Doubling down on its bus experiment, Woolwich is hoping it’s not throwing good money after bad in supporting a pilot project organized by Kiwanis Transit.
The plan is to boost ridership on the lightly used Waterloo-to-Elmira bus by running a pickup service in Elmira that will feed into Grand River Transit’s route 21. To that end, Kiwanis Transit is covering the bulk of the cost, looking to the township for $9,000 of the $54,000 price tag. That comes on top of the $500,000 a year Woolwich taxpayers pay for the few hundred riders who use route 21.
The township had previously balked at efforts to beef up the main service to attract riders, unwilling to shell the tens of thousands of dollars. That this pilot project is being offered by Kiwanis Transit rather than GRT means the operating costs are much more manageable, at least for now.
Funnelling more riders onto the GRT system would save Kiwanis Transit more than enough money to cover the $45,000 it has pledged to the project. Likewise, other community groups who organize services such as rides to doctor’s appointments would also benefit.
In that regard, the project, if successful, makes sense. Council, however, has to look at the big picture. That includes the prospect of escalating costs if the service becomes permanent, especially as the entire cost would likely fall on taxpayers. More importantly, there must be a cost-benefit analysis of massive costs for the route as a whole, weighing the expense against the limited number of users.
There is reason to believe that improving the service would boost ridership, but the numbers would likely be inconsequential. As with all of Grand River Transit, you could double and double again the amount of money spent on the system, and it would still be too slow, too inconvenient and too costly for anyone to choose to use it where another option exists.
Therein lies the rub for public transit in the region: it’s generally used only by those who don’t have other options. It’s a captive audience, who’ll use transit no matter what state the service is in. Nobody will opt out of taking his or her car in favour of the public transit unless the service is some combination of faster, cheaper or more convenient – that’s not applicable in the region, and never will be.
Systems that meet those requirements do exist, but in much larger cities. For all the region’s growth forecasts – historically not accurate – the numbers will never work out in any version of the foreseeable future.
As is stands in the region today, transit provides a necessary service to relatively few residents. It’s essential in some form, though every effort must be made to reduce costs in order to make the system more manageable. Technology such as autonomous vehicles could remove the costly labour component from public transit or could even render it obsolete as people turn to safer, more convenient door-to-door options. Any kind of transit expansion – including the ill-considered LRT and bus routes such as Elmira’s – should have been put on hold until other options, including the elimination of high labour costs, became clearer.
It remains to be seen how the pilot project will go over, though the numbers will have to be impressive – and take into account the fact the no-fare option may boost ridership disproportionately, but is not sustainable – to warrant continuation of the service at a direct cost to Elmira taxpayers already burdened with a lightly used GRT service.