Winnipeg Transit is treading on thin ice

Every day I drive to work.

I get in my little pickup truck, fire up the 4.0l V6 engine, and spend 40 minutes expelling greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and swearing under my breath at the boneheads I share the road with.

I once was a bus rider. Even after I moved to the suburbs, I would make the 10 minute walk to the bus stop and ride the pumpkin downtown, passing the time reading a magazine or The Metro (RIP) and not destroying the environment.

What changed? Service was cut back. One of the two direct routes downtown was permanently diverted to a new greenfield suburb, and the number of buses on the remaining express route was reduced. Even before this, though, it was difficult because of poor off-peak service.

My schedule was not always a consistent 9-5. If I was stuck at work and missed that last express bus at 6:00, it could be a bit of an ordeal to get home. I remember one day when I just missed that last express bus, so I ran — RAN — to Graham Avenue to catch that after hours bus that winds its way though half of south Winnipeg before getting to my neighbourhood, and I missed that one by seconds as well. A hour and 45 minutes later, plus a 10 minute walk, I was finally back at home.

That may sound like a silly first world problem, but the point is I had choices, and one of those was $10 parking in the underground Portage Place parkade. No more worrying about missing my bus, and really not that much more money out of my pocket.

I kept taking the bus for a while, but shortly after the bus service to our community was cut back, I made the switch.

Some people don’t have the same choices.

They rely on the bus, they are on a tight budget, and for them the abnormal $0.25 increase in bus fare will hurt.

The increase is one of two measures being taken by Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to stop the financial bleeding of Winnipeg Transit, which is suffering from low ridership. The other measure involves reduced service, mostly in off-peak hours.

The knee-jerk reaction to increase fares to increase revenues does not always work. I’ll give a simple example: I used to buy 2 beers at every Jets game, back when beer was just under $10 a pop. Now that it’s over $10 I only get 1. Yes they make $1 more per beer, but they earn $10 less revenue each game that I attend. Sure, I represent only 1/15,000th of the demand curve for beer at MTS Centre, but with every price increase there will be others who will decide that the price point is just a bit too high.

While some people have no option but to take the bus, and the impact on them is rightly getting attention in the press and on social media, there are many others who do it by choice. Even if service were to remain the same, some of these users will make the switch to driving simply because the extra $0.50 per day is the point at which they decide the cost savings no longer measure up to the hassle of relying on transit.

But service is not remaining the same. It’s getting worse. There is no doubt that off-peak bus routes are money losers, but they are part of the package. They make transit workable for everybody, including those who only take an evening or weekend bus 1 day out of 100. If they don’t have that 1 bus it’s a big problem.

We have yet to see the details of proposed changes, but Winnipeg Transit is on thin ice here. Complaints about transit service problems are already one of the favourite topics on my twitter feed, and if that’s any indication they don’t have much goodwill to squander. The combination of significantly higher fares and less reliable evening service could cause a large enough exodus of users that Transit could find itself losing even more money than before. This whole exercise would be counter-productive, and would accelerate the downward spiral of decreasing revenue and reduced ridership.

The fact that Transit has been losing riders, even as Winnipeg’s population is increasing and fares have been nudging up a mere nickle a year, should tip off Mayor Brian Bowman that there are significant systemic problems with Transit. Ones that jacking up fares and chopping routes will not fix.

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15 thoughts on “Winnipeg Transit is treading on thin ice

  1. Well said.

    – Ridership is low because Transit service is garbage.
    – Transit service is garbage because we don’t invest in it.
    – We don’t invest in Transit because ridership is low.
    – Ridership is low because… and repeat ad nauseum.

    Fortunately, it can also work in reverse:
    – Investing in Transit makes it awesome.
    – Awesome Transit service gets high ridership.
    – High ridership makes us invest in Transit.
    – Investing in Transit makes it awesome… and rinse and repeat.

    If we continue to pass laws and invest public funds in a way that makes cars more convenient and Transit less so, we shouldn’t be surprised when people choose the former over the latter.

    Either our elected officials do not understand this, or they do and choose to ignore it. And really, how can we blame them for ignoring it, when the electorate who put them there don’t bat an eye at spending $150M on a single piece of car infrastructure (*cough* Waverly underpass *cough*), but they completely lose their S at spending 6% of that amount on pedestrian infrastructure (I’m looking at you P&M). Coincidentally, this is almost the same amount of money Transit needs to fill their deficit. Cancel one overpass project and you’ve got the money Transit is lacking for the next two decades. It would take a politician with nerves of steel (to put it politely)…

    Winnipeg Transit is not a business. It’s a vital public service that can spur economic, social and environmental benefits for our city. It’s time to start treating it as such.

  2. I agree with you that Transit is in need of repair. I get fairly reliable service in the mornings, but taking the same bus home in the afternoon rush hour, that bus arrives at 4:17, or 4:25, or 4:35, or sometimes never at all. I can’t promise to be home by 5:00 because I only make it by 5:00 once a week.

    I do have to take issue with a couple of points – paying $10 a day to park downtown means your commuting costs are much higher than they would be on the bus. And pointing out that you only buy one beer at Jets games instead of two really separates you from any Transit rider that is legitimately affected by a fare increase.

    Anyway, just my two cents. Thank you for offering your thoughts and allowing comments.

    • He made it clear that he isn’t one that would be greatly affected by a 50 cent increase, because he has the choice to drive. Without that option to drive (even if you have money), you become very vulnerable to cuts to transit service.

      Regarding paying for parking, how much is your time worth? Even if I worked for 10$/ hour, I would seriously consider paying 10$ of parking if it took me 1 hour each way by bus vs 15 minutes by car. Unlike what people complain about, traffic really isn’t bad in Winnipeg. Unless there’s a major snowstorm or serious car accident, you can typically cross the entire city in 40-50 minutse during rush hour

      Transit systems gets more ridership in cities where the cost and time of commuting gets to be high enough that people’s value of their time is lower than the cost of the convenience of driving and paying for parking. Other cities can cost upwards of 400-600 monthly to park in heated underground lots. Winnipeg has an abundance of surface lots and cheap on-street parking that is usually easy enough to find. Start taking those parking lots away or taxing them more and it becomes cost prohibitive to drive, then people will start taking transit, even if it takes them a bit longer.

  3. Pingback: Winnipeg Transit is treading on thin ice - NewsWinnipeg.NetNewsWinnipeg.Net

  4. This city may currently have the lowest fares of most major cities BUT the services are horrendous. I live in a area where the bus doesnt run after 930am until 330 . My to high school kids have no classes in the afternoon so they either pay for a cab home wait for a ride (hopefully) or wait 3 hours for a bus. For the amount of property taxrs paid we deserve more bus service not less. The lip service about how the province cutsfunding and we cant afford to have bus service is BS. If i ran a business how the mayor and council run this city we would be bankrupt. Take the blame where it should be CITY HALL. Remember cost overruns police station back door deals for fire halls. Ballpark the list goes on. The real reason “poor management at city hall”

  5. As one of those people who has no choice but to bus and is currently searching for work, I wish Winnipeg Transit would stand up and listen to this. I can’t get an evening job or a weekend job because if I do and the bus isn’t available I lose that job. Not to mention the fact that buses along my route are always at least 20 minutes late – which only makes it harder. I get if a bus is caught by a train and delayed. I get if there is new snowfall or construction. I plan for these things because I know the train times and I know the weather.

    In the last 2 years however, catching the bus has gone from reasonable transport to near impossible and I DON’T HAVE A CHOICE. It would almost be cheaper to drive and don’t get me started on having to wait 2 hours for a late bus in the freezing cold last winter because most stops don’t have shelter from the winnipeg winters. Bussing is not viable yet there are people like me forced to do it because we don’t have a choice.

    Get your act together winnipeg transit. And while you’re at it, get some better drivers because any idiot who drives off before an old lady with a walker takes a seat is a moron.

  6. Great blog post. I’d encourage anyone complaining about transit to do it to their councilor. Preferably on the phone. Or at an Executive Policy Committee meeting on the budget.

  7. I took the bus to work for more than 20 years. My commute most of the time fine. What I have a huge problem with is , I know several bus drivers who deal with hundreds of non paying clients every single day. They get on with a coffee, slurped etc instead of saving the money for a fare because they know with all the violence to bus drivers who try to say no money no ride their lives are worth more and the people know nothing will happen to them so they don’t have a concious about not paying. Now for every short paid or non paid fare the drivers are to push this stupid button so management knows how many short or non paid fares a day and yet for YEARS nothing done. So you do the calculations of all the buses out there in a day each bus has 150 non or short paying fares how much revenue is lost. So instead of enforcing payment and no money no ride they over look it therefore those of us who pay fares continue to pay more every year. If they made a system years ago that you had to have a fare before you are able to get on a bus we would not be in the whole today. I know Ottawa has transit police who randomly check fares on the bus and if you do not have a pass or a ticket to prove you paid you get fined $150 bucks and a trip to court. If transit utilized their supervisors more efficiently than hiding to find a bus driver doing something wrong and doing things like this well you know the answer. We pay city managers to much to sit in a office or vehicle doing nothing to help and support their drivers and continue to harass them.

  8. Very well said….I can tell you with fairly good accuracy that Transit will pay roughly 100k every two weeks on overtime…this is a combination of mechanics and operators. Let me tell you that if everyone said enuf is enuf with the overtime the service would not only face it’s promised cuts from Bowman but Transitnwould litteraly have to reduce service that would MASSIVELY affect the city.

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