B.C. Transit seeks public input

Local News

The Victoria Regional Transit Commission (VRTC) is seeking feedback from users on its plan to improve service in the city. The Transit Future Bus—an out-of-service vehicle retrofitted to serve as an educational open-house facility—will make eight stops in Greater Victoria from Oct. 1–5. VRTC hopes the Future Bus and online surveys will help solicit feedback that will shape an ongoing 25-year plan for public transportation in the city.

“We encourage transit users to share their thoughts on the future of transit,” said Susan Brice, chair of the VRTC and councillor for the City of Victoria. “Our transit system should reflect the needs of existing customers but should also help direct changes that will encourage more Greater Victorians to enjoy the financial, health, and environmental benefits of public transportation.”

While the move serves to cement the already-completed Transit Future Plan, published in May 2011, B.C. Transit Director of Marketing and Communications Maureen Sheehan argued that Future Bus stops are an opportunity for real changes to be made. “We’re putting forward ideas that we believe are strong. Those ideas came from the original consultation,” she said. “It’s about what people want the system to look like in the future. Transit is a complex conversation. All of the routes and networks are interconnected, and changing one area has an impact on another, and that’s why it’s important to do so much engagement.”

In a bid to improve services and effectiveness, the Transit Future Plan spells out a number of short- and medium-term priorities for the city, including expanding service on a number of routes and creating two new major bus depot facilities in the next several years.

These service and infrastructure improvements are intended to increase performance and effectiveness over the long-term. They have involved the collaboration of thousands of participants, including members of the general public, operators of B.C. public transit, and the board of the VRTC, which comprises two city councillors and five regional mayors.

While it remains unclear whether changing demographics in the Greater Victoria area will bring about an increase in overall ridership, the population of the region is predicted to increase from 350 000 to 453 000 by 2038. Congestion from population growth has already begun to make public transit more costly, with average transport speeds decreasing from 25 kilometres per hour in 2008, to 20 kilometres per hour in 2010.

Plans to fight this congestion, as well as decrease the carbon footprints of Victorians at the same time, hinge around a goal of increasing the share of travelers using public transit by almost 100 per cent, bringing it up to 9.5 per cent of travelers in 2020 and 12 per cent by 2030 from its current level of 6.4 per cent. This will represent an estimated total annual passenger figure of 55 million. According to the Transit Future Plan, the VRTC hopes that by increasing transit-mode share, they will be able to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air contaminants from cars by 4.7 million tonnes in British Columbia by 2020.”

This long-term transportation strategy, known as Travel Choices, is complicated by difficulty in predicting future trends. An aging population is generally less likely to use public transit, and the VRTC is relying on a drastic 80 per cent increase in the student population of UVic over the next 20 years to make the plan viable.

In the short-term, B.C. Transit will ask the public for feedback on everyday details, like which routes to service more frequently and which shelters to improve. However, Travel Choices grapples with issues involving significant development. Not only does the VRTC hope to effect bus-only lanes on major thoroughfares like Douglas, McKenzie, and Highway 1, but it also intends to implement legal and infrastructure improvements like mandatory yield bylaws (right-of-way for buses), new transit nodes, and potentially several hundred new transit vehicles. These changes would bring B.C. Transit in line with, and even surpass, public transit services offered in similarly sized cities around North America.

While proponents of the plan are encouraged by news of a firm commitment to improving services and protecting the environment, the plan provides little in the way of financial planning. Short-term service improvements, termed “quick wins,” are considered cost-neutral, but funding for significant infrastructure development remains somewhat nebulous at this juncture, and no official word is out for whether a fare-increase is planned. When asked, Sheehan said “funding decisions haven’t been made yet.” The commission bears the responsibility of looking at funding options, and Sheehan said it intends to work with the province, which provides 30 per cent of the budget in grants and another 11.5 per cent in gas tax revenues.

While the Transit Future Plan highlights the difficulties of dealing with annual budgets that are unpredictable due to their political nature, the VRTC itself is comprised entirely of elected officials. This body, which holds ultimate responsibility in financial decisions, while appointed by the lieutenant-governor, nevertheless must answer to its electorate. Although public support is high for continued transit improvements, it remains to be seen whether a similar level of support will extend to property- and fuel-tax increases, from which the majority of B.C. Transit’s funding is derived.