Transit Town Hall Notes the Challenges, Celebrates the Opportunity

Several transit users, activists and city councillors took part in the first ever Transit Summit and Town Hall hosted by the Transit Action Alliance of Guelph (TAAG) on Saturday. The message, in a nutshell, was that there was a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to get it done in.

TAAG brought together an impressive panel of transit activists and City of Guelph employees to talk about a variety of issues facing not just our local transit needs, but our regional ones too. Councillors Phil Allt, Bob Bell, Cathy Downer, Dominique O’Rourke, and Rodrigo Goller took part as participants at the summit at various points in the day.

Steve Petric, the chair and co-founder of TAAG began the summit with a presentation that came down to a simple question: high coverage or high ridership? “That tends to make it sound binary, but it’s about a portion on the spectrum where the two terms define the extremes,” Petric said. “As on any spectrum, moving away from one extreme implies moving to another.”

“There is no black and white when it comes to transit, it requires community to make choices and trade offs,” he added. “There are only so many people and only so many places that can be served at one time.

“It’s time that we have the ridership and coverage conversation publicly and without shame,” Petric said.

Petric also noted that that part of this discussion concerns whether or not we treat transit as a business or as a social service. A business is about how many people use the service and not how badly they need it, while social services respond to a small number of people with the most severe need.

Another message: that we’re all part of the problem, and the solution. The more people who use cars, the less they work because that’s the origin of congestion. On the other hand, transit feeds on itself since it grows with more ridership.

The first guest speaker was Vincent Puhakka, one of the organizers behind TTCRiders, an advocacy group for better transit in Toronto. Puhakka talked about the work done by his group to get more attention to transit issues, which he summed up with the three directions of reaching out to the media, diversifying tactics, and staying on message.

Among the successes of TTCRiders are two campaigns, “TTC Sardines” and the social media hashtage, #SoEfficientItHurts:

Puhakka said that TTCRiders have successfully turned themselves into “media darlings” and have achieved small victories like the low income monthly pass, and the transit priority access along King Street for street cars pilot that has since been made permanent. Still, Puhakka said that when it comes to the big picture, TTCRiders may be winning some battles, they’re still losing the war.

What can TAAG and transit advocates in Guelph take from the example of TTCRiders? Puhakka said it’s as simple as making friends with the media, creating a priority campaign, and mixing tactics from old school demonstrating to social media promotions.

Sean Marshall, a transit writer and activist, then painted a picture of the difference between 2019 and the early 1980s in terms of the regional transit picture, and it has not gotten better.

Marshall went through several examples of the types of trips you have to take on transit and how they can take three or four times as long on public transit as opposed to the private automobile. It takes four-and-a-half hours to get from Guelph to Niagara Falls on GO Transit, and it takes an hour and 40 minutes to get to Kitchener.

“It’s faster to bike there [from here],” Marshall observed.

And it’s not a comfortable trip either because the timing of routes that transfer at the Aberfoyle Park and Ride do not line up, and because that stop was made for parking cars and not for making people cozy while waiting for their transfer; the nearest coffee shop, a Tim Hortons, is a 15-minute walk away.

Alternatives? Marshall talked about the now defunct Wroute service, which he says was not cost-effective or sustainable. He also suggested that a model like Kasper Transportation in Northern Ontario could be adapted in the Guelph area where surrounding communities like Fergus, Elora and Arthur have sizable populations that could make a regional transit service possible.

When these smaller transit services do manage to start-up, Marshall had a simple message: “Use it or lose it,” he said. “Learn about local services that operate and support them because they don’t usually advertise, and then spread the word.”

Terry Johnson of Transport Action Canada wanted to make the point that Guelph only has a dozen regional trains pass throug Central Station on a weekday. Sounds like a lot, but what about when you compare it to a town of 185 people in Scotland?

Johnson noted that the status of train travel to and from Guelph is “a lot better than other communities, but I know you think there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

When it comes to passenger rail in our region, Johnson said the current state of affairs didn’t happen all at once, but eroded slowly over a number of years as the Ontario government focused on the GTHA, while private operators couldn’t adapt to fill the gaps thanks, in part, to rising costs. Johnson noted that GO and municipal transit services don’t charge HST on tickets and passes while VIA and Greyhound, for example, do.

Ideally, Johnson said, a rail trip between Toronto and Guelph should take 50 minutes, but we can’t lose site of the need to make sure the system works across modes and across services. “We need to stop the stupid situation of levels of government competing on the same route,” he said. “The bureaucracy needs to take a step back and take a look at what we need as passengers and citizens.”

It may be easier then we think, Johnson said, when you consider the technological options, just not the transport technology that might immediately come to mind. “Uber and Tesla are not the answer, but there is technology out there, and it’s not quite as politically risky now.”

Jennifer Juste, Manager of Transportation Planning, was the first of two City of Guelph speakers, and she talked about the update of the Transportation Master Plan, which she pointed out was last updated before the invention of Facebook, Netflix, and ride sharing.

The Master Plan is meant to work with the City’s Official Plan, the Strategic Plan, and the Community Plan to achieve the goal of getting more people on transit. The City wants to get a 15 per cent transit mode share by 2031, which is to say that 15 out of every 100 trips on Guelph roads should to be taken using transit. Right now, the rate is seven or eight per cent, and Juste said that the City is starting to see more and more congestion during peak hours.

The public engagement for the plan has gotten more than 15,000 engagements in-person, on the City’s website, and through it’s various other channels. There was also innovation. Juste discussed the two pop-up projects that introduced Guelphites to complete roads, and dedicated transit lanes

Juste said that the work of the Transportation Master Plan will hopefully try and equalize the length of trips between cars and bus, find ways to separate bikes and buses from the rest of traffic, and create a more reliable service with fewer transfers and more frequent buses. While Juste said that “results were interesting, and very positive,” for the complete street, things were “not overwhelming positive,” for the bus-only lane.

“I think we did the right thing here trying to test out some of these concepts,” Juste said, adding that three-quarters of the respondents on the dedicated bus lane were drivers, and most of them not pleased with the idea of a dedicated bus lane. The point, Juste said, was to put people in the mind that change is difficult.

“It’s not going to be easy, it means were going to have to make some tough choices to guide ourselves through that transition,” she said.

City council will be taking part in a workshop on the Transportation Master Plan on December 11, and that will be followed by more traditional open houses in the spring. The complete plan will be brought to council in July 2020.

Andrea Mikkila, the City of Guelph’s Supervisor of Transit Planning and Scheduling, immediately endeared herself to the crowd by saying that she’s a daily user of four transit services – Guelph Transit, GO Transit, Greyhound, and Grand River Transit.

Mikkila has only been on the job for seven months, but she broke down for the attendees the progress on carrying out the implementation of the 12 recommendations that came out of the Transit Service Review.

Eight of the recommendations have achieved major benchmarks, including the cancellation of the morning shuttle, and the changes announced to the Community Bus at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting. Transit is also reviewing the new co-fare contract with Metrolinx, has reviewed nine routes, and has hired a human resources supervising along with nine new drivers.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with a question and answer session with most of the questions being directed at Transit staff. That forum was covered in the Twitter moment below:

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