Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Editorial Series – There’s a Bus for Everyone

A few months ago, the Guelph Mercury published a week long series about Guelph Transit; its past, present and future. And while the series was informative and interesting – especially the details of Guelph’s forward-thinking past so far as mass transit is concerned – it seemed that the series remained, at the core, one written by people who don’t take the bus regularly, and can’t speak with true insight on the problems with our transit system.

The examination-slash-retrospective came from the coming changes to Guelph Transit starting this fall. These changes include new and altered routes as well as peak time 15 minute scheduling. Combined with the move from St George’s Square to the inter-module transit terminal next spring, and the anticipation for the expansion of GO Transit trains to the Royal City, it would seem things are looking up for those in Guelph that either by choice or necessity, take the bus. The sad part is though that the new transit looks a lot like the old transit.

To wit, if you are on a Guelph bus right now, and it’s a weekday, then you may have noticed that you only had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus rather than 30. This is thanks to a grassroots effort by a number of citizens who spoke out against another year of transit cuts in the 2011 budget. As a result of the outcry, not only did city council maintain 20 minute service throughout the summer, but partial stat holiday service was restored too. You might have taken the bus to Canada Day festivities in Riverside Park, or enjoyed John Galt Day activities downtown.

Sadly though, in spite of a number of Guelph Transit drivers that perform their duties admirably and professionally, there are some on the job that still can’t get their heads around the idea that the bus is a commuter service and not Sunday Night vespers with grandpa and grandpa. To them, a trip on the bus is a leisurely drive with friends where you can chat the day away knowing that you will eventually reach your destination. That is if you leave on time. Boarding the bus from downtown, it’s like a game of Win, Lose or Draw: will your bus leave on time, or are you waiting five minutes later waiting for the driver to appear, or finish up a conversation with a colleague?

Again, to be clear, this is not a majority of Guelph Transit employees, but incidents like the ones stated above happen with unusual frequency. The first thing you learn in customer service is that people will remember times of bad service to a far greater degree than the instances of good service, no matter how frequent the latter occur. How many people have been turned off riding the local bus because they missed their transfer, or the bus drove past their stop because the driver was distracted? I’m sure the number is greater than you or I might think because people don’t usually tend to call in to the Transit office to let them know that they’re breaking up.

But it’s not just driver behaviour that confounds, and while one of the articles did compliment Guelph Transit drivers for their friendly attitude, it’s probably one of the reasons why so many people feel like it’s okay to have a conversation with them while the driver makes their rounds. Or that it’s okay to put their bag on the seat and leave no where for someone else to sit. Or that it’s okay to sit at the back in a seat with your feet up. So yeah, this isn’t your buddy’s car, this is public property, and in the winter it’s hard enough to get people on the bus without making them wonder if the only seat available will come with muddy foot prints.

I’ve said this before, taking the bus will never be as fast and convenient as taking your own personal car directly from your garage to the parking lot of you place or work, but it’s also not supposed to be. And because of this, and because its hard enough to convince people to get on the bus in the first place, every time someone has a uniquely terrible experience on the bus is another excuse given to them to tune in, drop out, and get their own ride.

Guelph has invested a lot in their new transit system, but how can we expect people to take advantage and get excited when we’re still acting like it’s 1999, back when there was no Sunday service and accessible buses were a pipe dream. I think I speak for all of us that take the bus regularly when I say we want an improved transit service, and we don’t want to let old world thinking get in the way.

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