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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

What A Mess

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday October 2, 04:27 pm
Saskatoon’s transit system was brutal long before the labour dispute

Psst: Wanna hear a secret? Saskatoon’s transit system may not be entirely world-class at the moment.

Haha — got you! Because you obviously knew that already, right? Right.

Public transit in Saskatoon is more than just poor right now — it’s a complete mess. Most obvious is the fact that there IS no public transit currently, thanks to the lockout and labour impasse. But even when buses are running, fares are inordinately high, and ridership is inordinately low.

But strangely, interest in public transit has never been higher.

With city buses now collecting dust, many commuters have now found themselves stranded during the transit lockout. That’s led to the rise of groups like Bus Riders of Saskatoon and YXE Share-a-Ride, trying to help out.

The silver lining in all of this is the attention it’s focused on Saskatoon's public transit system. Ryan Walker, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Saskatchewan, hopes the end result will be positive.

“I hope that our goals as a city are more ambitious than to just get our poorly resourced transit service back, and [that] what is a labour relation issue is now a catalyst, not just to get back to the transit service we had, but to catalyze a leap forward in the kind of service we provide,” he says. “Transit has been suffering in a number of ways for years now in Saskatoon. It's not like we have an excellent transit service that stopped running.”

Saskatoon’s numbers for ridership are among the worst in the nation. According to the latest Stats Canada figures, public transit ridership in Saskatoon is at a mere four per cent. That’s particularly shabby when you compare it to other large cities in Canada. Calgary has a 16 per cent rate, Winnipeg is at 13 per cent, Edmonton 11, and Ottawa a whopping 20. Saskatoon’s dismal four per cent figure hasn’t budged since Statistics Canada's findings in 2006, and customer satisfaction rates have been falling.

“I often refer to Saskatoon's transit service as a 'residual service',” says Walker. “It's not really a viable transportation system for a large segment of the population. The bus service is too infrequent, we don't really have formal, heated places for people to wait for the bus, and our transit fees are very high in comparison to other cities who have a much better level of service. And all of these things trace back not only to City Hall, but to the absence of resourcing from the provincial government.”

Absence indeed. In 2011 [the most recent figures from Stats Canada], Transit's operating budget was $33.6 million. What percentage was the Province of Saskatchewan's contribution to the budget? Get ready, kids, this number is a doozy: Two.

“It is absolutely appalling that the provincial government does not see its role as being the primary funder. Or, if not even primary, then an enormously significant funder of public transit in our large cities. And I know the Province likes to point to the Access Transit service, which is an important one as well, but I'm talking about going well beyond that,” says Walker.

“It isn't just the municipality that deals with urban affairs. It's the provincial government, and for that matter, it’s the federal government as well. And our federal government, internationally, doesn’t have the best reputation for its support of public transit either. So our two most senior levels of government are not creating the conditions for proper transit services.”

Unfortunately, the current frozen state of transit in Saskatoon means that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are missing their main means of transportation. Things like this take on socio-economic dimensions as well, says Walker.

“A lot of people that have fewer economic resources do not have a variety of transportation options open to them,” he says. “When people of lower socio-economic circumstances used to be clustered more in the inner city, at least there was match-up between jobs and services and where people lived, so circumstances stemming from a lockout like this wouldn't have been as dire in that case. But now with people moving out where the more affordable housing is, it only exacerbates the mismatch between where people who need to take the bus most live, and the places they need to get to.”

With rates so low, fares high, and wait times often long, clearly there is a lack of incentive to use public transit. But that could be cured by creating a new form of transit, says Walker.

“[Light rail] is definitely in our future if we want it to be. We should be counting on and planning on light rail in our future. And there are other benefits, too,” Walker says. “You get a lot of shifting in land use that occurs around the line. There's actually a property value uplift around where transit terminals are going to be — because if you have a rapid transit terminal, you've just improved the accessibility of that site to people across the city. That accessibility has a premium and you'll start to see the intensification of development.”

But none of this will happen until the provincial government wakes up to the importance to funding proper public transit.

“The Province has to have this transit funding in place now, so we can actually grow our neighbourhoods, our cities, and our transit system together as one sort of project — rather than simply having better transit aspirations. I feel so often we just miss the huge gorilla in the room, which is basically a province that is asleep on the issue of resourcing transit.” 

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