Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

There are several myths about Metrobus. The first is that no one rides it

For public transit to flourish in the years to come in St. John's, the city is going to need to do some bold things, John Gushue writes.

Free fares for schoolkids? That's just the start of ambitious ideas for public transit in St. John's

John Gushue stands in a Metrobus shelter by Memorial University's main campus in St. John's. (Mike Moore/CBC)

For public transit to survive — and even flourish — in the years to come in St. John's, the city is going to need to do some bold things.

It's going to need to bring in the kids, persuade university students to look from another angle at an idea they already rejected, convince the Newfoundland and Labrador government that a municipal system is a provincial responsibility, and (here's a toughie) change the thinking of a public that doesn't much care about Metrobus at all, and when they do, the thinking is often negative.

A bit of disclosure here: I'm a Metrobus user, and have been in an on-and-off kind of way since I was a kid. Currently, it's very much on, on a pretty much daily basis. Our family owns a car, but we're determined to keep it to one vehicle, and I'm lucky enough now to be on a bus route that gets me to work quickly.

I recall a former colleague saying years ago, "But you earn a good dollar," after I told him I ride the bus. There's a myth: that only poor people use the bus, and they wouldn't if they didn't have to. My experience has been that loads of people from different walks of life use the bus.

My experience has also been, though, that many people never use the bus, and they're missing out for it.

There are 23 routes in the Metrobus system in metro St. John's, and I almost always ride just one of them. I'm a bit of a creature of habit. Most weekday mornings, I go to the same stop and get the same route at the same time.

So do several other people, and that speaks to a pervasive myth I hear all over the place, even in my own office: the myth that no one rides the bus.

Income support clients who have eight medical appointments per month qualify for a free bus pass provided by the provincial government. (Rob Antle/CBC)

I know this to be untrue because of personal experience. I have yet to be the only person waiting at my stop, which is, granted, a major stop and transfer point for several routes in the east end of St. John's.

Still, I find it so weird that people assume Metrobus is not being used. In September, a day after a few colleagues had been talking about it, I asked them to guess how many people got on that No. 2 bus at that stop that morning.

"Zero!" one heartily called. "Fourteen!" I replied.

Now, 14 is a high number, and I think it had to do with university getting back in session. Most mornings, there are five or six of us. On Friday, the day I wrote this, I counted eight. 

A report with a lot to chew on

Earlier this week, the City of St. John's released the findings of a review of its public transit system. [You can read it here.] Dillon Consulting looked at Metrobus from top to toe, and came back with an awful lot of things to chew on.

One of the biggest problems facing Metrobus is demographics: the service may be more widely used than some people think, but it skews toward adults. Metrobus general manager Judy Powell noted in a CBC interview this week that the kids are literally not on board.

Passengers board a Metrobus on Friday at a stop in St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC)

"We don't see the same number of high school students on the buses that we did 10 and 20 years ago. How do we reverse that trend? How do we make it attractive?" Powell said.

That means some dramatic proposals could be on the table.

"One of the recommendations is a discounted bus program, whether it is a 50 per cent discount or free," she said.

Yep, free fares. Imagine that.

That will annoy people who already feel a grudge that their tax dollars (isn't it funny that it's always "their" dollars, when it's something they don't like?) are subsidizing a service they don't use and don't like.

But the idea is a provocative way to get at a serious issue that undermines the challenges of providing a transit system across a metro area that continues to sprawl its way to unsustainability

Some people don't take transit, nor get the point

The way St. John's and especially its neighbouring and increasingly suburban municipalities have been built effectively demands an ordinary person to own at least one car, whether they want to or, or can afford it or not.

You'll hear the phrase "car culture" more often in the years to come. Maybe we'll also hear about "transit culture." The latter phrase appears several times in the Dillon Consulting report, and it speaks to a change that involves much more than putting buses on roads.

Metrobus has recently been buying smaller vehicles for particular routes to accommodate smaller requirements and burn less fuel. (Metrobus)

It's really about tackling some fundamental issues: housing, public health, air quality, immigration, obesity, economic development, walkability, friendly neighbourhoods, quality of life … you name it, they all connect to public transit.

This one is not a myth: many people don't take public transit, and they don't get it, either.

This was a takeaway for me last March, when Memorial University students in St. John's resoundingly defeated a proposal for what's called U-Pass.

Students clearly could not see the benefits of a system that would charge them $139 a semester for all-access passage on the buses. The "what's in it for me?" factor seemed to be a deciding issue; another (at least from students I heard from) was the assumption that if the students said no, someone else would pick up the tab.

What's the future of Metrobus? On The Go's Ted Blades speaks with Ted speaks Judy Powell, Metrobus's general manager, as well as Jen Crowe and Meghan Hollett of Happy City St. John's.

Ted speaks with Metrobus GM Judy Powell and Jen Crowe and Meghan Hollett, from Happy City St. John's. 18:35

The Dillon report puts U-Pass back on the table. I think one way it may sell better is with a pitch that takes a broader view. For instance, the very same campus was packed to capacity six months later for a climate change march to the Confederation Building. Thousands of students demanded action and tangible, meaningful things to reduce carbon emissions.

Well, hello U-Pass 2.0. Just a thought.

Funding model to come under scrutiny

The Dillon report also recommends taking a broader look at the funding model for Metrobus as well as the GoBus service that the city now also runs (GoBus is for passengers with disabilities who cannot access the conventional bus system). A goal: bringing the provincial government into the picture for the funding model, in recognition of the fact that a better public transit system will provide a public service and tick boxes on other fronts (infrastructure repair; helping an aging population stay independent; help new Canadians engage with their new city; the list goes on).

My point at the beginning is that it irks me when people say the buses are empty. They're not. At least, I see first-hand the value of a good system.

But the system we have has lots of issues. There is so much capacity to grow. There's room for innovation (more shuttles, more park-and-ride models to service outskirt neighbourhoods). I

The big question is this: who else is going to get on board?

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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