Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Transit tribulations: Camosun students are being left in the cold as buses pass them by. What’s being done about it?

November 1, 2017 by Greg Pratt, managing editor

On September 19, the Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) posted a picture on their Twitter feed of “well over” 40 students at a bus stop at Camosun’s Interurban campus. Many of the students are staring at their phones; the ones who aren’t look anything but happy. It’s the beginning of a new semester, and already students are getting passed up by BC Transit buses; the students in this photo had all been passed by a full bus and were waiting for the next bus.

Students being passed up on transit routes that service the college is nothing new. For years, students have been complaining to Nexus about buses going past them, making them late for class. In a city and culture that puts so much emphasis on using alternate modes of transportation, what’s a student to do when the transit system regularly fails them?

The student society speaks up

The photo in question was taken by CCSS outreach coordinator Quinn Park. Park says he got off work at 4 that day and went over to the bus stop to catch a number 21 bus leaving at 4:12, but it was already full by the time it arrived at Interurban.

“It completely passed up, I counted, close to 50 students,” he says, “including me—I wanted to get on that bus as much as anyone. Then around 4:30, I think a 39 and an 8 popped by and allowed some people on, but not everyone. Around 4:30 there were still quite a few students that were waiting for their bus, after a couple pass-ups.”

Camosun students after being passed up by a bus at Interurban (photo by the Camosun College Student Society).

CCSS executive director Michel Turcotte says that Interurban is the student society’s primary concern at the moment in regard to transit. He says it’s situated badly for good transit service, and with the new health building going up there, “this is not going to be a problem that goes away,” he says.

“There are no major arteries in and out of that campus,” says Turcotte. “Lansdowne, because of its proximity to Victoria and the University of Victoria, is easier for transit to target than that end of town. So our major concern is trying to find a way to improve transit service there.”

Turcotte says that one of the major challenges in getting students adequate transit service is the municipalities. He says that some of the decisions that Victoria and Saanich make actually make it harder for buses to get around.

“The redevelopment plan of the Shelbourne Corridor, for example, will dramatically slow down the 27/28 because they want to narrow Shelbourne to one lane in places,” says Turcotte. “There’s a plan, also, to reduce the lanes on Blanshard. Then, if you go to the City of Victoria, they’ve lowered the speed limit on Quadra and introduced other traffic-calming things—to say nothing of the bike lanes, particularly the first one, which was built with apparently little thought to what impact it would have on buses. It’s made things too tight and is seemingly on the wrong side of the road to help facilitate transit flow.”

Even though BC Transit had extra hours funded last year on transit routes impacting Camosun students, Turcotte says that most of those extra hours are just making up for these new traffic-calming measures.

“It’s not really increasing service, it’s making up for the congestion,” he says. “There’s going to be some congestion—like, if they’re doing construction on the overpass by McKenzie, I can see that—but some of the municipalities are doing things that are actually making things worse, admittedly, to make it more attractive for alternative modes of transportation, but there are far more people that ride the bus, I’d argue, on a yearly basis than ride bicycles. So if we’re really interested in moving people around and getting them out of cars, there needs to be an efficient, functional transit system. Most people can’t take their families on bicycles in the middle of January; that’s really not an option for people.”

When it comes to Interurban, Turcotte says that there needs to be more service on route 21, which brings students to and from that campus.

“If you’ve ever been out to Interurban at rush hour, you’ll notice that Interurban Road can be backed up almost to the college at times. One of the reasons for that is there’s no other way out, other than the corner of Wilkinson. There used to be a way out by North Road that Saanich closed down five or six years ago. We’re essentially paying buses to sit in traffic on that route. So for every degree of congestion, [BC] Transit needs to add another bus in order to try to make up for that. If we get those buses moving, we could actually move more students. Same with the Island Highway; if the buses were able to get to Langford, you’d actually need fewer buses because they’d be recycling much faster.”

Turcotte says that he’s been working closely on transit issues for Camosun students for almost two decades, and he’s seen the numbers growing constantly during that time.

“The whole transit portfolio is a very challenging exercise,” he says. “I’ve been following it for close to 20 years since I negotiated the first U-Pass. Usage by our members has increased almost every year during that 20 years. That in itself creates issues for transit; ultimately, we need a global solution in Victoria in terms of solving the transit problem that includes provincial, federal, and local funding to make a sustainable future for us all.”

Planning procedures

James Wadsworth is the planning manager at BC Transit; when I ask him if he’s aware that there’s a problem with Camosun students being passed up, he has a simple answer: “Yes.”

Wadsworth says that BC Transit reviews its routes quarterly and makes adjustments within the resources that it has. Sometimes that takes the form of restructuring busy routes, which is what they did with the number 4, which services Lansdowne, a few years ago.

“All of the trips started downtown, and then went up in the morning toward Lansdowne and UVic; we were running a bus every eight minutes,” he says. “But not all the corridor needs the same level of service, so we started some of the trips around the Times Colonist area and have them circle back once they’ve gone through the rest of the route and come back and start again. So we were able to use the same amount of buses and run a bus every four minutes.”

In regard to the increased service that Turcotte says the number 21 needs, Wadsworth says that BC Transit needs more service to Interurban, period; he mentions the increase in students with the new health building and says that transit is aware that ridership is going to increase.

“In recent years, we’ve added additional trips on the route 8—which also serves the Interurban campus—we’ve added increased service on the 39—which gets people from Royal Oak to the Interurban campus—and in the next year we’re proposing an additional expansion to the [Victoria Regional] Transit Commission [VRTC], who make the decisions on service levels. At the end of the day, they make the decisions on service plans that we propose to them,” says Wadsworth. “We’re proposing an additional four buses and 10,000 hours to begin to start another route up to the Interurban campus.” (Wadsworth says this proposed route would be a Gorge-Hillside crosstown route with the bus, ideally, starting in Royal Oak, going to Interurban, Tillicum Mall, Gorge and Hillside, Lansdowne, then UVic.)

Wadsworth says that transit listens to Camosun students, pointing to a change they made on the 39 route to better serve students.

“With transit services and ridership demands, it’s dynamic and is always changing, so we always look for ways to best use the resources to carry the most people,” he says. “Through expansion and talking to Camosun students through previous planning, one of the things they asked us to do was to have more services from the West Shore to the college, so we were able to take one of the routes—the 39, which goes to the Interurban campus—and extended that further out to the West Shore, so more people were close to that service and didn’t have to transfer to it. It’s available to them because it’s available from walking distance from where they live.”

Wadsworth says that one of the changes that Camosun students should know about that’s coming in January is that the routes 7 and 21 will be combining into one route, allowing easier access from Fairfield to Interurban.

“We have a route 7 that operates in Fairfield, and it goes from downtown up to UVic and the Lansdowne campus; we’re taking that bus route and we’re going to what we call interline, or combine, it with the route 21 that goes from downtown out to the Interurban campus. That will function as one bus route. It will be published in the schedule as two different bus routes, but you’ll be able to get a one-seat from Fairfield all the way up to the Interurban campus in January.”

The college perspective

Shane Busby is vice president of administration at Camosun College; he oversees Ancillary Services, which includes the Transportation and Parking department. Busby says that he assumed pass-ups were happening to Camosun students “very infrequently” and says he will get the college to work more closely with the CCSS to monitor pass-ups.

“In my view, any pass-ups are not acceptable,” he says.

Busby says that he recognizes that BC Transit can only provide service they are funded for, but he says that his first and only goal is to make sure that students at Camosun are well served.

“I think BC Transit put a lot of energy into ensuring that people in the Western Communities are provided with an adequate service, knowing that the West Shore communities are among the—if not the—fastest-growing area in the province,” he says. “Certainly transit services need to be available out there. So they certainly have their priorities, and we have our priorities, I just want to make sure that our priorities and their priorities align and I tell them where they align and when they align.”

Busby says that the college does communicate with BC Transit, and he hopes the two parties will continue to have a relationship so students aren’t being passed up.

“There was a cancellation of a route at Interurban that we were notified about after the fact, so we reached out to BC Transit and said, ‘That’s not acceptable. You need to give us the heads-up to make sure that we have the opportunity to engage our constituents—students, if you will—to make sure they’re not put out by this.’ So we’re going to be working through the processes that transit has in place, and we’re going to be working through other methods,” he says. “Our Ancillary Services staff, Transportation staff, reach out to BC Transit on a regular basis; they’ve developed some really good working relationships with the planning staff there, so we’re going to be, hopefully, leveraging that and those relationships, and, ultimately, getting our message across around increased frequency and increased ridership, those sorts of things. So on a number of different fronts, we’re trying to press forward.”

Busby says that when the college was moving their development permit for the new Interurban health building through Saanich Council, he talked with council about needing enhanced bus service. He says they were amenable to working with the college, and based on that, he asked to go speak to the VRTC—the ones who make the big decisions; more on them shortly—next month.

“I’ve been scheduled in for early December to go and represent the college and put forward our needs and our wishes in a reasonable way,” he says, “understanding that we do need to work with this rather large organization to make things work for everybody.”

Where the decisions happen

Camosun students do have a chance to have a say at BC Transit, by way of a non-voting seat on the VRTC board. The position alternates yearly, with someone from the CCSS sitting on the board one year and someone from the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) sitting on it the next year. This year, UVSS director of campaigns and community relations Anmol Swaich is occupying the seat.

“The main student issues are bus pass-ups, the lack of late-night service, and, since I represent both UVic students and Camosun students, we’ve also lobbied for better routes to the Interurban campus,” says Swaich.

Swaich says the problem is partially that there are more people—students and otherwise—riding the bus these days, but funding hasn’t reflected that switch.

“Funding that BC Transit is receiving hasn’t really been increasing, but there are more students and there are more people using transit,” she says, “so I think the situation might be getting worse, for sure.”

Turcotte says that he fully understands the financial situation that transit is in and says he gets frustrated seeing buses gridlocked in traffic.

“That’s one of the major challenges,” he says. “Everything works on hours; when you’re using those hours to stand still in traffic, let’s say on Interurban Road, that’s a waste of value in terms of transit, in terms of local taxpayers, provincial government, and students who are paying for the U-Passes.”

Park says that he understands that the ongoing problems with students being passed up by BC Transit do not stem from malicious intent, and he also points out that it’s important to not shoot the messenger.

“It’s certainly not BC Transit’s intention to leave students out in the cold—literally and figuratively—and it’s absolutely not the bus driver’s fault,” says Park. “The solution is more investment in transit, and that’s going to lead to better transportation solutions.”

Swaich says that if there could be a change in revenue allocation from the provincial Carbon Tax toward public-transit funding, it would be a good way to get more money to transit and to help alleviate some of the issues students face. She also says an increase in the provincial Motor Fuel Tax would help.

“Right now funding is contingent on property tax increases or municipal funding, so we’re asking for the funding formula to be changed to 46.69 percent, which is how much we would ask for from the dedicated operating grant from the provincial government.”

What’s next?

According to Turcotte—who says that the CCSS recently met with the president and a vice president of BC Transit to address student transit concerns, and that they were “very well received”—two things need to be done for transit service to improve for Camosun students: the funding formula needs to change, and municipalities need to work together.

“The government of British Columbia needs to change the funding formula so that it’s easier for the Transit Commission to access all the money that’s on the table,” he says. “The other thing is there needs to be coordination between transit, the municipalities, and what user groups want. Right now we have a situation where the bike lobby is being listened to immensely by Victoria and, to some degree, Saanich, to the adverse effect of those interested in helping transit out.”

Wadsworth says that the VRTC has asked the provincial government for an increase to the fuel tax to “support further improvements to the transit system” and is aware that there is work to be done to make commuting by transit better for Camosun students.

“We’re always working with people in the community to improve transit,” he says. “We’re always looking at the service to see if we can make it better. There are a lot of improvements that we could be making out there.”

Turcotte, who says that students are the largest single stakeholder in local transit, adds that money is a major issue, and stresses that politicians need to remember transit users when implementing changes that have an impact on commuters.

“If people want to have parks on streets and narrower lanes, maybe we need to invest in subways in Victoria, but we don’t have the population to support that,” he says. “Every change inhibits our members from getting around. Some politicians may think they’re only punishing car drivers, but that’s not the case, because buses occupy the same roads as cars.”

Wadsworth says that transit does work with municipal governments in regard to how transit provides service and about projects that the municipality is doing that will have impacts on or benefits to transit users.

“We work with them by raising awareness of the trade-offs that certain choices might have on the corridor; transit service levels are influenced by ridership and the amount of time it takes to travel from one part of the community to the other,” he says.

Turcotte adds that maybe with the change in government there will come a change in transit policies.

“I’m hopeful that the new provincial government, considering that there’s a large Green influence on the government, that might translate into some better policies in relation to transit and funding,” says Turcotte.

Busby says that, ultimately, the college would like to see no pass-ups occur.

“That’s the optimal goal,” he says. “We’re definitely going to work on that. I think we can make some advances and move toward that. That’s the goal; ultimately, it’s probably going to fall short of that, but that’s the goal.”

Park, who took the photo on September 19 that once again brought attention to student transit issues, says that the problem is one of quantity, not quality.

“We need more transit,” he says. “It’s not that transit is bad; it’s that we need more of it.”

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