• Susan Flanagan

Another one Rides the Bus | The Kids are Alright | Feb. 21, 2012

3:15 pm on Elizabeth Avenue near MUN campus the traffic is as bad as any weekday in Vancouver. Mind you Vancouver gridlock stretches for dozens of kilometres for hours on head and here it`s a few blocks on a few choice roads during peak periods. When we returned home after three years living in B.C., I was relieved to leave the traffic behind. Once I got settled back however I noticed a tremendous increase in the number of vehicles on the roads in St. John`s. Living in Surrey, it took my husband a minimum of 45 minutes to commute the 50 odd km to Richmond. It took me roughly the same amount of time on the road to get my children to their activities, be it hockey practice or a birthday party.


If my drive with the children involved certain stretches of highway, I could move the van over to the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lane reserved for motorcycles and any other vehicles with two or more people. Then I`d have smooth sailing for 10 km or so until I had to merge back out with the other single-person vehicles. You`d think HOV lanes would be packed, but they were virtually empty. God forbid there be a fender bender on Highway 1 into downtown Vancouver, you could get stuck between IKEA and Lee Valley Tools for hours.


One Newfoundlander I knew out there told me about the time she got stranded in her car on the highway for the better part of a day when there was an accident in the tunnel under the river leading from Surrey to Vancouver. Since then she has always made sure to pee before she leaves to drive somewhere. She also packs water and snacks.


When I asked at a B.C. parents` hockey meeting if anyone would like to carpool to practices, the other parents looked at me like I had ten heads. My experience in Vancouver tells me that even if a commute takes over an hour, people will most likely not carpool or take public transit. Instead they will jump into their car – alone – and drive the distance.


And it is not so different here.


This evening my daughter asked if a boy from her school who lives in Torbay could take the bus home with her and then I would drop him to swimming with my daughter and two other girls. I was thrilled as this will allow the boy’s mother to stay at work and reduce the after-school activity rush hour by one car. Sure it takes a bit of coordination but it’s worth it. So today while I dropped my daughter and entourage to swimming, another family picked up my son for hockey. I then drove my son and the other boy back home at the end of their practice while my daughter got dropped by her friends’ family.


All this reduced the number of cars on Elizabeth Avenue by two. Like I said, St. John’s experiences a very short rush period over a minimal stretch of road but in a couple of years will it be like Vancouver with back-to-back vehicles stretching for kilometres on end? We have already seen this on Torbay Road pre-bypass.


What will it take to get more people carpooling or using public transit? Why do we, as a society, tend to invest in more roads and parking garages, rather than encourage more people to get out walking or biking? Why do people place such a high value on sitting in their own vehicle by themselves? Is must be status, cause it sure as heck ain`t stress relief.


Next time you`re stuck in traffic in the capital city, have a look around and take note of how many cars have only a driver or a driver and one child. If every driver dropping off a child to an activity car pooled with another family going to the same activity, then we could reduce the number of cars on the roads at peak times by at least a third.


While you`re out there take note of how full the buses are. I spoke to Judy Powell, General Manager at Metrobus to discuss the challenges of providing public transit in a city the size of St. John’s. She cites the affordable price and availability of parking as two of the reasons more people don’t take the bus.


“It’s always a challenge for us to get people out of their cars,” she says. “The population of St. John’s has not changed (that much) in the past decade. The city has spread with growth on the extremities. We haven’t had an increase in budget.”


So with population and employment growth happening outside areas serviced by Metrobus, what is the company to do in the face of low-density urban sprawl? In order to solve the problem of servicing the extremities, Powell says, we need regional cooperation. “If we want to get cars off the road, there has to be cooperation among the municipalities to achieve that.”


St. John’s is not going to pay for other municipalities. Metrobus can`t do it alone. The province has to come on board as well. One of the ideas discussed in recent meetings is the idea of a Universal Transit Pass or U-Pass for post-secondary students which would be built into their tuition fees. Roughly 30 per cent of Metrobus riders are post-secondary students. U- Passes have proven quite successful in other cities. Before this can come to fruition however, more communication is required between Metrobus, Memorial’s student union, administration and students. “Everyone else in the city would benefit as well,” says Powell. “We would take the extra revenue from U-Pass sales and improve the service to post-secondary transit users.” Metrobus wouldn’t just plug along continuing to offer existing services.


Rather than everyone in their own cars, says Powell, just getting people to think about the alternative is a challenge. She acknowledges that public transit is not always the answer. At certain points in people’s lives public transit is not a reasonable option, but at other times it works.


Other Metrobus report recommendations include requesting the city design any new developments with transit in mind. If the city continues to grow geographically with no heed taken to future public transit accommodations, then we will be looking at the same traffic jams as in other cities. Transit hubs have to be designed that are easily accessible from work, home and shops.


The key to future public transit success is implementing programs like Park ‘n’ Ride to Ice Caps games; not new multi-level parking garages at Memorial. Perhaps in the next five years we may see direct non-stop bus routes from the airport to downtown or from Memorial University to transportation hubs in Mount Pearl and Southlands. That will take cooperation from you. Why not try taking the bus to work one day this week? Or even better, try using those things extending from the lower part of your body?


According to Stats Canada, this province has 510,000 people and 526,000 registered vehicles. That`s worse than it sounds when you take into account the number of children in the province who do not yet drive (over 75,000). Combine that with the number of seniors who no longer drive (over 50,000 NLers are over 70 years old) and what you`re left with is one scary statistic. In Metrobus’ five-year plan, they are preparing for the aging population by discussing more accessible buses.


So sure it’s more convenient to drive your own car, but it’s also fun to take the bus, ride a bike or walk to work or school.


Let’s all try it just once to prove the invention of the car is not the scourge of the 21st century.


Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

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