Another one rides the bus

Susan Flanagan
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And if more of us did from time to time, or if we carpooled more, traffic would be a whole lot lighter

Metrobus service. Telegram file photo

At 3:15 p.m. on Elizabeth Avenue near Memorial University’s campus, the traffic is as bad as any weekday in Vancouver. 

Mind you, Vancouver gridlock stretches for dozens of kilometres for hours on end and here it’s a few blocks on a few choice roads during peak periods.

When we returned home after three years of 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 kilometres 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’d 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 she pees 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 10 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.

Happy to accommodate

On one recent 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 would 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 co-ordination, but it’s worth it.

So as 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 carpooled 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 co-operation.

“If we want to get cars off the road, there has to be co-operation 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, MUN’s student union, the university 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.

Powell said just getting people to think about the alternative to everyone driving in his or her own car  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, while at other times it works.

Other Metrobus report recommendations include asking that the city design any new developments with transit in mind. If the city continues to grow geographically, with no heed paid 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 IceCaps games; not new multi-level parking garages at MUN. Perhaps in the next five years we may see direct, non-stop bus routes from the airport to downtown or from MUN to transportation hubs in Mount Pearl and Southlands.

That will take co-operation 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 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians 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

Organizations: IKEA, Lee Valley Tools

Geographic location: Vancouver, Elizabeth Avenue, Surrey Richmond Torbay Road Mount Pearl Southlands

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Recent comments

  • Former Transit User
    February 23, 2012 - 07:05

    People have been buying cars instead of taking the buses because of one of 3 possible reasons: 1. Minimum wage in Newfoundland is at least $10 per hour. People can afford cars with that much of a wage. 2. The Outer Ring Road, and other by-pass roads. Someone can travel from Torbay to Mount Pearl in just 10 minutes! 3. People no longer have respect for Metrobus anymore because of the frequency they've been going on strike in the last decade. Especially the one that lasted 3 months during the transition into 2011. I certainly am one of those users who no longer takes the bus anymore. I'd rather buy a Cadillac than take the bus. Then again, maybe I was just not over the Metrobus Strike to this day, and maybe I might reconsider taking the bus again in the spring (probably by May, at the earliest).

  • Sid
    February 21, 2012 - 20:57

    I agree with Brett. St. John's itself is not much larger than some townships in Canada and even with the attached rural areas its not really a big city. You can cross St. John's from Paradise to Logy Bay in 10 minutes, provided some speeding car has not ended up on its roof in the middle of the Outer Ring Road, and you can travel Kenmount Road at peak hours in 10-15 minutes. The Parkway is a little busier but the traffic does move and clears off fast. A traffic jam is not 10-15 cars backed up on a traffic light that will all move off once the light turns green. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and the likes have bigger traffic problems in parking lots, and they can have it. But we don't.

  • Brett
    February 21, 2012 - 20:44

    GH - my point is that the issue is poor infrastructure. Commenting on parking and biking, is focusing on the specifics, when the reality is that St. John's + the outlying communities are not built for sustainable growth. I believe the population increase was 6000 people moved to St. John's proper, and that Mount Pearl still has fewer than 30k people (registered a slight decrease) and Paradise while jumping 40% still has fewer than 20,000 people there. St. John's + the outlying communities were built as rural sprawl, not as urban centres that are supposed to interconnect. This inability to see future needs and a focus on maintaining the status quo instead of adopting real change is a major problem for NL developing to be a competitive place to live and work. For a place that has fewer than 150,000 people in it - it speaks poorly of the planning for the city to have chronic traffic jams. GH - I agree with you regarding a lack of sheltered bus stops. As an aside:The city of Burlington (Ontario) ran a program where you called in and taxi's could take bus fare for where the buses didn't run. (Specific routes) You might transfer from an existing bus + the taxi would pick you up from the transfer point, you pass your transfer slip + the taxi takes you along the route to your stop.

  • Matt
    February 21, 2012 - 15:44

    I would have no problem taking the bus - my wife and I lived in Toronto, without a car, for several years. However, living in Paradise means no transit. What I'd like to see is express commuter routes from some central areas in Mount Pearl, Paradise, and CBS. These routes would go from central locations in these towns to somewhere around MUN, and to someplace in/near Downtown. The reality is, we can't keep adding cars to the roads we have here, and in most areas there isn't any place to add more road capacity. My wife and I share a single car, and while sometimes co-ordinating who has it and when can be a challenge, it keeps our costs down and means one less car on the roads.

  • t
    February 21, 2012 - 13:23

    Public transit is not at all practical for working parents with children. I may be one of those cars you see with one adult driving one child, but this is after having already dropped off a spouse and two other children. Workplaces and schools are very often in completely different directions and areas. It is rare that two parents workplaces will be close together, and schools in St. John's rarely place different grade level schools close together. So driving around all around town becomes a necessary daily activity. This is before any extra-curricular activities. A family who is paying already for a vehicle, insurance, and gas is hardly going to also pay bus fares for each family member for a less convenient method of travel. Plus young children cannot travel on buses unsupervised. Bus fare for a family of 5 is 9.75 one way. That's 19.50 round trip, plus the cost of whatever you are going to do. Very few families will choose this option with a vehicle in the driveway. Public transit is great for certain people, but absolutely unmanageable and costly for others.

  • jessie
    February 21, 2012 - 12:41

    Many more people would ride the bus if we had a better system. When I lived in Ontario I would ride the bus and subway everyday, Here in Mt. Pearl you have to wait an hour if you miss your bus, and then it will take you another hour to get to the Villiage. If you are trying to get another bus to go to school, downtown, or to another mall you will be another hour. Most of the streets in Mt.Pearl does not have bus service. So before you try to get more riders, go out and try to get from A to B, and then you will know why we would rather drive.

  • GH
    February 21, 2012 - 10:49

    I would love to be able to ride the bus. I have in all the other cities I have lived in. However, the schedules and routes here mean an hour to get anywhere. And the stops without shelters make no sense in our climate. If you miss a bus by a minute, you have to call a taxi as there is at least another half hour wait in the cold and rain. I think Metrobus needs to scrap its current system, hire someone who knows how to design routes and advertise the convenience of the bus. In ottawa, there are parking lots in the sprawl areas such as Nepean where people can park for free to get a bus downtown. These buses only stop 8-10 times on these routes. They run at least every 15 mins on dedicated roads. This is how St. John's can help with all the sprawl residents who work in the Downtown, MUN, and Confederation buidling areas.

  • Brett
    February 21, 2012 - 10:25

    What I read from the article is that NL + Lab has 385,000 adults with licenses who can drive, each of which theoretically has a vehicle. NL's population has been declining for decades, and STILL it does not have the infrastructure to handle its population. Yes St. John's is growing marginally (not really when compared to the rest of Canada). What does this say about the transportation planning? I'm actually talking about infrastructure and roads. Quite frankly a town of 106,000 people shouldn't have any transportation issues, especially when you have fewer than 50,000 people coming in to it daily (mount pearl + paradise populations - we will ignore the children, and people that don't drive to St. John's every day). It's actually a joke that we have traffic issues like we do. A population of 150,000 driving through town is ridiculously small.

    • GH
      February 21, 2012 - 10:59

      Brett, what is your point? That St. John's is small? Its actually quite large when you look at it geographically. The SJ Metro Area is much larger even. Hence the problem with traffic, mostly in the city centre and downtown for parking. Also, the population of NL is finally growing and has been since 2007, and the population of St. John's increased by 8000 sinse the last census. This does not include those people that perfer to live in the sprawl. So, again Brett, instead of picking on Elizabeth for making a comment, can you actually make a point with yours?

  • Brian
    February 21, 2012 - 09:30

    I moved to Paradise about one year ago. I called and emailed various folk (Metrobus, Paradise town council, et al) about whether a bus route would be available any time soon from Fowlers Road to downtown. I reviewed the bus routes to see how close I could get a bus and minimize the travel time in my car. In the end, I was forced to drive. Carpooling for my schedule is fairly impractical, although there are lots of cars that at 4/5's empty! It's astonishing to me that all concerned appear unable or unwilling to get together and work together to put a commuter system in place to service the outlieing areas. The savings in gas and maintenance individually and the savings on road maintenance should easily justify the expenses! And where are all the so-called green folk who could sleep better at night with less fossil fuels being burned. Unfortunately, we have a culture here that judges people as being lesser human beings for sitting on a bus versus being isolated in a vehicle. This too can change with an attitude shift amongst those we elect.

  • Chrissy
    February 21, 2012 - 08:21

    Carpooling is a good idea, but biking, walking or taking the bus just isn't practical for the majority of people. Many people who work in the city DO NOT live in the city, so walking, taking the bus or biking is not an option. Plus, many people who drive within the city do so because 1) The wheather is horrible; 2) Driving will get me there in 10-20 min bus will get me there in 1 hour or walking about 2 hours (refer back to #1); 3) You have to walk to the bus stop and wait unsheltered (again, refer back to #1).

    • Elizabeth
      February 21, 2012 - 09:04

      I agree Carpooling is a good idea, however I think Metrobus should look into getting bike racks on their buses. Cities in BC have them and it allows people to ride their bikes one way or part of the way to work. This would encourage people to get out and be active, and lets face it this is something that Newfoundlanders certainly need.

    • Brett
      February 21, 2012 - 10:17

      Elizabeth, how about not trying to dictate what I do with my time, and just managing your own issues. Let's have public transportation focus on what it's supposed to do: provide an efficient manner for the bulk of the population to travel around/through the city. Not focus on pet projects/desires of segments of the population.