Gushue | How do we get Metrobus on the right road?

Every substantial fix for public transit in St. John's is expensive, but the status quo is costing us a fortune, too, writes John Gushue.

St. John's is asking the public for ideas on how to rejuvenate its transit system

Metrobus provides an essential service for thousands of commuters, but continues to have an image problem. (CBC )

In the last few years, I have spent more cumulative time on the New York City public transportation system than I have on Metrobus.

I should note I don't visit New York often, and I live in the heart of St. John's. In fact, there's a stop that connects several routes within a 10-minute walk of my front door. While I'm planning a Manhattan trip again now, I have no idea when I'll next get on a Metrobus.

Let me be clear: I have no prejudice against Metrobus. In fact, I used to rely on the service pretty much every day during one recent stint of my working life, and looked forward to the ride as a way of catching up on my reading.

For the last while, though, a Metrobus is something I see from my office, pass in my car, or wonder about when I think about how the Northeast Avalon has been evolving into a large, suburban area that bears continually less resemblance to what I knew as a kid.

It's the urban planning issue — the knowledge that we continue to build more roadways to carry people further and further distances — that has been getting under my skin a bit.

Missing the boat on buses

To my mind, we've all been missing the point about Metrobus, which continues to have an image with many people that is undeniably negative. (More on that in a moment.) Metrobus, to my mind, ought to be the potential solution to problems we're not asking ourselves often enough, the glue to ever-increasing pieces of wood scattered in our midst, and the planning element that always seems to be the afterthought.

Let me explain that. Our development pattern has been something like this: The city — or, less often, a neighbouring municipality — approves a subdivision or shopping area, and it gradually gets built. The bus line goes into a place like the Stavanger Drive area, for instance, well after it has been established. There are other places where Metrobus is not yet on the ground.

Our planning model should have public transit as a primary focus. I suspect that the reputation problems that have been dogging Metrobus for decades — I'm not exaggerating, because I wrote about such problems in the 1980s — would have been eased if not solved — if our planning priorities were different.

Bus services seeks public feedback

And, my, does Metrobus have some image issues. The City of St. John's pretty well acknowledges it has some heavy lifting to do, because ridership remains far lower than it should be.

Metrobus is now collecting opinions from riders and non-riders alike through what it calls its Idea Centre, an online portal that aims to get some discussion and then some change happening.

Coun. Tom Hann, who sits on the Metrobus board, said the goal is to find "ideas and suggestions and any other thing that they want to leave in terms of how Metrobus operates, and how they would like to see it operate in the future."

To get a sense what people think, I've been making a point of asking people over the last few weeks of what they think. This runs from chatting up coworkers and friends to soliciting opinions from the Twitter community.

To no surprise at all, I got some negative feedback. The complaints ranged from the age of the fleet, to the long waits at bus stands, to even the smells that patrons encounter.

'Service is barely adequate'

Wrote a Twitter user named @pennywiselyric, "It is inconvenient, unreliable, late, dirty, expensive and inconsiderate. The drivers are often rude and mean."

A Metrobus stop on Water Street in downtown St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC)

"Metrobus service is barely adequate. Biggest and best change that needs to be made is extension of service hours," tweeted James Moriarty. "Even just having one bus doing a broad run between midnight and 6 am would make a HUGE difference for shift workers."

I have to agree with this point. I noted at the beginning that I don't often use the bus for work, and the largest reason is that I need to be at my desk before 6 a.m. By that point in the morning, the wheels haven't hit the road.

A common refrain is the disconnect between what people need and what's offered, from schedules to routes.

"Metrobus is not convenient for most people," wrote Lori Hogan, who added a point that is at the very crux of the Metrobus problem. "But more riders needed to make it worthwhile to increase frequency, routes."

Creative suggestions

Some suggestions were creative, and required a rethink about how public transit fits in with a diverse user base. A cyclist wondered why Metrobus could not mimic other systems and outfit its buses with the ability to carry bikes while cyclists caught a ride. Another respondent suggested that Metrobus appeal to young parents by welcoming strollers.

Tania Actil wondered why more is not being done to turn people into Metrobus customers. "I haven't seen any publicity promoting why public transportation is [important]," she wrote.

Good point, although I will note that Metrobus has at least been stepping things up on the promotional front. (Offering Air Miles may not seem like the most obvious way to drive up ridership, but I know it has indeed lured at least a few non-riders into the mix.

Metrobus users have no end of ideas on how to improve the transit service. (CBC )

But Metrobus — and city council, to be frank — will need to overhaul its strategy. Listening to the public is a good start, but the next plan will need to be comprehensive enough to overcome two significant problems involving the public mood.

The first relates to the negative impressions that many people have. Nothing kills like poor word of mouth.

The second relates to a more insidious problem: apathy. The majority of people in the city don't use the service, and I would go further to suggest they don't care about it, either. [Even worse, a good many seem to dismiss the people who rely on it.]

The City of St. John's has committed to spend $11.1 million on Metrobus in the coming year, and that doesn't include what it has already spent (with help from the federal government) on its new, long-overdue depot in the Kelsey Drive area. The depot's opening is a milestone in the history of public transit in the area, but no one should think it alone will make the service dramatically better.

Status quo is bloody expensive, too

Pretty much every substantial improvement that Metrobus needs — from earlier starts, later finishes, improved frequency and new buses — will mean cash. I have not seen much evidence that council is poised to approve that kind of overhaul.

Even though it's an election year, I would be really surprised to hear a lot of candidates speak out in favour of spending millions on upgrading Metrobus, especially given that there's a credible argument that the new or longer routes would not be well used.

But here's the rub: we're already spending millions because of poor planning on transit. Each year, local governments and the province spend millions on roads and highways in the region, either to put down new subdivision payment or to improve the pothole-riddled roads we all complain about every day.

Think about it this way. That ever-growing, ever-sagging network of roads that links the sprawl that is now the Northeast Avalon is the culmination of years of bad decisions, of not putting public transit at the heart of our planning. Politicians don't like potholes, but they love fixing them, and telling you about it.

It does, though, also come down the consumer, not just the politician. If the public doesn't value public transit itself - and I think the problems of convenience, etc., are also ones of perception - the service will never improve.

Metrobus doesn't offer me anything for the early morning, but it does have a route I can use at the end of my shift. One of my resolutions for the rest of the year is to make greater use of that option for getting home.

I wonder what would happen if more of us thought that way.