Rapid transit is a hot topic in Winnipeg these days (these days having begun in the 1990s and continued ad nauseum up to now). But personally, I worry that we’re not investing in rapid transit for the right reasons.
Transportation is based on the idea that a person needs to get from one place to another, and the biggest reason that there are so many different forms of transportation is because there are many different places that people need to go. If you’re heading to Mars, you won’t be taking a bicycle, and it would be silly to build a rocket to get to the local park. And if you live in East St. Paul, you generally expect to use a car for at least one leg of each trip into Winnipeg.
Some Winnipeggers work in industrial parks or at out-of-the-way workplaces in the suburbs, including schools or in other people’s homes. In such cases, it’s expected that public transit to those places will be less convenient than to those places that receive a large number of workers, such as shopping malls, universities, or downtown Winnipeg. So any rapid transit solution will logically exclude most industrial parks and thinly-populated suburbs, and focus on major routes and work centres.
In order to know where rapid transit is needed, it’s important to know how “not rapid” existing transit is. Here is a quick sample of transit times to downtown from neighbourhoods that are fortunate enough to have direct bus routes:
1. East side of Transcona to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 40-43 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 45-48 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 41-44 minutes
2. Charleswood to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 49-56 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 48-54 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 47-56 minutes
3. Westwood to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 42-48 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 51-58 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 50-57 minutes
4. North Kildonan to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 33-37 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 38 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 30-36 minutes
These times can increase significantly when your point of origin is off the main routes; this is the last mile problem, as it becomes far less efficient to bring buses out to the far points of the suburbs to access the last houses at the edge of the neighbourhood. Assuming that these last mile people will be expected to either be very exact in their timing for a commute on the rare feeder bus or drive their care for the first leg of their trip, we focus on main routes for rapid transit.
The biggest problem with rapid transit is that once it’s built, there’s no guarantee that the level of use will justify the expense of construction. This is a possible problem with our current rapid transit project. The rapid transit corridor from downtown to the University of Manitoba may cut travel times by ten minutes each way; assuming a base time of 35 minutes from Downtown to U of M by bus, we can estimate a 25 minute trip to the university using bus rapid transit. For the average student in Transcona, Charleswood, or Westwood, the trip could be brought down from 70 minutes to an hour. Will that be enough for a significant number of students to abandon their cars and parking passes in exchange for a bus pass? I don’t think it will. So is the investment worthwhile?
In the other direction, there will be people from South Winnipeg who will be able to use the busway to get downtown. From St. Norbert to downtown is around 40-45 minutes by bus, so this could be reduced to 30-35 minutes. However, this assumes that the commuter lives right on the bus route; the last mile could add 10-15 minutes of walking time to this trip, instead of a couple of minutes by car. Again, it’s hard to believe that a faster bus with fewer stops will increase ridership by enough to justify the expense.
So if we can’t guarantee that rapid transit will increase ridership, why are we building it? Is it simply because we want to hop on the bandwagon? Is this a way to fill the void from when the Jets left?
The truth is, rapid transit does not remove the reliance on cars that exists in the single-family homes of suburban areas; even people who take the bus to work, such as myself, still use cars for other trips within or between suburbs. When I need to buy groceries in East Kildonan, I either walk to the Sobeys or I drive to Superstore. Taking the bus doesn’t even enter into my mind, even though if I time it right I can leave at 9:00pm and get to Superstore by 9:15. That’s my window, and as long as I’m willing to wait until 10:20pm to catch the bus back home, it can work. That’s because I live right next to Henderson Hwy and McLeod Ave, which are both bus routes. If I’m too lazy to look up bus times to get to Superstore and to wait for the return bus (and miss the Daily Show at 10pm), how can I expect someone who lives further away from bus routes to give up their car?
I do not believe that we will see a large reduction in the number of cars in Winnipeg over the next fifty years; what I do envision is far more efficient cars, including plug-in hybrids that may never see a gas station, along with flex fuel and electric cars. If downtown populations rebound, we may see a higher percentage of Winnipeggers who live downtown and choose not to keep a car, but that won’t mean that suburbanites are going to send their cars to the auto wrecker.
If the success of rapid transit is based on seeing significant numbers of residents from Winnipeg suburbs (as they are today) abandon their cars in favour of public transportation, it will not do the job. Either rapid transit is a bad idea at this time, or the goal of rapid transit needs to be something other than simply getting single-family home suburbanites out of their cars and onto the bus.
So let’s look for positive ways of making rapid transit work:
Increase density along rapid transit routes
This is part of the city’s plan for rapid transit, including a future Ikea spur along Sterling Lyon that passes through the home of the Parker Avenue land swap. The idea is that greenspace and brownfields will be converted to mixed-use developments, including apartments and condos. The residents of these buildings will have a real choice of whether or not they want to own a car, because they could take the busways to work (assuming they work in a serviced area, such as downtown), and they could buy their essentials at stores in and around the new development. The University of Manitoba will also be building their own developments on the former Southwood golf course, which will be located close to the second stage of the busway currently under construction. In theory, a good rapid transit system will result in higher density along the route(s), and this does happen in other cities, so it could happen in Winnipeg if the municipal and provincial governments actually work towards that goal; the province has a history of working against a denser Winnipeg, with initiatives such as Waverley West and their most recent plan to replace industry in Point Douglas with parkland rather than an expanded residential community.
This idea is better for the tax base and the environment than more sprawl, but is not as good as downtown residential development. It makes little sense to build all of our new residential towers in far-flung suburbs when there are acres upon acres of space within our core area. I would like to see more effort put into expanding residential development downtown before we see transit spurs out to empty fields.
Develop a downtown transit system
Actually, Winnipeg already has a downtown transit system called the Winnipeg Walkway System or Winnipeg Skywalk. It’s for walking only, so it can be a long trip from one end to the other with groceries or library books. The walkway connects from The Bay along Memorial Blvd all the way to the Grain Exchange Building in the Exchange District. There are also two shorter Skywalk systems along St. Mary Ave that are not joined to the main system. It would take approximately 25 minutes to walk from the Exchange District to The Bay, and the entire trip would be indoors. This walkway system could be expanded to reach the Convention Centre, Union Station, the Manitoba Legislature, and even City Hall and the Centennial Centre underground.
In addition, the walkway system could be enhanced by the addition of a lightweight automated transit system. This system could be low-fare like Detroit, or completely free as in downtown Miami. A single line bidirectional guideway with loops at either end could run from Fort Street, along Graham Mall/Avenue to The Bay, and then south to the Legislature and the Osborne Street bridge. The guideway and rolling stock would cost around $100 million. A downtown loop, also reaching Centennial Centre, Union Station, and the University of Winnipeg, would cost around $150 million. It would then be possible to create an Osborne route extending to the busway under development or to replace the busway with a uniform system. (The Osborne-University route would cost an additional $200 million.) None of these estimates include property acquisition, which could add from $10 to $50 million to each concept, but mostly for loading platforms, as the guideways themselves would fit over existing sidewalks and streets.
This automated transit system would consist of rubber wheels on a concrete guideway, which would reduce noise and would be cleared of snow and other obstructions by a specially-equipped sweeper/plow car. This transit system would be elevated for the most part, but would have much smaller pillars than would be required for a light rail system. This is an important consideration, because Winnipeg’s architecture would not be blocked by large elevated platforms. The loading platforms would be built into the existing walkway system where possible, sometimes floating above the street with ample clearance for trucks. The walkway and transitway would complement each other, which would give both systems better coverage of downtown.
If fare is collected, it would be done through smartcards, with cards being available for purchase through vending machines throughout the walkway system. This would mean that the loading platforms would require a minimal amount of space, reducing property acquisition/leasing costs.
Park and ride, kiss and ride
Park and ride areas in Winnipeg usually consist of parking spaces leased from shopping centres and other businesses, including Garden City, McPhillips Street Station Casino, Kildonan Place, and the Whyte Ridge Shopping Centre. A new park and ride is the Taylor Park & Ride, which includes electrical outlets and costs $3/day or $32/month; it also has its own bus route to downtown, the 39 Taylor Park & Ride. This concept was designed in part to encourage workers from Manitoba Hydro to take the bus from their former workplace on Taylor, rather than driving downtown.
Park and ride stations with guaranteed parking and electrical outlets are a good way to tempt suburban commuters, but the 80 available stalls at Taylor Avenue won’t be enough to make a big difference in ridership. By looking at the traffic flow map of Winnipeg, we can deduce good locations for serviced park and ride.
It looks as though many of the existing park and ride locations are well-placed, and could support expansion of park and ride facilities. Stalls with electrical outlets could be developed for paid parking, and improved heated shelters could be constructed, perhaps with vending machines and a lounge area. Basically, any shelter at a park and ride bus stop should be able to pass the book test: a good shelter should be comfortable enough that a passenger with a book will be happy to pull it out and start reading. This means a well-heated and well-lit shelter with comfortable seating; as part of a pad site leasing agreement, shopping centre security could monitor the shelter if available, or Transit could hire a separate security monitoring service. In addition, the shelter would be equipped with security cameras and a panic button.
Better incentives in transit fares
The majority of city council seems to be opposed to reducing bus fare, favouring the idea of subsidies for lower income users. For me, high bus fares are a big part of why I don’t take the bus more often. As part of my lifestyle and family situation, we have chosen to have a car; because this decision has been made, we already pay significant transportation expenses, including a lease payment, car insurance, and licenses for two drivers. On Fridays, my wife and daughter sometimes pick me up from work so that we can go out together; at other times, appointments may result in me being picked up instead of taking the bus. Because of this, I find that every week I use between 7 and 9 bus tickets, which means that I spend less money on tickets than I would on a bus pass. I could decide to buy the monthly pass, but that would require 36 trips to break even. This December, I probably won’t even reach 25 trips due to Christmas vacation, while in summer I try to ride my bike at least some of the time.
Winnipeg Transit is planning to move to Smart Cards in the next year or so; if this happens, it’s a great opportunity to reward transit usage with dynamic fare reductions based on frequency. Here’s how such a system could work: I sign up for a smart card, and either hook it up to a credit card, or choose to load a balance onto the card up front (with the ability to load additional funds). The first number of trips would cost approximately the full cost of a ticket, while subsequent trips would gradually reduce that fare until it reached the monthly pass level, at which point the trips would be free or at a minimum floor price. (Transfers would be automatic within a time frame; after a certain lapse time, the transfer would expire, and a new fare would be charged.)
Here is one such breakdown based on 2010 fares:
Trips 1 – 10: $2.25 10 trips/month: $22.50
Trips 10-20: $2.00 20 trips/month: $42.50
Trips 20-30: $1.75 30 trips/month: $60.00
Trips 30-40: $1.50 40 trips/month: $75.00
Trips 40+: FREE
This fare breakdown gives commuters an incentive to use the bus for other trips, but does not penalize commuters who don’t take the bus every day. Serviced park and ride access could be handled the same way. For bus users who don’t want to worry about loading funds or using a credit card, they would be able to bring their card to a participating merchant at the start of the month to pay their $75 monthly bus pass fee, and can be pleasantly surprised once in a while to see that they have a small credit from the month before.
There are other benefits that smart cards can bring, including different fares for different routes and different times of day; express routes could cost more than regular routes, and evening bus travel could cost less than daytime in an attempt at putting more riders on the bus during off-peak times.
Transit improvements for the right reasons
Diamond lanes have not been popular with many Winnipeg drivers, and there are valid arguments that there isn’t enough benefit to buses to justify the increased road congestion on some routes. In addition, while the updated transit signs and improved shelters are nice to have, they are not likely to change hardwired commuter patterns.
Priority in transit improvements should go to items that have the best chance of increasing ridership as long as basic updates for maintaining existing ridership aren’t neglected. Transit should continue its pursuit of SmartCards, and should continue to expand and improve Park and Ride. The City of Winnipeg should spend more effort on transit-oriented development, with more emphasis placed on downtown instead of suburban areas.
These efforts will give us more transit riders, even if we still have plenty of cars on the road; if we’re lucky, we’ll see less cars per person as our city grows.
There’s plenty of work to be done to make that happen. For one thing, lazy people like me should really start to think about using the bus a few more times a month, or at least fixing our flat bike tires in time for spring.