Challenges ahead to boost transit ridership, Edmonton auditor says
City spent $191M in 2018 to subsidize public transit, up from $54M in 2000
Fixing the city's faltering transit system will be a challenge despite ongoing efforts to improve it, city auditor David Wiun says.
At a meeting Friday, the city's audit committee discussed a report Wiun released last month that pointed out key areas where work is needed.
One of the biggest challenges is getting more people to take public transit.
Safe, convenient, reliable and faster service will prompt more people to take the bus or LRT, Wiun told the committee.
"Hopefully that will lead to increased ridership," Wiun said. "It won't be easy."
The number of riders — bums in the seats — you can't get around- Coun. Mike Nickel
A number of factors may discourage people from taking transit.
Wiun cited Statistics Canada reports showing more and more people are working from home. He said a changing political climate could see layoffs province wide.
"Unfortunately in Alberta, there could be ... a public service cut, and my guess is that many of the current users of transit are probably public service workers who work downtown," Wiun said. "And if you lose some of those, it's going to be more challenging."
Mayor Don Iveson noted the city is on the cusp of launching a bus network redesign and a smart-fare system in 2020, both of which should move the city forward.
"I've been trying to fix this for 12 years," Iveson said. "I've looked at our bus network and thought, 'This is not going to work as we grow from 700,000 to a million.' Well, now we're at a million and we're still debating the redesign of our bus system."
On Thursday, the city released 2019 census data that shows Edmonton has a population of 972,223, up from just under 900,000 in 2016.
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Iveson said he thinks the revamped bus system will be "much more customer focused, much more timely, much more efficient."
In his report, Wiun made eight recommendations, including mitigating fare evasion, finding non-fare revenue opportunities such as advertising, and improving how Edmonton Transit Service documents revenue management issues.
Eddie Robar, branch manager of ETS, said he expects his department will fulfil Wiun's recommendations by next summer.
"We're on that right path," Robar said.
Coun. Mike Nickel isn't as optimistic about the city's ability to fix the transit system.
Despite the larger population and city building more LRT, he said, transit ridership dropped from 89 million in 2014 to 87 million in 2018.
"This is the tale of the ticket," Nickel said after Friday's meeting. "Revenue is one of those metrics you just can't get around. The number of riders — bums in the seats — you can't get around."
Nickel said he has heard concerns that the bus redesign will cut routes, leaving seniors and vulnerable people in the lurch.
Robar said the city needs to do a better job at catching riders who don't pay, a problem especially on buses.
Within a couple of weeks, he said, bus drivers will start giving out transfers to passengers paying with either tickets or cash, so drivers will "know who on the bus has paid fare."
The city has added more peace officers and police to patrol buses, he said.
Wiun listed the city's U-pass system under fare evasion in the audit.
"There has been a number of investigations over the past few years both in Edmonton and Calgary with counterfeit U-pass stickers," he told the committee.
Fulfilling the audit recommendations will coincide with the city's relaunch of its bus system, scheduled for September 2020.
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The total cost of operating public transit went up by more than 200 per cent between 2000 and 2018, from $105 million to $327 million, the audit showed.
The city spends more now to subsidize fares. The cost has jumped 250 per cent, from $54 million in 2000 to $191 million in 2018.
Council is expecting to hear more about the final bus route redesign in mid-October, as well as an update on the city's fare policy.