Transit: Why Saskatoon Needs a Better System

As someone who uses the bus on an occasional basis – I used to be a daily rider, but am now able to carpool – I’ve witnessed changes to the transit system in Saskatoon over the last twelve years. While things have improved, it’s not by very much compared with other metropoli, and I fear there’s a lack of political will and public concern over the level of service we currently receive in this city. Which is a shame, because good public transit has a gestalt effect. It is a key part of making Saskatoon a good, attractive medium-sized city, while putting potentially thousands of dollars per household back in their pockets.

  • Transit levels the playing field for low-income people – people on a fixed income or minimum wage, where the annual cost of operating a car takes a huge bite out of their bottom line. Giving households who spend most or all of their money on essentials a chance to increase their take-home pay increases spending, boosting the economy, and the chance to move upwards in society. Timely access to employment, services, and family increases quality of life; for people who are unable to drive, a good transit system is worth it for the sense of autonomy over mobility it provides as one is not ‘trapped’.
  • Transit reduces demand on roadways, for parking, and is a key part of helping cities achieve higher densities. Roads cost money to maintain; expansion of roads takes property off tax rolls. Large intersections restrict access to properties on the corners, lowering attractiveness and therefore property values, increasing demand for police services as they become blighted. Bridges, as we know very well, are not cheap; it makes economic sense to maximise the ones we currently have. Underground parking is very expensive, driving up the cost of construction and thus the cost per unit of residential units situated above it. Single-car occupancy will not support the densities Saskatoon seeks to achieve in the downtown core. Reduced demand on the roadways reduces response times for emergency vehicles and people who for various reasons are unable to use transit.
  • Transit is not a viable option for all citizens; however non-users still benefit from lessened demand for parking and reduced congestion. Families with kids who are old enough to take the bus or senior members who are unable to drive anymore, Drivers in households with seniors who do not drive and children who are old enough to take the bus are freed from onerous chauffeur duties; kids gain a sense of independence and autonomy, while older adults can age in place.

Below, a photograph from the third (top) floor of a dense neighbourhood, the Plateau, in Montreal that supports bus, bike lanes, and a metro station. Rue St. Denis is a block over.

montreal balcony

So, where do we go from here? The next few years will be a turning point for transit in Saskatoon, with rumours of bus rapid transit (BRT) and a revamping or disappearing of the bus mall downtown, to start. (Further details can be found in the City Centre Plan, link is large PDF.) Bus GPS is also coming – a test project featuring university students will go into action this spring. GPS will vastly improve the level of service without actually adding more buses to the streets, as the psychological advantages of knowing whether you’ll make it on time takes the sting out of waiting.

Currently Urban Systems is putting together a report on transit in this city, which will be out later this year. In a recent Star-Phoenix interview they hinted that Saskatoon might be moving towards a ridership model, instead of the current one that favours coverage (all residences within 400 m of a transit stop). This spells out good news for areas that already have people using transit but may create more transit deserts.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is another popular idea, where buses function as a quasi-LRT with their own lanes and boarding stations. However, it seems like everyone is holding their breath waiting for BRT to swoop in and save us – in the meantime, we make do with used buses from other cities, as well as buses so old people travel from other cities to film them in action. While I don’t mind the older buses – they photograph well – they are difficult to access if you require assistance or use mobility aids. Another thing that will have to improve in this city is the accessibility of the bus stops themselves. While the city attempts to keep stops clear, resources are limited, and piles of ice and snow greet embarking and disembarking passengers.

Other things to think about with regards to transit are increasing frequency, especially “off peak” frequency to court the evening-and-weekend crowd. Frequency is another barrier for transit use – imagine only being able to leave your driveway once an hour. In order to not miss transfers, some people have to leave two hours before to ensure they get to their destination on time. More frequent buses, even if the routes are not as efficient, are a key part of making the bus a viable option.

As someone who lives in a double-income, no kids household with only one car, I use the bus on occasion – at least once or twice a week, on average. Not owning a second car saves us around $6,000 a year, although I must admit our bike budget has increased a tad in response. This additional money goes towards our savings and local merchants, instead of to petroleum companies or financing corporations. I pay for it, however, with my time – a trip by bus can be easily three times as long by car, with suburb-to-suburb hops reaching travel times which can make walking attractive. I’d like to be able to take the bus to work, or home from the bar, but with our current system this necessitates a move out of our cheaper inner-ring suburb. (We moved in 2008, at the height of the 0.6% vacancy rate, so we had to take the first reasonable residence we found.) As a result, I ride my bicycles a lot as soon as the ice disappears, but at heart I prefer transit since I can read or write on the bus – or sleep.