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.