B.C. Transit: The good, the bad, and the Guthrie

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One-on-one with the general manager of Victoria Regional Transit Operations

Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director

Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director

Whether it’s arriving late to class or getting left behind in the rain, many University of Victoria students who live off campus are exasperated with the tardiness and unreliability of B.C. Transit buses during busy hours.

“You have to plan an hour in advance for a ride that should take 10 minutes,” says second-year Writing student Leslie Ahenda. “I have been late for class many times because of issues with transit.” Ahenda takes the 26 route to campus every day and is often passed up at her Mckenzie-Quadra stop.

Sound familiar? Well, it sure did to me. There is nothing quite like the feeling of defeat when you watch your bus drive right by you. I’d been passed up at that same stop more times than I could count, so I decided to get some answers. I contacted B.C. Transit to find out more about how the bus routes are planned, and why I was getting left on the side of the road at 7:45 a.m. every day due to overcrowded or late buses.

After a few phone calls, I was put in contact with David Guthrie, general manager of Victoria Regional Transit Operations. He offered to meet with me at the B.C. Transit office in Langford. It took two buses and a long walk.

Guthrie took me on a tour of the entire facility. He guided me through the transit communication center, the driver training room, and the garage. As I marvelled at the giant engines and bus parts that the mechanics were tinkering with, Guthrie filled me in on the inner workings of B.C. Transit, and about his time at the company.

Guthrie has been with B.C. Transit since July 2003. “I was actually hired as a manager for safety and training,” Guthrie says. “Then from there I became the director of safety and security, before it was a corporate role, and then in 2010, once the Olympics came and went, they promoted me to general manager for Victoria.”

Guthrie is passionate about his job, and about the quality of life for his riders. His biggest priorities include the buses being on time, having enough space on the buses for all riders, and the safety of the riders and drivers.

Guthrie is in charge of keeping the bus system on the road and also in charge of making sure that when any kind of issues arise, our politicians have someone that they can get a hold of. “I enjoy [my job],” he says. “But it is very challenging, as it’s 24/7.”

“[People will] call me sometimes at 10 o’clock at night,” Guthrie admits. “I’ll get a call from the mayor of Victoria, or from somebody that has transit concerns. My role is to make sure that they have confidence in, and continue to have confidence in, how the system runs.”

Guthrie says it’s about keeping the buses on the road for the people who rely on it.

HIGHER DEMAND

Guthrie has seen a lot of changes in his 14 years at B.C. Transit. “When I arrived in 2003, we had about 380 operators and we were operating . . . about 180 buses, maybe a little less than that. Now we have well over 520 bus operators, and we’re operating 280 buses.” This huge expansion in service is because ridership has gone up significantly.

“A lot of it has been a cultural transition as well,” Guthrie explains. “We’ve seen a lot more people that are relying exclusively on transit as their sole means of transportation. Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t see that as often.”

Guthrie has a personal connection to this increase in ridership, and understands riders struggles.“I’ve got three adult children, all of whom are transit users,” Guthrie says. “My oldest daughter . . . is at UBC right now. She and her husband don’t own a car; they just use transit. That’s what they do.”

“My son is at UVic and he is probably about 90 per cent transit.” Guthrie’s youngest daughter is living in Montreal, “and she uses transit pretty much exclusively.”

“It’s just a generational thing,” he says. “They don’t want to pay the money that we’ve had to pay for cars . . . and they’re very environmentally conscious.”

FUTURE CHANGES

Guthrie has big hopes for the future of B.C. Transit, and has a number of changes he’d like to see implemented in the next few years.

One thing that he would really like to see is a full-blown Automatic Vehicle Locator system, or AVL. This would allow riders to find out exactly where all the buses are at any given time.

There are already apps, such as the Transit app, that attempt to track the buses. The Transit app uses a ‘GO’ feature that relies on transit users and their phones to track the buses. When a user gets on the bus, the app can start tracking it, but as soon as they get off, the app can no longer do so. A true B.C. Transit AVL system would be much more accurate because it would be tracking individual buses without relying on riders’ phones.

“That would really help [riders], and it would really help us. We’re hopefully going to get there,” says Guthrie. “But we need lots more money.”

Since my interview, B.C. Transit announced that it had approved “a memorandum of understanding” to integrate real-time technology into the current bus system .

HOW B.C. TRANSIT ASSESSES ISSUES

Guthrie takes four reports a day about how the system is doing. “We assess [the issues] every single day,” Guthrie says. “We feed [reports] into a database and we look at it day over day over day as to how things are going. That information gets sent to our planning and scheduling team and they analyze that information.”

They then take what’s being requested, compare it to the data they’re seeing, and try to do what’s best for the community with the money that’s available. Making sure that everyone who needs the bus has access to it and can get where they need to go is a matter of balancing quality of life with budget limitations.

They also measure their on-time performance by checking in with drivers multiple times a day. Drivers indicate if they are on time and if there have been any disturbances like accidents, severe weather, or an unruly rider.

The job of the transit controllers in the T-Com center is not just to make sure that the buses are rolling, but to try and find out where the buses are at all times. “In other words, are we matching our system and making connection points?” says Guthrie. “If we’re [off] by only two or three minutes, we’ll go back to our schedules and planners and say ‘OK, we need to slow this bus down by three minutes, and speed this one up by one, can you do that?’”

This tweaking of the bus schedule can be the difference between 15 000 people making it to work on time or not, which is why it’s so important to Guthrie and to B.C. Transit. If the bus isn’t able to get to the stop when it’s scheduled to, there will be hundreds of angry riders.

“It becomes quite critical so we’re always, always measuring that,” Guthrie says. “It is one of the biggest things on our minds all the time.”

One bus driver I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, says that he appreciates how understanding the majority of UVic students have been. He says that individual bus drivers have very little control over the situation, and are left in the dark when it comes to system improvement plans.

“Overall, we just come in and do the best we can,” says the driver.

FUNDING

Money is always on Guthrie’s mind, just like it is for students. B.C. Transit is expensive to run, but they don’t want it to be too expensive for the riders. There are many different sources that fund B.C. Transit.

“50 per cent of our cost is funded by the province of B.C., so we’re a Crown corporation. The other half is funded by the local municipalities.”

The municipality funding comes from two sources: “[The municipalities] get their money through the fares. Any time you pay a fare to get on a bus, it’s considered local municipality money. And then the other part of municipality money is through the transit levy on your home or business tax.”

PASS-UPS

According to Guthrie, the University of Victoria is like its own municipality when it comes to ridership. He guesses about 20 per cent of B.C. Transit’s ridership is comprised of UVic students. Students pay a mandatory $81 fee each semester for a bus pass.

While many students rely on the bus pass to get to campus every day, others use their pass minimally or not at all. This is actually what makes this student plan work: those who don’t use the bus still pay, so it makes up for all the students who do use the bus every day at the discounted rate. The UVic website states that the university “encourages the use of public transit, cycling and walking and less reliance on single occupant vehicles.”

But despite access to cheap bus rides, some students have simply given up on the bus. Second-year Economics student Braedan Bespalko bought a car this year, despite living on the 26 bus route. “I don’t take the bus just out of sheer hatred for public transportation. It takes so long. It’s inconvenient.” He’d rather pay for parking than stress about tardiness.

Samantha Wood-Gaines, a second-year Sociology student who takes the 16 bus to UVic, says pass-ups cause a lot of anxiety for her. “If the bus is full, you’re stranded, and . . . you’ve lost your chance to be on time,” she says. Wood-Gaines has wished she could buy a car because she can’t count on the bus.

Others, like fourth-year Visual Arts student April Garrison, are concerned about their reputation. Garrison, who takes the 14 bus, is often late for class or misses it entirely, and worries that her teachers think badly of her when she arrives late.

Guthrie said that when riders do get left behind, or ‘passed up’, they need to report it. All reported pass-ups are recorded, calculated, and used to build improved bus schedules.

B.C. Transit assess the pass-up related issues every single day, and Guthrie takes that information seriously. “[We] get amazing levels of information from passengers” he says. According to Guthrie, the biggest concern for B.C. Transit, other than punctuality and safety, is the pass-ups.

“If I had an unlimited cash flow, what I would love to see is obviously more service . . . we don’t like leaving people on the side of the road.”

For Guthrie, it goes back to the personal element. “I think about my youngest, if she’s left at the side of the road because she’s coming back from a movie. I don’t want her to feel unsafe.”

However, he does have to consider the business side of things. His goals are to make sure that what everything B.C. Transit does is economical, and that money is being spent wisely. It’s a constant pull in both directions: what he wants to do, and what he can do. He feels a personal connection to the riders, and worries about their quality of life constantly. He doesn’t like the idea of anyone, especially young riders, being left at the side of the road.

THE HUMAN ELEMENT

So next time you’re stranded on the side of the road, drenched in rain and ready to rant about B.C. Transit to anyone who will listen, contact them to report these problems. Whether it’s a problem with service or lack thereof, Guthrie and his team will take your concerns seriously. You’ll be helping B.C. Transit with their goals to continually improve their system, and to make sure that you’re able to get where you need to go on time.

I had gone to the B.C. Transit office with a bone to pick; I was sick of getting passed up and I wanted to know why, with their fleet of buses, B.C. Transit couldn’t make sure that there was enough room for everyone who needs a ride. But I had a hard time holding onto my anger after speaking with Guthrie. I now know that it isn’t some automated system behind B.C. Transit; it is human beings that come into work and do their best every day.

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