10 Days Of Transit: If I Had A Million Dollars

transitliveThe other day on Twitter, councillor Shawn Fraser (the guy who started this whole 10 Days Of Transit thing) asked how you’d spend $1 million to make the transit system better. Seeing as today is the last day of his 10 day challenge, I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.

Thing is, I’m pretty sure that the smartest thing to do to improve the transit system would be to buy more buses and hire more drivers. However, a one-time investment of one million dollars really isn’t a lot of money where transit is concerned. I doubt it would do more than buy one bus and hire one driver once you factor in things like maintenance and gas for the next 10 to 20 years.

So… a million bucks is chicken scratch. And that’s why I’m going to focus on a few other ideas that might make the whole transit experience more palatable while fitting within Fraser’s tight budget.

1. Another Transit Report: Okay I know we’ve had several of these over the last few years but what I’m after is something commenter Brad suggested would be possible in a This Week At City Hall post last December: metrics around bus performance.

See, I want to know if buses are sticking to the posted schedules and, if they aren’t, why not.

As Brad sagely identified, with those GPS systems that the city installed in every bus, and with that fancy TransitLive system, we should be able to extract a tonne of data about which routes are sticking to their schedules, how far off buses deviate from posted times when they go off schedule, and we’ll know whether riders are generally making or missing their transfers.

With all that, we’ll be able to quantify how convenient riding the bus actually is.

Now, I’d like to think that with that TransitLive system we’re paying for, getting such a report like that would be pretty easy — as simple as going to a drop down menu and clicking “Print Report.” But I’ll imagine the worst case scenario and assume city council will hire a consultant to put that report together. They’ll probably get paid… um… let’s say, $50,000 to go to the drop down menu and click “Print Report.”

And that leaves $950,000 for other things…

2. Better Damn Bus Shelters: This is a windy, northern city. And considering that buses typically only come once every half hour here — and as I learned repeatedly last winter, once the snow piles up enough you can’t even be guaranteed that they’ll come at all — you can wind up waiting a long damn time freezing your butt off waiting for a bus.The least the city could do is put some more money into buying better bus shelters. And with all that keen GPS gear and those nifty digital fare boxes, we should have a precise idea about which stops are the most popular. Knowing that, we can do a really good job of targeting the places where super-deluxe shelters would be the most appreciated.

In my dream world, those shelters would have solar heating of some kind and the most-used would have digital displays letting people know when the next buses are coming. They’d also be cleaned regularly so the floors wouldn’t be sticky all the damn time and wouldn’t smell of urine.

Let’s say we put together 30 deluxe bus shelters at the most used stops across the city and spend $10,000 on each. (I don’t know… I’m just pulling numbers out of my butt. But I’m thinking you could make a pretty sweet shelter for $10,000.) That uses up $300,000. And then let’s say we spend another $100,000 by investing $1,000 in sprucing up 100 other stops around the city.

We wouldn’t wind up with every single stop being a world-class place to wait for a bus. But we’d be a lot farther ahead than we are now.

3. Build Better Bus Transfer Points and Terminals: The bulk of the remaining $550,000 I’d blow on this scheme. Let’s say a full half million.

The goal here would be to build seriously world-class, top of the line bus transfer points in the downtown, at the Golden Mile, and at the  Southland and Northgate malls. And, if possible, the Grasslands Walmart as well.

These terminals would be fully enclosed, include benches and heating. There would be video displays that use TransitLive information to show both where the buses that stop at the terminal are, and also give an overview of what’s going on with the rest of the system so riders can plan transfers.

There would also be free wifi so that you can use a smartphone or other device to access TransitLive or Trip Planner so you can figure out where you’re going. Or! You could even use the wifi to play World Of Warcraft or watch a movie on Netflix — you know, so that the wait for your bus isn’t such a grinding bore. In fact, you might find people reporting their wait times are shorter than they actually are because time flies when you’re grinding through murlocs.

Obviously, you’d also want to have the printed schedules and route maps up in these transfer points. Emergency phones, too. And 24hr lighting. Maybe some security cameras.

And the project would have to be awarded to an architect and builder through some kind of competitive bid process where transit users would get to vote on what design they think works best. This way, we not only get something functional, but the people who’ll be using these shelters will have a say in how they look and how comfortable they are.

Considering how slick I imagine these things being, you can imagine how just one terminal would eat up the entire half million. But here’s the clever bit, the city wouldn’t pay the whole tab! We’d get the business community to cover the bulk of this either through property taxes or some kind of transit levy.

Okay, I haven’t even posted this yet and I can already hear the steam streaming out of John Hopkin’s ears (he’s the president of the Chamber of Commerce, if you didn’t know), but hear me out.

Regina businesses gain a lot of benefit from the transit system. Many employees of the retail industry take the bus to and from work. And, retail and restaurants around transit terminals get a lot of traffic thanks to those places being hubs of activity. It’s frickin’ ridiculous that the transfer points we currently have are such sketchy, slapdash, perfunctory affairs.

I mean, there isn’t even sidewalk access to the transit stop on the east side of the street of the Golden Mile’s transit stop. The transit terminals at Southland and Grasslands are little more than poles with printed schedules tacked on them.

It’s time these businesses kicked in to help fancy these places up.

4. More Fun Stuff Like WiFi on Buses and Coffee: Fact is, taking the bus takes more time than driving in Regina. Actually, there’ve been times when it’s been quicker to walk home from, say, Southland Mall, than to wait for the next bus. Anything we can do to make being on the bus seem like less of a miserable time sink, the better.

That’s why I’m a huge fan of kitting out our buses with free WiFi. Then you wouldn’t have to stop killing murlocs after the bus picks you up at the fancy new bus terminal. Or, you could get a jump on your e-mails while you ride in to the office in the morning. Might take you 15 minutes longer to get to work, but it’s a damn site safer than texting while driving.

And if we’re half way to making the bus seem a little bit like a café by getting people to kick back and use their devices, why not go all the way and install coffee machines?

No, I’m serious. Why shouldn’t we? (And I swear I’ve read about places that already do this on their city buses but damned if I can’t find anything about it online right now.) Might take up a little space somewhere on the bus but they’re hardly ever full anyway. And it might generate some additional revenue for the system.

Thing is, considering the size of this city and the financial constraints it’s under, I can’t imagine a way that we’re going to be able to shorten travel times by transit such that it will look like a worthwhile option compared to driving. But, if we throw a few luxuries into the experience, we’ll take some of the sting out of sacrificing all that time.

I suspect this will use up the $50,000 we have left over after fixing up the bus stops. Might be more expensive than that even. But here again there might be ways to get Sasktel and the private sector involved to bring down the costs.

5. Let Kids Ride Free: I pitched this idea in my last 10 Days Of Transit post and people seem to dig it. So I’m pitching it again here. I suspect letting kids under 12 on the bus for nothing will actually increase transit revenues thanks to all the parents that would be riding at full fare, so this one is a gimme and shouldn’t count against the Fraser’s million bucks budget.

* * * * *

Well, that’s it. A million bucks used up, mainly on making the bus stops prettier. But the more I think about it, the more I think this is the way to go — and not just because the budget is so tiny.

So much of a city’s efforts on public transit are directed towards how the buses travel around the city. What routes should the buses follow? What roads should buses travel on? How fast can they get from one point to another?

But once the system is in place, a transit experience is much more about the time you spend being idle. What are the bus stops like that you have to wait at? Do the buses get to your stop when you expect them to so you don’t have to wait too long? What’s it like on the bus while you’re sitting around on the bus waiting to get where you want to be?

Considering the constraints our system is under, it just seems to me that if we can make those idle, waiting-around parts of the bus experience more pleasant, people will be less reluctant to get on a bus.

But, if you think I’m totally out to lunch, cool. There’s a comment section below. Also, Councillor Fraser is hosting an event at 7pm tonight at the Good Earth Café, 1881 Scarth St. You can pass your thoughts on to him.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

22 thoughts on “10 Days Of Transit: If I Had A Million Dollars”

  1. Excellent ideas, well worth considering; thanks, Paul. By the way, did you know that not all present bus shelters are city property? There should be no excuse, therefore, for the business sector not to kick in some amenities.

  2. I didn’t know that. Neat.

    I’ll confess, my ideas on business involvement are pretty half-baked (in that I need to bake them more so that they’ll be sufficiently fluffy and light tasting). But I think there must be lots of innovative ways that we could partner with the private sector to improve our bus shelters. And failing partnerships, we can just tax the heck out of them.

  3. Several years ago, while calling the city to ask that racist graffiti be cleaned off a bus shelter ceiling, I was told that shelters with a number on them are the city’s responsibility, and numberless ones are not. The numberless ones tend to have advertising on one wall or more, so logically, there’s nothing to prevent improvements that would make the businesses or agencies advertised look like good/better corporate citizens.

  4. Pretty sad that in our fantasy world of improving public transit, we only dream of having a million dollars to work with.

    All good suggestions Paul.

    I once floated an idea that all bus routes heading into the downtown should be free, and you paid to take the bus out of downtown, the idea being it would increase ridership that might offset the costs of the free portion. It may have been a hare brained idea. If we actually had a reliable and frequent transit system, you wouldn’t have to offer incentives like this for people to use it.

    Improved shelters are a must. One of the more pathetic sights I saw in YQR last week was the bus stop sign planted on a strip of gravel, on the west side of Pasqua Street near 25th Avenue. Not even a sidewalk, let alone a bus shelter.

    Speaking of inadequate infrastructure, has anybody noticed the large number of street lights that aren’t working? Honestly, in places, Regina is starting to resemble a back water town in the Soviet Union.

  5. Cornwall Centre should extend to the street like the Rideau Centre in Ottawa does for a bus shelter with screens displaying next bus times.

    The pedestrian overpass on 11th Ave. should be open as long as the buses run.

    The Library stops have basically been removed, so no more waiting in the warm Library lobby for the next bus. Pity.

    Cornwall Centre closes at 6 most days, leaving 7 hours of downtown bus waiting in the cold or extreme Summer heat, while there is nowhere to duck into if things get sketchy. Want people to feel safe taking transit? Make sure there are private facilities operating next to the bus terminal.

    I sometimes wait for a bus in Slow Pub, or Triffons on Broad St.
    I have friends on Hamilton and on Cornwall I can sometimes wait at indoors with company, WiFi, and pass the time for the next ride (or in a couple hours if we end up watching a movie first if I’m not in a hurry to get home).

  6. Street lights are SaskPower’s responsibility.

    John: I was thinking of the Rideau Centre when I first read Paul’s post.

  7. John: I stand corrected on the street lights.
    Just read your transit ideas; they’re really good.

  8. City st lights are Sk Power’s problem? So none of the company noticed that there are 21 out on McCarthy Blvd. , for the last 5 months or so..

    Maybe the CoR should contract SKP , just to keep them in the loop.

    I’ve, via a CoR site; contacted my ward councilor.

    Why aren’t the Elm weeds getting pruned, so the Street lights might have more effective results; & drivers can see more shit.
    This is a perfect temp, control bugs.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v34TxfP5d04

    I would go sort of Solar / wind , for the heated shelters, only for the electronic portion. Battery charging, motion detector ignition, etc.

    Think hockey rink / sarcan style heaters. Natural gas lines are pretty much everywhere. Tap into them.
    Never need to use ( too much ), in the spring to fall seasons.

    CoR you now owe me .5 million in consulting fees.. 1/2 for the foodbank , 1/2 to the humane society..

  9. JFYI “tree” banding a weed is a joke this plant is NOT Natural to SK. it’s called an evasive.

    Probably not allowed to enter Canada any more.

    Just like the “mini crows”; …They are Starlings. They are an evasive bird not natural to North America.. brought here in the 1920’s.

    We have to learn how to control them soon.

  10. Ron: it takes ages for a subcontractor to come out on request and prune city elms which obscure street lights, and it takes as long for the pruned branches to be hauled away, off your property, all complicated by the April – September ban. Banding is a futile enterprise unless everybody on the block does it, because the canker worms can swing from tree to tree on a filament they produce. I think you and I dislike elms about equally. (PS, it’s “invasive” species.)

    To be fair to SaskPower, they respond to reported outages, so it’s really up to citizens to keep them in the know.

  11. John: I like your list of ideas. (and do you have comments turned off or is that my computer not seeing them?)

    About paratransit… My understanding is that that is a different system. And haven’t we contracted it out to a private transit company?

    If so, then how much control do we have over improving paratransit beyond giving that company an extra $1 million and saying, “Do better.” And then hope that they do.

    But yes, I agree that the state of paratransit is shameful.

  12. Two points:

    1. Here in Saskatoon, $50K gets you 4 shelters. Of the current metal-and-plexi style. I imagine it’s the cost of concrete pouring jacking up the price. Source. (I hope HTML works in here.) Winnipeg has heated bus shelters that match styles of surrounding buildings, but I don’t know how much they cost or who pays for them. They also have a countdown timer to next bus, which is why I’d consider moving to Winnipeg.

    2. Grinding murloc/froglok is not fun. Bears and boars FTW. Murloc grinding is about as fun as killing mosquitos as you wade through a slough.

  13. Mobile spy platforms..
    A copper on every bus? Maybe they can be trained to drive the bus.

    Regina used to have an LRT system, but some brainiac decided it was best to tear it out.

  14. No comments yet there Paul.

    I’m terrified of Ron’s “evasive” trees. Trees evading people are like Triffids.

    Yes, Regina had an LRT until the late ’40s it rocked our socks.

    See my site for video of #10DOT wrapup. The 2nd video is the short/bestest.

  15. Something is definitely up with the street light outages. In past years, reporting them got a fairly prompt response. In recent years, and especially this year, they seem to ignore multiple reports. Something or someone has clearly changed.

  16. Not knocking features like wifi and non-urinal style shelters. But Regina’s bus system is sadly lacking on the basic fundamental, so all the features and enhancements will never help if the core function of fast effective transit is missing.

    After checking the transit schedule for numerous people I know, the result was always the same: either one way or both ways of their common trips would be a nightmare. There would be shockingly long waits, excessive trip times, multiple transfers, long walks, or some combination of these factors.

    Maddeningly, there would often be one ideal trip, giving the tantalizing hope that transit would actually be usuable, only to be dashed to find that the return trip is so unappealing as to discourage a prospective bus rider from the entire idea.

    I was surprised at how difficult to the point of impossible it was to find someone whose lifestyle and location corresponds with a swift and easy bus schedule.

    Perhaps more intelligent scheduling is required. However having seen the same results through rounds of schedule retooling, I suspect the solution for Regina will require much more revolutionary thinking than just tweaking the schedule.

    Each city has unique needs, so Regina’s sprawl happy design may require a different model than cities set up for LRT.

    Perhaps our funding ratio isn’t even appropriate. Has that been considered? Our per capita snow budget needs to vary from say Atlanta’s, so perhaps our transit budget should also consider this citiy’s unique properties as well. If those unique properties and development decisions require doubling of transit budgets to keep, that total cost should find its way into city hall’s decision making. Some council ninnies boasted in claiming their $700 million stadium plan incorporates this total cost concept, so why not start to consider it on other things perhaps more essential than Roughrider stadium hosting?

    What if buses were much smaller but came much more often? What if demand and service could be dynamic like taxis?

    What if code required that every major complex or office tower make the choice of providing either one full spot for each resident/employee (instead of the current pitiful fraction) or alternatively, paying for one transit spot equivalent? That extra funding could help.

    Transit systems benefit most from large increases in scale. We should give priority to the ideas that support that goal.

    As much as I like wifi and shelters as treats for the current users, I just don’t see them driving the goal of major usage increase.

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