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Cuts in Transit Services

I’ll admit, it has been years since I road a city bus for the simple reason that it’s a pretty easy walk from my house to work and Wendy only has to travel two blocks to her work.  At both of our places of work, there are staff there 24 hours a day.  The Salvation Army Community Services has a policy where we provide taxis to staff who are arriving/leaving late at night and on days when there is no transit services for personal safety issues (shelter staff have been violently attacked in other cities and many of our staff have been threatened).

My problems with the transit cuts are that by cutting them off at 10:00 p.m., what do staff at retail establishments or restaurants do when their shift ends after transit calls it a night.  Some have suggested carpooling or taxis.  I know what our taxi bill is at work.  Even with Comfort Cabs giving us a deal on taxis, it would be over an hour in lost wages for anyone working for a retail job.  That’s a big time pay cut, especially if your shift is only 4 or 5 hours long (welcome to retail).  There is always walking but my employer isn’t all that thrilled with me walking to work for a midnight shift and I am 6’4 and often walk down with our dog that [looks] intimidating.  Wendy has had co-workers assaulted walking home in the middle of the afternoon in an east side parking lot as has one who was walking home at 8:00 p.m. at night.  Both were able to fight off their attackers but no one deserves that.  At one time people probably did live in the same neighbourhoods where they worked but it’s a long walk from anywhere at the big box stores.  This isn’t Mayberry anymore.

Some have suggested car pooling.  Great idea but often times the people working those shifts don’t have much seniority, are working for a low wage and don’t have a car.  It’s the reality of retail.  The hours are long, the pay is low and there isn’t enough benefits to go around.

While we love late night shopping, don’t we have some responsibility for staffs to get home safely and easily after catering to the demands of their clientele?  What can we do about it?  Maybe just fund it.

Portland's Free Rail Zone In the United States, public transit is far more thoroughly funded by all three levels of government.  In the United States the cities fund 21% of the subsidies and in Canada, cities kicked in 77% of the funding so Saskatoon taxpayers are paying a far higher share of public transit funding then they do in American cities.  With the federal government paying a larger chunk of the bill (mostly capital), it means that there are lower fares more resources and better service which of course ads up to an increase in ridership.  Up to 90% of public transit is taxpayer funded in some cities in order to keep rates low and ridership high.  As part of an effort to deal with vehicle traffic in downtown Portland, you can ride MAX Light Rail and Portland Streetcar within downtown Portland, the Rose Quarter and the Lloyd District for free.  Calgary has a similar system on 7th Avenue.

The 2010 transit budget was $32.5 million, $11.5 million came from fares.  Saskatoon Transit’s subsidy increased by $2 million this year to $19.7 million.  That’s not chump change and is frustrating because there isn’t much federal or provincial dollars helping out.  I understand the city wanting to cut costs and increase revenues but it’s not exactly cheap either.  I got a kick out of an old entry from Sean Shaw who pointed out that taking the bus to work actually costs him more than driving and parking and takes an hour longer each day.  At $71.00/month for an adult pass, it is more than we spend on gas for a month if there are not trips to the lake… and more importantly to a lot of people, it’s an extra hour of commute time a day.

At about 2/3 subsidy, we are at the same levels as the rest of Canada but quite a bit less than some cities in the United States.  A quick glance at the cities who dwarf us show that they have LRT’s or subways.  While it’s really easy to cancel a seldom used express bus to the airport, it’s really hard to walk away from a subway line.  The other interesting thing is that in the United States, the federal government takes a much more active role in providing operating subsidies than the Canadian government.  Where we may pay as much as 60% of operational subsidies, many U.S. cities only pay 25% or lower of the costs the state and the feds picking up the rest.  That is the problem.  I expect the low rates and high quality of service of a place like Chicago or Boston but without the federal subsidies that pay for it. 

My feeling is that we figure out how to build a world class transit service.  Find out what Saskatoon really wants and then fund it.  It seems like whenever we look at transit the first thing that comes out of anyone’s mouth is the subsidy.  The subsidy isn’t going away, the debate needs to be are we getting good value for it.  This doesn’t need to be an emotional discussion.  I am not an economist and I think I could come up with a framework for measuring economic impact.  My feeling is that the economic impact of students getting to school (and then the mall), people getting to work (rather than a car payment), cars off our streets, and more parking being available to those doing business downtown rather than working there is well above the $20 million we are paying.  Anyone want to challenge that? I have comments.

2 Comments

  1. Brenda says:

    I am not a bus rider but with my new employment I do not have a parking space. Downtown parking is not easy to find at a reasonable cost . The bus does go by my house so the other morning I thought I would take the Wildwood Express bus downtown (I had taken it before once upon a time). I went to the bus station behind the Centre Mall and waited…waited…waited…no Express bus came. I retreated home and got my vehicle. I guess this is no longer available. I must travel the whole loopy route and stop at all the stops. I am dreaming of the MRT I have used in Toronto, Montreal and Taipei, but know it will never happen here because we don’t dream that big. We can’t even do Express Service to downtown.

  2. […] Cooper, our Monday SP columnist, has some thoughts on his blog on the proposed transit cuts. His commentary focuses on the impact […]

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