will double to 12 per cent by 2030.

While no one is going to force cars off North American roads, the way we use vehicles is likely going to change.

Even if you're not up on the current discussion on peak oil or the latest climate change disaster, it's perhaps time for us all to rethink our over-reliance on cars. Influential voices such as author Howard Kunstler warn that we need to "start thinking beyond the car." He's not talking futuristic helicopters or personalized jetpacks. "Need something to do?" he asks his readers, "Get involved in restoring public transit."

That Hamilton could be doing more is a given: the Transportation Master Plan shows expenditures on transit have been in decline for years, with a corresponding decline in local transit's modal share: between 1986 and 2001, the share of trips handled by transit went from 12 per cent to 7 per cent. In the same time frame drivers increased their modal share from 63 per cent to 64 per cent.

Hamilton is locked in a car-culture embrace that can only be described as unhealthy. Compared to 10 years ago, the average Hamilton resident uses 15 per cent more fuel for transportation.

Hamilton fares badly compared to 10 other Canadian cities in terms of per capita transit use (fourth lowest) and per capita annual fuel use (second highest). We also have the second highest amount of arterial and expressway lane metres, second only to Oshawa.