This blog post was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 20, 2017
The provincial government is taking action against public transit which, if not reversed, will make an already-lagging transit system much worse and will also work against the province’s own objectives.
Three weeks ago, we learned the province plans to end the legislation that requires them to match municipal governments’ contribution to public transit. Additionally, despite this bill still being before the legislature, the province then announced it will provide $5 million (or 10 per cent) less for Winnipeg Transit than the city expected this year.
Service issues are not new to Winnipeg Transit. In 2015, in a development that affected riders’ confidence in the network, Transit abruptly announced service reductions as a result of having too few buses that were properly maintained. This latest service crisis is slower-moving but, if it isn’t reversed, will do significantly more damage, because it will represent a permanent shortage.
The 50-50 funding deal is a provincial act that has been in place in Manitoba since the 1970s, requiring the province to share equally with municipalities the public contribution to transit operations. This provincial funding is provided specifically for service — not for transit infrastructure — and it currently covers approximately 25 per cent of Winnipeg Transit’s total operating budget.
The province and the city are both addressing fiscal challenges, but cutting funding for transit service is setting us up for greater fiscal challenges, more road congestion and damage to a service that has the potential to be the most convenient way to get around Winnipeg.
To reduce funding for transit in urban areas is to undermine the government’s own goal of reducing costs. One major cost facing the province — and the city to which the province provides street infrastructure grants — is the growing infrastructure deficit. Because buses move more people with less road space, investing in transit service can help slow the growth of the infrastructure deficit and reduce long-term costs to Manitobans.
Transit can also offset infrastructure costs by supporting higher-density development within Winnipeg. Effective transit service means fewer people need parking spaces. Reduced parking paired with less road space requirements means a more compact city and more compact cities are cheaper for governments to service.
But the savings aren’t just in dollar terms and, again, it’s not just transit riders who benefit from the service. Everyone who uses roads benefits from more people choosing to ride the bus. A bus can carry 40 seated people.
That means one bus can comfortably carry as many people as 25 cars at average Canadian vehicle occupancy rates.
Standing-room capacity (often reached at rush hour) raises that number to 37 cars.
Simply put, the more people riding the bus, the fewer cars on the road, slowing traffic.
Buses are an economical way to move individuals around the city, and that means fewer traffic jams for everyone.
Public transit also helps in the delivery of other areas of interest to the province. As an affordable way to get around the city, transit connects folks looking for employment with jobs and, of course, the reverse is also true — it connects employers with a greater pool of qualified employees.
Additionally, encouraging the use of public transit will help us reduce our carbon footprint and reduce the individual costs of carbon taxes.
So then the question remains: what does good transit service mean?
Good transit service means buses come frequently and access diverse destinations; it means riders can arrive at bus stops knowing the bus will be arriving shortly; it means transfers are faster and more predictable.
Portland, Ore.-based transit expert Jarrett Walker recently spoke in Winnipeg about service. He spoke about the importance of bus frequency, saying that when a bus is arriving often it creates freedom to move conveniently around the city. Research shows that higher-frequency transit service results in the greatest ridership increase per dollar spent.
Well-delivered public transit is an efficient use of tax dollars — it’s an investment in a convenient way for urban Manitobans to get around.
The province must reconsider its approach to municipal transit. The 50-50 funding legislation must not be taken off the books.
Instead, the province should look at municipal transit as a way to save Manitobans money in the long run.