The Metrobus stigma

Peter Jackson
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Dug deep down in my pockets

To try and find some coin,

But much to my chagrin

All I found was my groin.

— Shuffle Demons, “Spadina Bus”

Has this ever happened to you? Embarrassing, isn’t it?

Not having the right change — or any change — for the bus is a small nightmare. No dough, no go. You’re stuck.

And that pretty much sums up the state of Metrobus right now.

If the St. John’s bus system ever had a heyday in its 50-plus years, it must have been short-lived.

In pre-Confederation days, the train reigned supreme. It was a long and winding ride, but the Newfoundland railway would take you where you wanted to go — even drop you off in the wilds during trouting season.

But with highway improvements came the era of the bus.

“We’re a country of fact-facing bus-boomers,” grunts Wayne Johnston’s father in “Baltimore’s Mansion,” after fellow train passengers tell him change is inevitable.

The transition did happen, but change never pauses for long. Buses soon gave way to the the modern era of widespread car ownership. All over the province, small bus companies barely hang on to that dwindling handful of customers who have nothing to drive or no one else to drive them.

Metrobus is no different.

Having grown up in St. John’s, I’ve taken the bus at several points during my life — from childhood to early adulthood. More recently, having developed vision problems, I have turned to Metrobus once again.

Little has changed. It’s the same mind-numbing engine noise, the same squeaky brakes and the same gnarly deviations through C, D and E on your way from A to B.

And it’s the same empty seats.

Only during peak times do buses ever fill up in this city. For the most part, fewer than half the seats are ever full. Quite often, you’ll be the only one on the bus.

Metrobus reported a slight decrease in rides from 2009-2010; ridership has been virtually flat for several years.

On the other hand, the transit authority is faced with an expanded region to cover, with more and more people moving into far-flung areas such as Airport Heights and Southlands.

Nonetheless, Metrobus is forging ahead with some big capital expenditures, including the purchase of 26 new buses before 2016, each at a cost of up to $450,000, and a new $35-million depot (covered primarily by federal funding).

But Metrobus remains more of a stigma than a service. A few thousand seniors, students and others of moderate means may rely on it regularly, but it has never caught on as a viable means of urban transport.

City transit use has gone up across the country, but not here. Despite the best intentions, Metrobus has always fallen short. And now, it’s grappling with a drawn-out labour standoff.

Perhaps there’s hope, but it will involve a large infusion of cash, and fares are already pushing the upper envelope of affordability.

In my mind, the system needs a complete overhaul — something more radical than recent tweaking. Get more buses and straighten out the routes. Stop trying to pass by everyone’s front door. Increase the frequency instead and let people walk the extra block.

A striking workforce is only one small part of the problem. When the drivers and mechanics return, there’ll still be a very steep hill to climb.

As steep as Garrison Hill — and longer.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Airport Heights

Geographic location: Newfoundland railway, Baltimore

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Recent comments

  • John
    January 25, 2011 - 22:09

    Why not invest in some smaller buses for routes that have a low passenger density? These smaller busses would burn less fuel, greatly reducing costs. This would also allow the full sized busses to take over / supplement the smaller ones during peak traffic times. The idea of having express busses with a limited number of stops could also work well during rush times like the village direct to Parade Street, then Churchill Park, to MUN, CONA and the Marine Institute, provided they are well thought out.

  • FQC
    January 25, 2011 - 21:47

    The taxi coupon program needs to continue, but it needs to change. It seems that customers are sold chits from a random pre-purchased company, not one of their choosing. This is not good from either the taxi drivers' or customers' perspective. A taxi company has an established customer base. Metrobus providing to customers of one company coupons to another company will only direct the customer away from the original company and this move may become permanent. As well, if there are equal number of coupons per company this is not fair as there are not an equal number of drivers per company. This, of course, hurts the drivers of the larger companies more than those of the smaller ones. Drivers work on commission and really only make about minimum wage, please don't hurt them. Customers may have had bad experiences with certain companies like poor quality service or drivers (long wait times, unpleasant drivers, taken the long way around, etc). I know some young ladies will not drive with some companies as they do not feel safe with certain drivers. Others have good expereince with certain a company and only deal one. Some use bueses but not St. John's taxis (ie Mt. Pearl). Metrobus not allowing customers to choose which company to use the coupons with removes their right to choose for their own comfort. Metrobus is doing a good thing with the coupons but the logistics are not great. Instead of Metrobus selling coupons printed by the taxi companies, Metrobus should be selling generic coupons allowing customers to choose which taxi company to use. Much like any commercial coupon, each company should be able to collect all the coupons and submit their bills to Metrobus. My proposal may even save Metrobus a few dollars if not all coupons they sell are used. Tell Metrobus to change:

  • steve
    January 25, 2011 - 14:59

    Mount Pearl / Paradise doesn't want to amalgamate with St. John's so get rid of the buses to that area. Let them pay for their own buses. St. Phillips etc dosn't have bus service and they are just as entitled as Mount Pearl.

  • Steve
    January 25, 2011 - 14:55

    Lay off some of the drivers, especially some who shouldn't have met their hiring practices in the first place. Screen them more cautiously. Some of them hate their jobs and couldn't care less if they ever go back to work. Get some fresh blood in there. Many of them are long overdue for retirement. They have this system whereby drivers who have been there the longest get every weekend off, don't work nights etc. Total nonsense, if they like their job they will work any shift-----brings down the morale of the other drivers. Fire the guy who does the planning for the route system, because he really does not have a clue. There are way too many routes. I have often stood at a bus stop in St. John's waiting in the freezing cold to have 2-3 buses going to the "Garage"---what's up with that. ???? Also during the same time frame 2 buses stopped that I couldn't avail of, because although they went half the distance I wanted to go, I would have been late for work had I taken it. Meanwhile these buses are empty. I have lived in many parts of the world and never seen a system so disorganized.

  • Annoyed Reader
    January 25, 2011 - 14:39

    Congratulations Mr. Jackson. More ignorant, poorly researched, opinions yet again. What's on tap for next week: knocking well meaning environmental initiatives at MUN?

  • Murray
    January 25, 2011 - 12:09

    Point taken (re. the airport), Esron, but bus service should take precedent over profits for taxi companies. The Airport Authority isn't doing the travelling public or its workers any favours here. I'm also wondering whether shuttle busses to parking lots on the outskirts of town would encourage people to get out of thier cars. But as you say, the firm knows be$t.

  • mom
    January 25, 2011 - 10:51

    I agree with the bus going a straighter route. There should be buses running across town with 2 or 3 stops rather than taking an hour or more to cross town. There should be buses running 24 hours a day to accommodate shift workers. I think that more people would take the bus if there were dedicated runs to certain areas that were nonstop or just one or two stops. Part of the reason I don't take the bus more often is the time it takes to get anywhere.

  • Esron
    January 25, 2011 - 08:19

    @Murray: The Airport authority will not allow buses on the property.... Taxi contracts...

  • Esron
    January 25, 2011 - 08:15

    There are multiple factors at work here: Metrobus's routes are highly INefficient, as you noted above but it's the City's fault for that. Transit doesn't work well for sprawling, suburban cities, because there isn't enough of a rider base/ tax base to fund the system per sq/km. If the city ever wants to make Metrobus viable, they have to start looking at their city planning, and start densifiying the city. Not only will it benefit transit, but other services as well, such as snow clearing, and and garbage collection [just as examples]. I proposed a bus system to Metrobus, with all the routes planned, and with maps... most timed to be a 30 min round trip from point A->B->A [Shorter routes=higher frequency], with a ring route that would get you from Mount Pearl to Kelsey in 10 mins, and to Stavanger in 20...all using the same amount of buses they use now... Rejected because they have a multimillion $ firm who believes the system they have now is "perfect"...

  • Murray
    January 25, 2011 - 08:01

    And a bus to the airport (not close to) wouldn't be a bad idea either.