Council Misses the Bus. Again.

Abandoned busCouncil’s latest plan will make life harder for low-income and senior residents by making our public transit less accessible, less affordable, and then replacing the schedule with random access buses just to confound riders. All because a well-paid consultant said it was a good idea and well-paid staff agreed. Another WTF-were-they-thinking moment from town hall.

And I have no doubt, our pro-privatization, anti-public-ownership mayor would love to privatize our transit service — without any public consultation, of course — as he did our electricity utility and our airport. He’s helped for-profit corporations get from the town what taxpayers paid for and built over many years. Why not our buses, too?

(Yes, I know: council relies on consultants to give them ideas because, unless their Great Leader tells them what to think, they all sit there with a vacant, glassy-eyed stare, trying to look less gormless than they really are.)

According to the town’s website, the change to on-demand-transit (ODT) will happen this fall (the actual date seems to be vague). Here’s how it works:

With On Demand Transit (ODT) vehicles respond to rider requests rather than following a fixed transit route. You can request a ride (pick up and drop off) at any existing transit stops in the service area, and a vehicle will be routed to you. As a rider, there are several ways to make a ride request:

  • Through an iOS or Android App;
  • Through the municipality’s transit website;
  • Through a call in request line;
  • By Boarding an On Demand Vehicle and requesting a walk on ride.

In the Town of Collingwood for the “In Town” routes only, which excludes the Blue Mountain Link, on demand buses will be serviced using existing stop infrastructure and existing buses.

Got that? You need a phone, and you’ll have to have a mobile phone to call from your destination — unless you plan to walk back. Sure, you can use a home landline to call one, but what do you use when you’ve finished shopping and need to return home? You MUST have a mobile phone. (Don’t get me started on the infantile grammar and punctuation on this page…)

That means that, unless you already have or can afford one, you’ll have to buy a phone first. Then subscribe with a service provider. The cheapest pay-as-you-go or prepaid costs about $15 a month, plus tax, but only IF you already have a phone. A reasonably good phone will cost at least $300; unlocked iPhone and Samsung top models cost about $1,200 and up. Plus tax.

Monthly subscription plans for unlocked phones range from $30 to about $60 a month for service only (phone, messages, and data). Add in a phone and those costs skyrocket. With $0 (zero) upfront, plans can exceed $125 a month for top models. Plus tax.

As the staff report notes, “Using a smartphone app will also provide a rider with a real-time location of the bus with stop and destination arrival information.” The town is basically demanding that riders have a smartphone with a data plan to effectively use the service. (You can call to request a pickup, but the town’s web page doesn’t provide a phone number… will the town need to hire a dispatcher? Or contract one? Or do you call the bus driver directly?).

The website adds, “Return trips can be booked during initial trip planning, or can be booked once the customer is ready to depart from their current location.” But what if, say, your shopping trip is unexpectedly delayed, or you can’t get to the stop in time? You’re back to phoning for a pickup (assuming you remembered to program the number in your phone) and waiting.

Winter bus stopThe website says “anticipated wait times are 5-15 minutes,” but it adds, “overall trip times expected to be a maximum of 25 minutes.” So if you miss your bus by a few minutes, do you have to wait for the 25-minute trip, and then add the “anticipated 5-15 minutes” on top of that? Would that be 30-40 minutes total? You could be waiting for the next bus in one of our unheated shelters or even standing in the open in the dead of winter. I’ll bet seniors will really enjoy that!*

For seniors, people working at minimum wage, those on disability pensions, and anyone who can’t afford to own a car, this is just an added expense in an already difficult time. And who uses the bus system most? Right: the very people most hurt by our council’s decision.

On-demand transit is described by the consultants as,

On-demand transit is a shared-ride service operating in a defined service area that is characterized by its dynamic routing and flexible pick-up and drop-off locations, which can range from door-to-door or existing transit stops to designated locations along a corridor or within an overall area. On-demand transit does not have fixed routes, but rather, the routing of the transit vehicle (a bus or large van) is dynamically determined in real-time along the shortest path with the most possible pick-ups and drop-offs for efficiency and to minimize travel times.

In other words, it’s a taxi service (or an Uber, if you enjoy precariously lower skills with no health and safety standards and no oversight, and prefer to make foreign billionaires richer at the expense of local municipal revenues and jobs). So why not contract with the existing taxi services here to manage it? After all, the town will be competing with them.

As inflation rises, public transit is more and more important to those most affected by the rising fuel and food costs. To show their lack of concern for those burdened by accelerating inflation, our council is RAISING the transit fares by 25% this year, growing to a 100% increase in coming years! As CollingwoodToday noted:

The consultant also made recommendations for long-term transit planning that were also approved by council, which include a fare increase to begin in April 2022. Specifically, individual rides will increase from $2 to $2.50 and monthly passes from $40 to $50 by April 2022. They will be increased further to $3 for individual rides and $60 for a monthly pass within five years.

Reducing fares or even making the service free could encourage more riders, but our council has chosen to discourage them, and punish those who do use it. As expected, there is no story about anyone on council suggesting reducing or eliminating fares.**

You can read the staff report on our public transit services here. I doubt any member of the well-paid staff who contributed to the report has ever ridden one of our buses, much less use the service regularly. Senior staff get both a car allowance and a reserved parking spot, so they have no incentive to do so.

In true Orwellian doublespeak, the report says (emphasis added),

Moving towards a fully On-Demand transit system will certainly have an impact to riders. The changes that may affect riders will largely be comprised of no longer being able to catch a scheduled bus at a stop, however the convenience for riders will also be substantially increased.

That’s a very different definition of the word “convenience” than I was raised with. I used to think it meant “ease of use;” now I see it means difficult, expensive, and clumsy. I’ll pencil that into my dictionaries, along with our mayor’s new definition of “empathy.

Does anyone on council ride our buses aside from publicity-stunt rides? Would Louis XIV have ridden in a hay wagon? The Queen on a moped? Our greedy council has given themselves raise after raise after raise (their salaries increased roughly 50% since 2014) and hiked their expense accounts (an increase of 220%). They can afford to drive and avoid mingling with the hoi polloi. Little wonder they have no empathy for those who depend on the service (well, to be factual, they have no empathy for anyone not already in their own cabal).

Council has had three years (seven for many of them, including our feckless mayor) in which to come up with ideas to make public transit more accessible, more attractive, more efficient. To figure out how to attract riders, and improve service. But instead, in the final few months of this term they plan to make it worse in every category, and to make it more expensive. Where is the leadership? Where is the innovation? Where is the common sense?

The switch to ODT is timed, of course, at the very last minute so the public outrage over this discriminatory act will be minimal before the upcoming municipal election in which most, if not all of them plan to run.

Public transit is also increasingly important as we face the reality of climate change. It could help reduce our community’s carbon footprint. But our council has done nothing this term to mitigate our collective impact on greenhouse gases and has instead chosen an option that will erode the small benefit that public transit offers. And remember: our public transit system could have been funded for many years using the $10 million-plus our council has wasted pursuing the mayor’s personal vendetta (much of it spent on sole-sourced contracts to his former employers).

The website promises, “Before any changes are made, there will be service notices, public awareness training, and communication on behalf of the Town to ensure that riders are not only aware of the service changes, but are confident in utilizing the new service. ” But, as expected, there are no details provided as to where riders should look to find these notices and “public awareness training” sessions. Effective communication is something that the town excels in not providing.

And, at least at the time of the report, nothing had been planned to make this communication work. As the report notes (emphasis added):

The implementation of the on-demand service will also require a significant amount of rider training and rider education, prior to its full startup. A comprehensive strategy through Public Works, Communications, and Customer Service will have to be developed well before the service begins to ensure a successful launch of the new service.

How will these monumental disruptions to our transit services be communicated to the public? Via Facebook? Twitter? To which not everyone subscribes or reads (and for which a resident needs an internet connection, a computer or phone… see above). Or via the clumsily constructed town page in the seldom-read local ad-wrapper? Not likely in a flyer or newsletter sent to all residents with the utility bill (as we used to do, when councils believed in communicating with our residents), or through some other, effective community-wide method.

I suspect a lot of riders will be caught unaware of the changes. And transit ridership will continue to fall as a result of this decision.***

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~

* Will the same thing happen if someone in your neighbourhood calls a bus a few minutes before you do, and that bus arrives before you can get to the stop? That suggests another wait of 25-40 minutes for the bus to make its way back to you. With a scheduled service, everyone knows when the bus is expected to arrive.

** An argument can be made that charging residents for bus rides is double-dipping. After all, we already pay taxes to finance the service. Why not allow residents to register for free transit rides like we can do with parking at Sunset Point? And what happens with the federal gas tax subsidy? Collingwood received an annual rebate of $584,988 from the federal government but will that be lessened if the town’s fuel use falls as a result of the restricted bus service?

And who would base a business case for transit on the volume of riders during a pandemic when people were being told NOT to go to work, NOT to go to events, NOT to engage socially in groups?

*** As I understand the news story, the public “consultation” was done solely via the town’s online “engage” website, not in person or by interviewing riders on actual buses. On page 55 of the staff report, it looks like only 21 people (or about 0.08% of the local population) participated virtually, and 76 people responded to a web survey, but does not indicate how many of them were actually public transit users or if the survey respondents included the 21 previous participants:

The study involves conversations with surrounding municipalities and will include public input via Engage Collingwood (which should be posted this week) and a virtual public information session scheduled for later this month. The consultant will host another virtual public session in March to go over any proposed changes. The final report will be delivered in the late spring.

A second public consultation, the report notes, “received significantly less attendance than the first,” but curiously fails to identify how many people attended. Fewer than 21 is a VERY small number in a town of 25,000 or more. This suggests the town’s communication strategy is as poor as the mayor’s leadership.

The results from the public consultation are said to be provided in “Appendix A” which, in this report is merely a page with a title and no actual data or information. I can find nothing in the news stories that suggest anyone on council questioned this mysterious lack of empirical data. But, of course, they could only have done so if they had actually read the report. And at 94 pages, the chances of any of them reading past the table of contents is exceedingly slim.

This report again underscores the gaping fault in the town’s discriminatory, ineffective communications strategy: it passively relies on people having internet access, and on reading Facebook or social media notices. Only those who have a connection (those who can afford it) and are familiar with online tools can participate. I can find no evidence that anyone at town hall suggested an ACTIVE communication strategy such as interviewing riders on buses, interviewing staff and clients at social services offices about their need for transportation, or interviewing local businesses like grocery or box stores where these riders often shop. And the consultants even obliquely criticized this flaccid strategy on page 56:

Overall, a more robust digital engagement strategy, that relied less on the attendance of the PICs to engage residents would have been beneficial for collecting feedback.

Well, doh! This suggests to me that they realized the “feedback” collected via online engagement was NOT representative of either the public or the ridership. But why didn’t anyone on staff recommend a more effective, more robust process that actually communicated with and engage the public in real life? A strategy that would obtain significant and meaningful data? Not that anyone on our council would have considered engaging the public — that would be anathema to their ideology of secretiveness and deception.

I was also disappointed, but unsurprised, that local media never interviewed any bus riders or local businesses to see how this would affect them or even to find out if they were aware of the coming change.

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