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The Root of it All: Our bus system is a challenge. Are you up for it?

David Root has become very familiar with the city's transit system over the last year. He has found it frustrating and at times overwhelming. Would you give it a try?
A Sault Transit bus travels on Queen Street East on Tuesday. Michael Purvis/SooToday

'Come for the bus . . . and enjoy the walk.'

That was my suggestion for a new motto for Sault Transit.

I met with Mayor Provenzano a few weeks ago to discuss transit in the Sault. For those of you who do not take the bus, I can tell you that transit services are somewhat problematic.

The routes and the schedules are inconvenient. Basically, the bus does not always go where you need to go, or when you need to be there.

As I told Mr Provenzano, I have a good deal of experience riding the bus. In the early 2000s when I was underemployed and could not afford to drive, and had sold my truck, I had to rely on the bus. It was not bad at the time, as I lived on Kerr Drive, and could catch the bus down on the corner of Queen, for a direct ride to either Algoma U or downtown; return trips were equally straightforward.

This past year, as I recover from having a brain tumour removed and go through a few more cycles of chemotherapy, the MTO has suspended my driver’s license.

And so, once again, I am taking the bus. I have also moved. I am living near the corner of Goulais Avenue and Wallace Terrace. The bus goes by at the end of the block, and in fact I get three chances to catch it to go downtown: once as it goes by westbound; once as it loops around then heads south to No. 4 gate, then again as it loops back up and turns down Douglas.

But… that’s if I want to go downtown.

If I need to go to the hospital, the easiest way is to take the bus to the terminal, then transfer to the North Street.

As an alternative — and I have tried this — I could take the Steelton and loop out to transfer to the Riverside, then get off at Lowe’s. The North Street goes by on Northern Avenue shortly after the Riverside, but the distance between the two routes is too great to be able to walk in time. When I did do this, the North Street went by before I was halfway to Northern Avenue. 

As well, the only designated stops for the North Street are at the Knights of Columbus or Willow Avenue.

I ended up turning around and walking to the hospital from there. A long walk in the hot sun, and not one I am willing to try in the winter.

I have a friend who lives in the Crystal Heights apartment building at Lake and McNabb. If she wants to go to Michael’s or Walmart,  she has to catch the McNabb bus at Lake Street, ride down to the terminal and transfer to the North Street. 

The ride back home involves catching the same two buses, except the North Street only goes into the Walmart parking lot on its outbound leg to the hospital. The inbound leg returns along Terrance, Old Garden River, and Second Line.

My friend’s trip to Walmart and back requires an hour of riding the bus.

Like many journeys by bus here, it’s a lengthy process, especially with all of the buses converging at the Dennis Street terminal, which is by no means an efficient system.

Part of the problem is that our transit system is essentially a spoke-and-hub design. While each route does follow a loop, all routes begin and end at the Dennis Street terminal. There are a few locations where a rider may transfer from one route to another, but it is difficult to find a straight route from one location to another.

170110saultbusshelterMPA Sault Transit bus shelter is pictured on Queen Street East on Tuesday. Michael Purvis/SooToday

Some transit systems (Thunder Bay) are designed in a series of interconnected loops. You may have to take three different busses to get to your destination, but it’s roughly a straight line, not multiple return trips to the terminal. 

For example, there is no direct route from the Wellington Square Mall to the Walmart on Great Northern Road. Neither is there a direct route from Churchill Plaza to Wellington Square.

If I want to go to the Wellington Square Mall, I have two options:

1) transfer to the McNabb Street bus, which goes by on Trunk Road; or,

2) transfer to the Eastside, which goes up Boundary and stops at the Mac’s.

Getting home from the mall is a bit more tedious.

Some years ago, Transit removed the bus stops from the north side of Trunk, citing the danger of having riders crossing the busy thoroughfare.

Fair enough. Although riders are routinely dropped off on Great Northern or Second Line, and risk crossing those roads.

So, you catch the McNabb where you got off, loop down to the city limits, then come back along Frontenac Street. It only adds 12-15 minutes to the trip, but if you are late getting out of the mall and the bus goes by, you’re out of luck.

Mind you, if you walk quickly you can hike out to Boundary, cross Trunk and the railway tracks, and (hopefully) catch the McNabb on its way back at the last stop on Frontenac. But you cannot dawdle.

It is the Steelton that takes me home, and if I am shopping at the Station Mall I can usually get to one of the two stops there — outside the Walmart entrance, or at the Dennis St entrance. Catching it there is more convenient than walking to the terminal if one is carrying groceries.

If there’s enough time, the terminal isn’t that far to walk. But then, once the busses pull out, its a half-hour wait for the next bus. 

Except on the weekends, or evenings, when the busses only run hourly.

Earlier I suggested the motto of “Come for the bus, enjoy the walk.”

Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but I have done far more walking since August than I did as a teenager without a car.

And, on days when I am feeling fatigued, planning a trip to run a few errands is close to overwhelming.

When you drive yourself, you can plan several stops during one outing: the grocery store, the optometrist, the butcher shop, etc. When you take the bus, getting off at the first of several stops usually means you will be walking to the next; rarely can you time your visit to coincide with the next bus.

Missing the bus involves either waiting — 30 or 60 minutes — or walking.

At one time there was a Downtown bus. It didn’t last all that long. As I recall, ridership on that particular route (terminals, mall, Bay Street, East Street, Queen Street) was poor. 

The fact that six other busses rolled down Queen in succession (that has been changed) likely contributed to the problem.

But now, if I go shopping on Queen, and get off at Pilgrim to go to the butcher shop, I either must dawdle for a half hour or walk westbound to the mall or the Dennis Street terminal. There is no convenient “next bus.”

Speaking of busses running half-hour or hourly. I discovered that the switchover is very disruptive. 

One rainy evening this past fall I needed to be at a meeting at 7:15 at Tilley Road. The Sault College would drop me off at the corner of Willoughby. Very convenient.

The Steelton/Eastside got in at 6:40, on schedule. I walked over to the Sault College and was told “This bus isn’t going anywhere. The busses are parked for a half hour while the drivers have lunch. Service resumes at 7:15.”

There is no notice of this on the printed schedule, on the website, nor in the terminal.

As I was waiting in the terminal I noticed people moving out to the busses, which were boarding. I only just stepped out of the door when the Sault College pulled away. I had to take the McNabb bus instead, and walk three blocks in the rain to my meeting, fifteen minutes late.

No transit system is perfect. Some are more efficient than others.

Thunder Bay does not have a central terminal as we do. They do have a terminal-like facility in the north end. It is not staffed. They also have two other Transfer points: InterCity Mall, and Victoriaville in the south end.

London has no terminal, with busses lining up near the intersection of Richmond and Dundas streets to permit transfers.

In many cities, each bus stop is numbered, and riders can phone in, enter that stop number, and find out when the next bus is due — which barring unforeseen circumstance, is usually very accurate.

We cannot afford that kind of system. But we need to have a much more efficient system.

We also need to stop increasing fares, to pay for the existing service.

Yes, those who do not ride the bus object to “their tax dollars” going to such a wasteful service that they do not use. There’s lots of things your taxes pay for that you do not use. It’s part of living in a city.

However, there are many people who rely on the bus service. People who are not giving much thought to how much money they are saving by not driving. People who can barely afford to pay for a bus pass after paying their rent and other living expenses.

Many people who ride the bus do so because they do not have the money to be able to drive. In fact, many just barely can afford to take the bus, and with the fares increasing, it will get less affordable.

I have heard and read comments from people who claim that any time they see a bus going by it is empty. Well, I don’t know where it is that they see this empty bus, but in all the time I have been taking the bus since August there have only been a few occasions where I have been the only passenger. More often than not, there are riders embarking and disembarking frequently along the route.

Now I know there will be people who will say (and have said) 'Think of all the money you’re saving by not driving.'

True. But think of all the time I’m wasting.

Anyone who thinks it’s such an advantage is welcome to park their vehicle for a month, buy a monthly pass (now $65), and take the bus everywhere they need to go. 

You’ll find it doesn’t take you where you need, or when you need. And plan on adding an hour or two to your day. More if you miss the bus you had planned on taking.

During my discussion with Mayor Provenzano, he assured me that he considers Transit one of the city’s essential services. Unfortunately, it does not appear as though the rest of council shares that view.

Councillor Butland has responded to concerns raised by Sally Chateneuf, a server at Muio’s restaurant, and to my own concerns.

Councillor Bruni has publicly stated he will oppose the fare increase.

But overall, councillors have been silent on the issue. Of course, since they do not take transit, they do not truly understand the issues riders are facing.

I suggested to Mayor Provenzano that he and council should try taking the bus everywhere they need to go for an entire week: to work, home again, to City Hall, to meetings, etc. And not as a photo-op, where they will be expected.

Just hand out 13 bus passes and say, “Here you go.”

In fact, I issue that challenge again to council. Everywhere you need to go, for an entire week. 

As well, I issue the same challenge to anyone reading this, especially those who believe that things are not as bad as I have described them. Or that transit is a great way to save money.