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