Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Prioritising Public Transit in Greater Sudbury, Part I

With the release of the program audit of Greater Sudbury transit earlier this week by Greater Sudbury Auditor-General Brian Bigger, transit in this City seems to be at the top of everybody’s mind. While the media has tended to focus on reports on infighting between the Auditor-General and the transit management (see: “Transit trouble”, the Sudbury Star, August 7/11), it’s important that the A-G’s insights into the program’s operations, and recommendations for saving money while increasing ridership, aren’t lost.

Transit Today

For me, one of the more disturbing findings of the A-G’s report was the loss of ridership which Greater Sudbury Transit has experienced since 2006, when ridership was reported at 4.5 million. Since then, ridership has fallen to 4.2 million annually, and apparently without explanation.

Greater Sudbury Transit has invested heavily over the past several years in new technology. If you ride the bus, you’re almost certain to have noticed that automated system which now calls out all bus stops along your route (unless the volume of this system is turned down so low that it’s inaudible to hear over the background noise, which is something that I’ve experienced on more than one occasion). This system was installed for accessibility reasons, but it’s fair to say that it’s certainly improved the quality of a bus riding experience. Especially if you happen to find yourself on a bus whose windows have been dimmed due to “wrapped” advertising, and you can’t see out well enough to find your stop.

In total, over $3 million has been invested in state-of-the-art Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which allows our transit system to collect information about ridership at every stop, in order to help make the system more efficient. Unfortunately, it seems that no one is looking at this collection of data at the present time. It’s also unclear how successful the customer-service-friendly internet and smart phone “MyBus” apps have been, and whether customers are using the codes now posted on each bus stop sign to assist them with planning for when the next bus is to arrive.

The A-G also reports that operating costs have increased in the system by about 28% since 2006. With a smaller number of riders using the system, these increases are being absorbed in part by rising fares (which are now at $2.60 per ride), and by municipal funding. While the provincial government’s 1% gas tax transfer has no doubt helped with funding the system, it’s far from clear that this program will emerge from the October 2011 provincial election intact.

With declining revenues (down 7% since 2006, for a total of almost one half million dollars), and declining ridership, along with all of the other issues identified in the A-G’s report, Greater Sudburians have significant reasons to worry about the health of our transit system. Questions about whether we are getting the service we’re paying for are also fair game at this time.

I’m personally troubled by the circumstance which Greater Sudbury Transit finds itself in. I’ve been a transit user since I moved to Sudbury back in 2001. I purchased my home in part because there was a bus stop almost in front of the house. When I moved here, I considered the transit fare to be a little steep, if still affordable to me. But I have been and remain troubled by the notion that I as a transit user would actually pay more money monthly to take the bus to my place of employment downtown than I would if I drove my car.

High-Priced Fares

If you look around, you can find a monthly parking space downtown for around $60 a month. Currently, a monthly transit pass costs $74 for an adult. It’s difficult to make transit competitive when residents can drive their cars to work and save both time and money (by car, I live 5 minutes from my office; by transit, it’s 20 minutes to get to work, although only 10 to get home. Even with the price of gas factored into the equation, it would still be cheaper, and quicker, for me to take the car to work. Of course, I can cycle to and from work in about 10 minutes, and I can walk the distance in about 25 minutes, and getting to work that way is even less expensive!).

With the steady rise in fares, no doubt I’ve made my own personal contribution to the decrease in ridership since 2006. Simply put, I’ve discovered that walking and cycling are a lot cheaper, and from a time-savings point of view, cycling can actually be quicker for me. Walking to and from work also makes me feel like I’m getting some of the exercise which I probably should have been getting all of those times that I chose to ride the bus to work.

But that’s just me. I live fairly close to where I work, and I don’t have to transfer on transit to get to my place of employment. We all have our own experiences with transit, but it seems to me that there are some significant issues which this community is going to have to address if we’re to have the kind of healthy and sustainable transit system that we’ll need as we begin the process of decarbonising our economy. Since we can expect to have fewer personal vehicles on our roads, it’s time that this City gave investing in our transit system a much higher priority. I hope that the A-G’s report forms the starting point for a closer analysis.

However, there’s a lot more that we can be doing with regards to Greater Sudbury transit which lies outside of the A-G’s discretion. For example, what about the issue related to cost I’ve previously identified? Has the increased cost at the fare-box led to a decrease in the number of riders? For many Sudburians who don’t own a car, the cost of transit can still be prohibitive at $2.60 a ride, especially if a family is involved. I’ve often heard that the fare is too high. I have to agree.

Fare Reductions to Increase Ridership

If you want to increase ridership on our transit system, perhaps it’s time we begin looking at reducing the fare. Interestingly, back in 2006 the price of gasoline in Greater Sudbury was only about $0.90 a litre. Today, it’s been up over $1.30 a litre for some time now. Our community’s economic health was also more considerable back in 2006, with the price of nickel as high as it’s ever been. The local economy was booming! Today, we’re still trying to emerge from the so-called economic recovery. The local economic indicators suggest that there should actually be more people taking transit today than in 2006, so what’s the variable? It’s not as if the transit system has contracted (it hasn’t). The only variable must be price.

Let’s bring fares down. Sure, this may shift operating costs to a situation where even more of those costs are coming out of the municipal budget, rather than the fare box. But if ridership goes up, it may not be as significant a budgetary item as we might think. However, let me ask this question: so what if it is?

For too long, our City has been subsidizing personal car use in preference to other modes of transportation. I believe that if we’re going to be build the kind of people-centred community that we need in order to meet the challenges of a low energy future, it’s time we started turning away from car-centred decision-making and embrace a culture of conservation. That may very well mean making different choices with our municipal budgets.

Generating New Revenues – Public Parking

Perhaps some of the revenues to off-set lower transit fares might be found through implementing higher public parking fares at municipal parking lots and through on-street metres. Currently, those looking to park in the City’s downtown are getting a pretty good deal: $1 an hour. All-day parking can be as high as $10, but few lots charge more than that. Contrast this to parking in other major centres, and you’ll see that although many Sudburians complain about the high price of parking, we actually have it pretty good.

Why not double the price of parking in the downtown? This move would have the effect of raising more revenues for the City, while encouraging motorists to leave their cars at home and maybe…take transit! Or perhaps engage in walking or cycling, which is even healthier and better for the environment. For too long now priority has been given to cars in our downtown core.

Although the Downtown Master Plan hasn’t yet been released, I attended a public consultation session a while back in which the issue of parking came up. The planners involved with the DMP were pretty clear: there’s actually an abundance of parking in the downtown. The actual situation may contrast sharply with the public perception, and many Sudburians are sure to remain convinced that there’s just not enough parking downtown.

We shouldn’t be making decisions based on perceptions when those perceptions are contrary to the facts. Well, at least we shouldn’t be engaging in that sort of decision-making. In this case, the cold hard data indicates that the downtown parking situation is very favourable to motorists. It’s time to that we took a close look at this circumstance. Do we really need all of these municipal parking lots taking up valuable space in the centre of our City? Perhaps some of these lands could be sold, generating more revenues. A favourable development climate could be created through the use of Community Improvement Plans. Lands currently occupied by parking lots could, in the future, be occupied by new offices or high density residential units, which generate a lot more income in property taxes than parking lots.

Even privatized parking lots should be considered. No doubt current private parking lot owners must be a little ticked with the low prices charged by their municipal competition. Perhaps it’s time that the City looked at getting out of the business of municipal lot ownership, as long as fair value could be had for selling municipal lots.

Other Ways to Generate Revenues

The A-G has suggested that a significant savings could be found by encouraging existing Handi Transit users to opt to take the bus instead. These sorts of opportunities to save money while encouraging more efficient use make sense and should be explored, even if there is reluctance on the part of our transit operator to do so.

Up until recently, the City of Toronto charged car owners a registration fee, to assist with off-setting the high costs of maintenance of public infrastructure devoted to car use. While this municipal tool isn’t currently available for Greater Sudbury’s use, it probably will be added to the toolbox at some point. For too long now, car owners like myself haven’t been paying our fair share for the privilege of using public infrastructure. I say this knowing that owning a car isn’t cheap to begin with. Nonetheless, all levels of government continue to subsidize car use, and I believe it’s time for a rethink. A municipal vehicle registration fee would add revenue to municipal coffers on an unhealthy and costly convenience activity which is ultimately problematic for the environment.

(continued in Part II…)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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