In what follows, I have filled in my presentation notes from my presentation to Regional Council last night. Since I tend to elaborate a bit while speaking, it is not a verbatim copy of what I said then. If you would like to see my speech, or hear councillors’ questions in response, I will post the link to the archived webcast when it is available. (Update January 15: webcast available here, and my comments begin at 69:05.)
If you wish to contact Regional Council regarding this or other issues in the budget, their information is available here. I understand decisions regarding the budget will begin next week.
Thank you, Mr Chair. I always appreciate Council taking the time to consider public input on issues as important as the budget. I know this is a complex budget process, and there are lots of issues to consider. There are many I could speak about tonight.
But I’m here to address only one: the proposed reduction of iXpress bus service.
I have great respect for Regional staff and the difficult work that they do to try to meet Council’s expectations for high levels of service and low taxes. I’m aware that they consider the Region’s strategic plan in arriving at potential cost reductions. I can only conclude that the proposal to reduce iXpress service is the result of a misinterpretation of the facts on the ground and their relevance.
I know how important the success of LRT is to this Council and to the people of Waterloo Region. These service reductions in the summer period will damage the ridership growth we need along the spine to support LRT when it is introduced. Now, it’s not clear to me whether iXpress is only facing a cut to it’s July and August service. If this proposal is joined with the proposal to eliminate spring service period, it could mean four months of reduced service (from May to August) instead of just two months (July and August). For the purpose of my comments, it doesn’t matter; both are a problem.
The proposal is to reduce summer service on the iXpress to every 15 minutes, down from every 10 minutes. This causes two distinct but related problems. The first is related to rider volume, and the second is a frequency issue.
First, rider volume. Though I was not at the last meeting, I understand it’s been pointed out that boardings are not the same as peak load. As far as I know, GRT has not included the actual boarding numbers as part of this budget proposal. Mr. Gillespie suggested, in response to a question, that it was less than a councillor’s guess of a 50% reduction in July and August, but the numbers themselves haven’t been given. This is concerning to me.
Regardless, I’m sure that boardings are fewer in the summer, but doesn’t tell us anything about the effect that a reduction in service will have on the quality of that service.
I was actually shocked, and quite delighted, when GRT announced that it would start every 10 minute iXpress service just before July in 2011. Such expansions usually happen in September, which is a busier time. But I was even more shocked by what we saw happening on the bus.
In my family, we found while riding the iXpress that, in the summer, buses went from being jammed to capacity, and leaving people behind, to being comfortable. Nowhere near empty, certainly not spacious, but comfortable.
Of course, if you’re a transit user, a bus leaving people behind means that you could be standing on the curb until the next bus, which may or may not have room, and it means that you’re going to be late. It is unreliable. A bus that’s crammed full, even if you manage to get on it, is a smelly and uncomfortable violation of one’s personal space that can last as long as one’s commute.
Even in the summer of 2011, the increase to 10 minutes on the iXpress was the difference between uncomfortable and unreliable and comfortable and reliable. We’re talking about a significant portion of the year for which this would no longer be true, and this is the route on which we most need ridership growth. So that’s the problem with volume.
The second problem is frequency, which is an issue in itself. Five minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, but the context matters. Ten minute frequency is just on the edge of where you can reasonably just show up to a bus stop and wait for the next bus, without planning ahead. iXpress is the only route where this is true: I can really just wander out of a store in UpTown and wait to hop on a bus to Downtown Kitchener, Conestoga Mall, or a university without checking a bus schedule beforehand. I don’t have to pull out and try to read a paper schedule, use Google Maps on my phone, try to remember my stop number for the text service, or kill 5 or 10 minutes in a store or a in a hallway with air conditioning so my groceries don’t melt.
Ideally, service would a bit more frequent than every 10 minutes – maybe every 7 – but 10 is on the right side of the edge of that dividing line. Seeing it as “only 5 minutes” ignores the huge additional value of being freed from a schedule. It’s value far greater than the $350 000 saved by getting rid of that freedom.
I was at a GRT consultation recently, and on the paper feedback form, there were a set of boxes you could check to indicate how often you ride the bus. The most often you could say you used the bus was measured in “times a week.” I laughed. As I told the helpful staff at the consultation, there are times for me when I’m on the bus 7 or 8 times a day.
Having to check for and plan around a bus several times a day is a serious quality of life effect for riders. Service at every 10 minutes is enormously valuable, and saves riders much more than the 5 minutes mentioned, in both time and effort.
There are several other components of proposed cuts to GRT as part of this budget. I do have opinions on them, but what I’m here today to say is this: reducing iXpress service in the summer is a definitive strategic misstep. Making this cut would be like paying to fly a bunch of heads of state to a big meeting in Toronto and then refusing to pay for chairs or pencils. It is the equivalent in clichés of cutting off one’s nose. We have a system that is in good shape to continue to grow the ridership we need for LRT’s launch.
We’re at a place now where we’re seriously starting to consider the practical challenges of trying to grow our family. Everyone tells me, “of course, you’ll need to buy a car when you have a child.”
I have no desire to buy a car. I am a choice rider.
To keep me as one throughout my life, and to create more choice riders, there are two things we need:
- service that is on time, that is comfortable, and that doesn’t leave people at their stop, and
- service that is frequent enough that we’re not constantly tied to a schedule.
iXpress service is the closest we’ve got to that in the Region, and it’s because of its current frequency. We need to build ridership leading up to LRT, and we particularly need it where the iXpress runs. There is certainly some reduction in student riders from other communities over the summer months. This means that the people you are most likely to alienate are those people (student or not) who live here in an ongoing way and who are the most promising long-term riders of GRT, and those who pay per-ride or per-month to use the service. For those riders, each payment is a decision point.
Cutting service for a significant portion of the year will dissuade those riders we need most: choice riders who live here all year and who are most likely to keep living here. I am asking you to make a good decision and help us to make a good decision to use transit. Please preserve iXpress frequency all year, and don’t save a few dollars that will cost us much more in the long run.