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Making dollars and sense of transit options

The debate over the future of bus service in Woolwich is a microcosm of the far bigger – and more expensive – issue of light rail transit in Waterloo Region. Neither stands up to a cost-benefit analysis.

Few people will argue against public transit. But few people will ride it.

In Woolwich, residents are being asked to pay out $457,000 a year to subsidize a bus route that currently sees about 300 riders a day. Yes, it’s nice to provide that service, but is it worth $35 a year to the average household in the township? Would that money be better left in taxpayers’ pockets? Or, looking at the opportunity costs, if residents collectively wanted to spend $457,000 a year, could that money be spent on something bringing greater value to far more people? In the case of the latter question, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

The same applies to the region’s plan for light rail transit: the billions of dollars could be better spent elsewhere, if they must be spent at all.

There are good reasons for mass transit, mostly having to do with providing transportation to those without cars. Grand River Transit’s own numbers bear that out: the majority of riders are students. In the two-year pilot project that brought the bus to Elmira and St. Jacobs, few of the riders are commuters leaving their cars at home. Youths, students and seniors, yes, but not commuters.

The lack of commuters undermines two standard arguments in favour of transit: reducing traffic on the roads and helping the environment. Studies have shown neither is the case.

When a transit system serves primarily those who do not have cars – low-income residents, students and seniors – it does nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road. Traffic and the resultant congestion remain the same.

As for the environmental argument, that only applies when the transit system is working at or near capacity. But full buses – or trains – are more the exception than the rule. Near-empty runs at all but peak times mean the system as a whole could be using more energy and causing more pollution than would be the case if those riding transit made the trip by car. (A recent study in the U.S. showed current ridership levels for light rail at 14 per cent, commuter rail at 21 per cent and trolley buses at 16 per cent.)

None of this is to say that we don’t need public transit in the region. But the less-than-convincing numbers are what have made LRT proponents here and elsewhere trot out the development arguments: the train will help reshape the cities by encouraging people to live and work along a transit corridor. That is to say: ridership numbers will never justify the expense, but there could be some intensification of some areas of the cities … if people decide that’s how they want to live, reversing a decades-old trend.

The if-you-build-it-they-will-come supposition also extends to ridership when advocates speak of light rail transit: people don’t like to ride the bus, but they will flock to the train. Again, that flies in the face of other examples, where building LRTs simply transferred riders from the buses to the train, at greater expense. Moreover, in some cases that created longer travel times, as riders were forced to take a bus to a central train corridor, wait for a train, travel along a fixed route, then transfer to another bus to complete their journey.

That model, of course, simply eats up more time. And time is of the essence when discussing public transit.

I had a very applicable example of that this week when my own car was in the shop for service for the day. Rather than take the bus to the Observer office in Elmira, I rented a car. Far more expensive? Yes. But far more convenient. A 20-minute drive to work made far more sense than perhaps an hour and a half by bus. Especially as that had to be replayed at the end of the day.

Therein lies the rub about increasing public transit: if it isn’t some combination of faster, cheaper and more convenient, it just doesn’t make sense when you’ve got the option of taking a car.

The time factor is precisely the issue touched on by University of Wisconsin professor Steven Dutch.

“Apart from the cost of wages, economic planners rarely acknowledge the value of individual time, but that has absolutely no impact on the reality that people themselves do put value on their time,” he says. “One of the first thing people do when they acquire some affluence is begin to buy back their time. They hire out boring or unpleasant tasks like food preparation, housekeeping, child care and repairs.

“Failure to recognize the value of time to individuals leads to unproductive results.”

Making transit palatable to people would involve a major shift, he notes, observing that  once someone decides to buy a car, the economic balance shifts sharply in favor of driving. The only way to shift the economic balance in favor of mass transit is to create a system where it becomes feasible for large numbers of people to give up owning a car.

For that, it must be faster, cheaper and more convenient. That includes safer and more comfortable (difficult here, where it means standing or walking in the rain or snow).

A GRT bus route in Elmira, as with the proposed LRT, will be none of those things. As such, ridership numbers will be correspondingly low. Is that the best use of $457,000 in Woolwich? Of $1billion, to start, in the region?

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  1. The author of this editorial looses credibilty when he exaggerates so flagrantly. “Billions of dollars” for light rail? Even notorious “let’s just give poor people a car instead” light rail opponent Peter Shawn Taylor hasn’t used such a dishonest exaggeration. The previously approved plan, which is not the least expensive light rail option, isn’t even one billion dollars, let alone “billions”. Any person willing to intentionally state such blatant lies has no business being part of the debate, and any paper willing to print such lies should be condemned.

  2. What would you suggest the 500,000$ or 800$million be spent on instead?
    I would be very interested to see you find a better public project that would promote more development than public transit.
    Especially when it covers such a large expanse and in comparison to other public projects is relatively cheap.

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