News / Winnipeg

Bus is better campaign encourages Winnipeg transit commute as ridership stalls

Ridership hasn't increased dramatically in years, but there are big things on the horizon for Winnipeg Transit that could get a boost with federal funding.

Winnipeg Transit partnered with the Downtown BIZ to try and convert some car commuters into straphangers next week, and says safety, accessibility and convenience will help increase system usage as new routes are built out.

Braeden Jones/ Metro

Winnipeg Transit partnered with the Downtown BIZ to try and convert some car commuters into straphangers next week, and says safety, accessibility and convenience will help increase system usage as new routes are built out.

Bussing is better.

That’s the message the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ is sharing through its #BusIsBetter campaign, running Monday to Friday next week.

It’s something the BIZ and Winnipeg Transit are keen to prove, so they handed out 200 free five-day bus passes earlier this week to non-transit users in a bid to make them straphanger converts.

Current transit users can also nominate co-workers who drive to receive a five-day bus pass—300 are up for grabs.

“The aim is really… promoting transit as a great mode for those working and coming into the downtown,” said Stephanie Voyce, the campaign coordinator for the BIZ. “It’s definitely to encourage downtown workers to try transit.”

She said giving non-users a chance to experience the bus-commute for themselves is a chance to learn it’s a “welcome relief” from driving.

“Being on a bus means it’s stress free, there’s time to answer emails, it’s personal time instead of being stuck behind the wheel of a car in traffic,” Voyce said.

The campaign will also include freebies like coffee cozies or cookie coupons, and transit-commuters will be welcomed downtown by buskers and fanfare during the morning rush hour, “basically saying ‘thank you for taking transit.’”

BIZ Executive Director Stefano Grande said transit is important to connecting people downtown.

“If we can engage more downtown workers and other commuters to use transit more often, we’re sure to see less reliance on travel by car,” he said. “With more than 45,000 trips made into the downtown each morning by car, the need for sustainable transportation options like transit is absolutely critical.”

Ridership fell in 2015, but is “rebounding”

The blitz to get downtown workers out of their cars and onto buses is an effort to increase usage of the bus system after years of fairly steady ridership numbers was interrupted by a slight decline in 2015.

Winnipeg Transit Director Dave Wardrop.

Metro File

Winnipeg Transit Director Dave Wardrop.

After hitting a five-year high in 2014 with 49, 867, 683 trips, Winnipeg Transit saw a 3.2 per cent drop in ridership last year.

Winnipeg Transit boss Dave Wardrop said the system has “started to see some rebound in ridership” this year, but hard numbers aren’t available for 2016 yet.

“There was a trend overall of a drop in ridership in 2015 (across Canada),” he said. “That was largely attributed to the decrease in gasoline prices and (increased) competitiveness of alternative modes.”

Modes like the private vehicles Winnipeg Transit and the BIZ are fighting to pull people away from next week.

When asked what initiatives outside of that campaign would contribute to getting more people to use transit in the city—a system city council continues to make significant investments in—Wardrop leaned on what he calls the pillars of Winnipeg Transit, and its biggest projects.

“We focus on safety, accessibility, customer information systems, and convenience,” he said. “We’ve seen that build our ridership and have steady growth in ridership in virtually every year—except the decline we saw in 2015—for a decade now.”

Indeed, transit has increased the city at a greater rate greater than its population growth nearly perennially, and those pillars have largely been tended to.

Winnipeg Transit has outfitted its entire fleet of buses with open-sourced and broadcast live GPS tracking, as well as advanced “next stop” announcement systems.

It also launched a new “transit code of conduct” education campaign in January to increase safety for operators and users alike.

“And there are a number of very, very big projects—historic projects—that are underway right now,” Wardrop said.

After recently selecting the preferred bidder for stage two of the Southwest Rapid Transitway in May, major construction on the $587 million project is expected to get formally underway this summer.

Wardrop also said the contract for a functional study to plot the Eastern Corridor to connect the rapid transit system to Transcona will be awarded in the fall.

“It’s a very exciting time for transit and transit users,” Wardrop said.

Transit users

However, some transit users might not agree with Wardrop on how exciting those initiatives are.

Transit advocate Joseph Kornelsen said creating high-speed corridors doesn’t do much to improve the system from a user standpoint, or attract new users, unless bus frequency increases with it.

“The biggest thing is increasing frequency, that is by far and away the best way to increase ridership—it’s been proven in city after city,” he said. “Rapid transit isn’t just buses on a designated corridor, it should be frequent buses on (and feeding into) the corridor.”

His advocacy and that of his group, Functional Transit Winnipeg, accepts that in a cash-strapped city like Winnipeg, the most cost-effective way of improving the system is reducing wait-times with buses that come more often.

And if new corridors are built, he believes the city needs to put more thought into where they go.

Kornelsen criticizes the Southwest corridor for being “inaccessible and impractical,” and said he hopes the route East serves existing users and is accessible by a larger number of existing homes and businesses.

Once buses are doing that, he says you can get more people to use them spontaneously and consistently by cranking up how often they arrive at each stop.

“If we need to take a cost effective route, which Winnipeg has shown it is all about… we might as well be spending on frequency, that’s where the real low-hanging fruit is,” Kornelsen said.

Federal dollars  

Although Winnipeg is outspent by similar-sized cities like Edmonton, which spends around 25 per cent more on transit operations annually, new money for transit infrastructure from the federal government is on the way.

Metro File

Around $83 million could be Winnipeg’s to spend, according to Wardrop, but with nothing published on the criteria, he’s not sure how it can be used yet.

Whether the functional study or parts of the rapid transit build-out may be eligible is unclear.

“Until we’ve got some better clarity around the eligibility of the specific projects or programs it would be premature to disqualify anything,” Wardrop said. “Right now they’re looking at projects for completion by March 2018, whether or not there are particular project elements within a project that could be considered, those conversations need to be had.”

The March 2018 deadline would make the Southwest Transitway ineligible, and the route of the East line is yet to be planned, so Winnipeg’s options for capitalizing on the funds may be limited

Mayors from across the country gathered in Winnipeg Thursday say they’re hopeful eligibility criteria is left broad for municipalities.

“We’d like to see increased flexibility so that we can have those funds fit the priorities and the timelines we have here in Winnipeg,” said Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman.

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