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Letter: A pledge to improve the transit system in St. John’s

St. John's Metrobus
St. John's Metrobus

Transit in this city is in a sorry state, and the upcoming city election gives voters the opportunity to press the incoming council to do something about it.

The numbers taking the bus are the lowest they have been for at least 20 years — Andy Wells told me the service is used by those who have no choice — and sadly the numbers tend to support him. More than half of bus users have no car in the household and almost half have an annual income of less than $20,000. But it does not have to be this way, nor should it be.

We will likely never manage to provide a transit service that will allow all residents to manage comfortably without a car, but we can and should have one good enough that families can do without a second car, students won’t have to buy one and the growing number of seniors who can’t or shouldn’t drive have a decent alternative. A decent transit system can be more than just an essential anti-poverty measure – it can reduce traffic congestion, lower the toll of drunk driving accidents, ease availability of parking and help reduce our carbon footprint (20 per cent of greenhouse emissions here come from cars and trucks).

Yet because the transit system is so bad — with hourly buses on many routes, few shelters and stops that are often not plowed in winter — most residents do not see it as being “for them,” and this is used as an excuse for inaction.

The Essential Transit Association is convinced, however, that there is broad-based support for a properly-funded transit system if the public was convinced they’d get a service good enough for everyone to use.

We came up with a three-part pledge to bring the bus service up to an adequate standard, and 16 candidates including mayoral candidates Danny Breen and Renee Sharpe and deputy mayoral candidate Sheilagh O’Leary, have pledged their full support.

It calls on the council to fund a doubling of the number of bus shelters (fewer than one in 10 stops are sheltered and many have no benches), to increase the frequency of buses on weekdays from hourly to half hourly and to measure potential passenger numbers and suggest routes between St. John’s and the surrounding cities. A third of those working in St. John’s come from other cities, but Torbay and C.B.S. have no transit connection to St. John’s at all — this would be a great first step to a regional service, something many candidates have said they would like to see.

These three steps are just a beginning — bus services that run later in the evening on Fridays through Sundays would help more people safely enjoy themselves downtown, express buses linking transit hubs would speed travellers who are frustrated at winding routes with many stops, and bus terminals could be made more comfortable and convenient. Independent reports for many years have called for measures like these, but improvements have been slow in coming. Over the next few years, the federal government has promised to invest in transportation infrastructure across the country by matching the money provinces and cities put up, so there may never be a better time to fund the improvements needed make our transit system work.

Sadly, several incumbent candidates have failed to respond to our call to back the petition. Others have been unwilling to commit to funding these vital improvements, saying they would need to see the figures before they decide. Astonishingly, the word “transit” did not even appear in the city’s strategic plan, but the success of our petition among a cross-section of experienced councillors and a new generation of candidates who want to shake up the system gives us hope that change is coming. When you vote this week, think about whether you are electing candidates who have backed our pledge (see @essentialtransit on Facebook) and who are going at last to provide the leadership to give St. John’s and the Northeast Avalon region the bus system its citizens need and deserve.


David Brake is head of the Essential Transit Association. He writes from St. John’s.

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