Bus route cutbacks leave few options for some riders

70 bus routes in the city are being cut back as ETS tries to reallocate service hours to busier routes.

'They just said basically, Too bad, figure it out. It's your problem. Walk'

Greg Carrier relies on the No. 163 bus to get from his north Edmonton neighbourhood to the rest of the city. The route's hours are getting cut. (CBC)

Almost every day, Greg Carrier walks a block to catch the No. 163 to the Eaux Claire Transit Centre. From there, he'll hop on another bus to work, the grocery store or a festival.

The bus stop is about 75 metres from his house — a quick walk for anyone, but especially important for Carrier, 34, who has Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that affects his hearing and vision (he uses a white cane as an aid while walking).

But the No. 163 is part of a slate of 70 routes that will be cut back or slashed altogether in a round of considerable changes to the Edmonton Transit System coming into effect on Sunday. 

Carrier's bus will not be available on weekends or weekdays after 6 p.m. The closest alternative stop is more than a kilometre away.

"I don't mind walking, that's fair. But 1.5 to two kilometres is too much, especially in the winter," said Carrier, speaking through a sign language interpreter.

He noted that carrying groceries while using his cane or traversing icy sidewalks would be especially difficult.
Greg Carrier uses a white cane as an aid while walking through his north Edmonton neighbourhood, where he relies on public transit to get around town. (CBC)

The 70 routes affected by the ETS changes are in every corner of the city. For several years, ETS has been targeting routes that don't meet ridership thresholds, which means the routes that have had the very fewest riders — the "lowest-hanging fruit" — have already been cut. 

Carrier's route is among a handful where the suggested "alternative service" is listed as "none" on an ETS document.

"This was one of only [a few] changes that didn't have any other options," he said. "They just said basically, 'Too bad, figure it out. It's your problem. Walk.' "

Service hours shifted to new routes

ETS said this round of changes is actually a "reallocation." About 50,000 annual service hours are being taken from low ridership routes and put back into routes that are overcrowded or consistently run late.
The City of Edmonton is hoping to put more money into other routes that are late or packed by cutting routes like Carrier's. (Unknown)

"Our target is to have buses running on time, 90 per cent of the time," said Andrew Gregory, a senior transit planning engineer with the city.

"We're not achieving that and we have people waiting outside at bus stops and missing connections. So this year we're committed to addressing [that] without a fare increase and a tax increase."  

Gregory said the 70 route changes affect about one per cent of ETS riders. New service hours are being planned for routes such as the busy No. 1 and No. 2 that run through downtown and the No. 15 that connects Mill Woods to downtown. 

Still, Gregory acknowledges that though the transit schedule is a balancing act, some riders will be left without a viable public transit option.

A long-term transit strategy report suggests Edmonton residents want direct, convenient, and reliable service — which are hardly controversial goals.

At the same time, the report states there needs to be a focus on moving the highest number of people as efficiently as possible. It warns that more circuitous routes, mostly outside the "inner city ring," will likely be cut to facilitate more, faster buses on busy routes.

"The transit strategy could involve an entirely different bus network within a couple of years ... it takes us to a whole new level where we're looking at every route and every neighbourhood in the system," Gregory said.

Route cut back a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'

But even if the transit strategy is approved, its implementation is far away.

Carrier questioned why the July 2 service cuts were made before consultation on the whole transit strategy was complete.

Carrier had a meeting with his city councillor and an ETS manager about the route changes. At one point, it was suggested he consider using the park-and-ride, Carrier said.

While Carrier can use the Disabled Adult Transit Service (DATS), it's not always ideal since requests for service need to be made a day in advance. But beyond his own situation, Carrier wonders what the changes will mean for the broader ETS ridership.

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said, in an email. "ETS claims there's no demand, so they cut service. ETS will then go to city hall in a year or two and say, 'Well, we don't need to provide services there because there's no one there and there wasn't a demand a year or two ago.'

"This will be true, precisely because no one who considers public transit a primary means of transportation will move to an area not serviced by ETS."