Isabelle Nethercott knows a thing or two about the city’s transit system.
She probably knows more about the pitfalls and shortcomings of the bus operation than anyone at city hall. And that includes mayor and council.
For years, Isabelle has relied on the creaky buses to get her to and from work.
And, to put it mildly, she is not impressed with the much-ballyhooed roll-out of Railway City Transit.
Most days she is the only rider on the bus, making social distancing effortless.
She forwarded a copy to this corner of a very lengthy letter addressed to Justin Lawrence, the city’s director of engineering.
It is as comprehensive as many of the big-buck consulting reports that cross the desk of city hall staff.
The director and council would be wise to heed and act upon many of her observations.
In short, any city that penalizes users by downgrading the service to a one-hour headway on almost all of its routes has no right to call itself progressive.
Isabelle’s opening statement pulls no punches, especially in light of the city’s mandate to become a greener municipality.
She writes, “People who rely on public transit do so for many reasons. Personally, I have never pursued a driver’s licence for financial and health reasons as well as environmental concerns.
“While the former system in St. Thomas had its limitations, it had the advantage of being able to get you anywhere in the city within 45 minutes at most, and with very little walking.
“A good public transit system is essential to a healthy community.”
That last thought should be imprinted on the cover of the city’s strategic plan. Better yet, emblazon it on the buses themselves.
Like any consultant’s report of value, Isabelle draws a comparison.
“The City of Woodstock has almost the same population as St. Thomas. Their public transit fares are cheaper ($2.50 per ride, $60 per adult monthly pass). Their buses run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on a 30-minute service loop. Looking at their route map, it appears that the entire city is well-covered with looping/circular routes.
“The previous St. Thomas system was very similar to Woodstock’s; the only problems were shorter hours and lack of Sunday service (which Woodstock also does not have). The new system does offer improved service with respect to both of those matters but at a great loss of service in other ways.”
She outlines seven critical areas for consideration. Remember, Isabelle has chosen to be transit-dependent. Shouldn’t that be the mandate of the pilot project now underway?
Convert the masses.
Her first point is generated through painful personal experiences.
“The main loss of service is due to the fact that 4 out of 5 routes now run hourly instead of half-hourly; only one route (Talbot) now runs more frequently than before. That’s great if you want to go east-west on one corridor only, but far more inconvenient when going to or from anywhere else in the city.
“What is the point of having one route run more frequently when other routes can only transfer to it once an hour? Hourly routes are a reduction in service, not an improvement. This one issue alone has turned my work schedule upside down.
“I am fortunate that I work at a place which allows me some flexibility in regard to my schedule, and also that I am one of the few employees with a key since I now arrive at work 40 minutes early because of the routes switching to hourly. Otherwise, I would have to wait outside for that time.
“Many stops have been removed from critical areas, especially near certain apartment buildings where many seniors reside.”
“Additionally, the 4 hourly routes are grouped into two that run on the quarter-past, and two that run on the quarter-to. Depending on what route you are transferring to or from, you may have to wait at the transfer point for 30 minutes.”
Not a transit improvement when the previous edition offered customers – long-serving users at that – a better schedule.
We had an enlightening conversation with Isabelle and drew a parallel to the railways in North America when they used to carry passengers.
When these companies sought to abandon a service they would first toy with the timetable to ensure trains always pulled into a station 10 minutes or more after the connecting service was scheduled to leave.
A sure way to drive people to buses and eventually cars and planes.
Speaking of stations, the equivalent on the transit system would be the bus stops and Isabelle offers these observations.
“Many stops have been removed from critical areas, especially near certain apartment buildings where many seniors reside. The route down Wellington Street is no more, with a few stops available on-demand only after hours, and not in the daytime when the dentists, chiropractors, RMTs, etc. in that area are open.
“The stop near the Senior’s Centre is also only after hours – but most of the programs at the centre run in the daytime (when they are running again, of course).
“The actual number of stops around the city has been radically reduced, forcing long walks to get to and from a stop. Apparently, the Transit Master Plan recommended focussing routes on busier drop-off and pick-up locations instead of spreading it geographically around the city, however, this really does not serve the public very well and is an overall reduction of service, not an improvement.”
Hmmm. That’s the impression we got from Point 1 as well.
Turning the bus back to routes again for a moment Isabelle points out, “By switching from a system of looping/circular routes to terminal/return routes, less area is serviced by the routes, and is replaced by the redundancy of stops across from each other.
“There is now an on-demand stop at Masco, which is important as it is one of the largest employers in the city. However, even with the expanded hours, it still misses the mark as the day shift starts at 7 a.m. but the buses start at 7:15 a.m. Many of the factories start at 7 a.m.”
“There are entire swaths of the city that now have no service at all, as the routes are single corridors only.”
Now, Isabelle gets down to the nitty-gritty. Something that is supposed to be a critical selling feature.
“The on-demand system is a great idea, but:
(a) Certain areas (Wellington, Kains/Scott, Chestnut/Fairview/Highview) only have on-demand available after hours and not through the daytime. This makes NO sense.
(b) The dispatch people have no idea how the app works. Calling with a question was useless because they said they didn’t know what the app looked like on the user end (this happened to me twice). You would think that they would have been instructed to download and experience the app from the user end, in order to be able to answer questions and provide better customer service.
(c) While you can request a certain time, there is a half-hour window during which the bus may show up. It is very difficult to conform to a work schedule with such a wide variance.”
A new-look transit service should cater to factories and the like plus their employees.
You would think.
Writes Isabelle, “There is now an on-demand stop at Masco, which is important as it is one of the largest employers in the city. However, even with the expanded hours, it still misses the mark as the day shift starts at 7 a.m. but the buses start at 7:15 a.m. Many of the factories start at 7 a.m.”
Isabelle queries, remember the NextBus app?
“Once things open up again, this new system will prove to be even more inadequate and inefficient than it already is. No long-term decisions should be made based on the current situation.”
“Formerly, one could check with the NextBus app to see when your bus would be arriving. Little by little over the past few years, that service disappeared as fewer buses had the necessary equipment, and now it seems to have been abandoned altogether.
“I used to use it to see if my bus was running early so that I could leave work a few minutes early. Considering there is now an hour wait between buses, it would be useful to know whether or not you have missed the one you needed, or if it is just running late.”
Her final point touches on planning.
“Certain planning in the city took into account the old routes and timing. An example would be the new retirement residence being built where the Ramada Inn formerly stood on Wellington Street. Approval was given for the site to have less than the recommended parking spots, in part because it was anticipated that staff would use public transit.
“Now that the majority of buses are only running hourly, and the Wellington Street route is all but eliminated, getting to and from that part of the city is far more difficult. (I know because that is the same area where I work.)”
“I would like to challenge every member of city council, and everyone who had a voice in the implementation of this new system to try it themselves. Even if you don’t actually get on the bus, sit down with the route guide and figure out how to get where you need to go every day. Try and see how it works for you.”
Things will only become more exasperating on the other side of the pandemic, cautions Isabelle.
“Once things open up again, this new system will prove to be even more inadequate and inefficient than it already is. No long-term decisions should be made based on the current situation.
“Also, the problem with a six-month pilot project is that there will be many valid complaints made in the first weeks of operating, but unless there are actually changes made to address the issues, it seems that complaints fall on deaf ears.
“By the end of the six months, it may seem that everything is working great as there are fewer complaints when the reality is that people have just given up.”
Wrapping up her excellent analysis, Isabelle throws out a challenge.
“I would like to challenge every member of city council, and everyone who had a voice in the implementation of this new system to try it themselves. Even if you don’t actually get on the bus, sit down with the route guide and figure out how to get where you need to go every day. Try and see how it works for you.
“Here is how it works for me: The bus now goes by my house at 7:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. I have to be at work for 8:30 a.m. Formerly, I could catch the bus at 8 a.m. and be at work by 8:20 a.m. Now I get there at 7:50 a.m. – a full 40 minutes before my start time.
“At the end of the day, I used to be home by 5 p.m. Now the bus leaves the transit point hourly, at 4:15 p.m. or 5:15. I work till 4:30 p.m. This has hugely impacted my workday schedule and if I didn’t have a very flexible employer, my workday would be a full hour longer with a lot of waiting around.”
Here’s the clincher.
“Quite honestly, I don’t even feel that I have covered all of the problems with the new system. I have had conversations with other riders and everyone is frustrated. I would really like to see some in-depth discussion about this issue.
“I am personally beyond frustrated and, for the first time in my working life, I am looking for alternative transportation options.”
A heaping buffet of thought for the powers-to-be at city hall.
And, with no consultant’s fee.
STATUS QUO FOR LAKE MARGARET
Well, discussion Monday on recreational possibilities for Lake Margaret turned into a real dunk tank.
The prospect of fishing or canoeing on the pond was drowned by a 5-4 margin, with Mayor Joe Preston casting the deciding vote.
The cost of the environmental assessment to determine the feasibility of such activities was pegged at just shy of $50,000 as noted in the report to council from Ross Tucker and Adrienne Jefferson from the city’s parks, recreation and property management department.
What that report failed to make crystal clear is the cost of the study would have been assumed by Doug Tarry Homes as part of the 2017 agreement for transferring ownership of the lake to the city.
Coun. Steve Wookey touched on that briefly but his peers didn’t take the bait and, through their observations, left the impression the cost would fall on taxpayers.
“The report will tell us whether it is yet possible or yet suggested that the lake has the viability to sustain catch-and-release fishing and non-powered boats.”
Given that fact, would it not have made sense to proceed with the assessment to reach a definitive answer?
Equally curious was the impression Preston was in favour of proceeding with a once-and-for-all study by Ecosystem Recovery Inc. of Kitchener.
According to their website, the firm offers a diverse range of engineering services to help effectively assess, manage, and restore sensitive water resources infrastructure.
Then there’s this comment from Preston.
“The report will tell us whether it is yet possible or yet suggested that the lake has the viability to sustain catch-and-release fishing and non-powered boats.”
It kind of sounds like the mayor is leaning toward a definitive answer via an environmental assessment.
But, when it came time to yay or nay it – and with the recorded vote knotted at 4-4 – Preston was opposed to the motion to proceed with the Ecosystem Recovery undertaking.
Pulling the plug on a recommendation from the parks and recreation department that the city “should look to do a study that looks at the lake holistically.”
A case of political expediency on the mayor’s part?
ST. THOMAS EXTENDS A HELPING HAND
After enduring a 13-month ride aboard the pandemic roller-coaster, it becomes increasingly difficult to cope with the overload of COVID-19 information and updates.
A collective numbness has set in punctuated by the odd hallmark moment such as the relief felt after receiving that first coronavirus jab.
However, news this week ICU patients from the GTA were now being transferred to St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital snapped reality back into sharp focus.
We’re a razor’s edge away from forcing healthcare workers to make the ultimate decision: who gets that ICU bed and access to a ventilator and who faces a death sentence?
A cruel assignment, but we’re facing a foe who cares not a whit about its next victim.
The first tranche of Toronto-area patients arriving in St. Thomas this past week numbered eight, most COVID-19 positive but several were dealing with serious medical conditions and the move away from their home and family freed up valuable bed space.
And, more are on the way, advises hospital president and CEO Robert Biron.
The hospital had warned of this scenario just over a week ago when it advised it was taking a system approach to the delivery of care.
“We want to reassure the community we are here for them as well. Even though we are accepting patients from other communities, our hospital remains open and it’s a safe organization to receive care.”
That was when we had surpassed the 600-mark of patients in ICU across the province.
We’ve now crossed the 800-threshold and climbing.
As an overflow hospital, STEGH will not be taxed beyond its limit, advises Biron, who adds the ICU operates near capacity much of the time in any event.
“We would not accept a transfer if we did not have the capacity to accept,” assured Biron. “And, it’s evaluated on a daily basis.
“For example, we know we’ve got three ICU patients who are going to be stepping down out of the ICU today (Thursday) and then we’ll be in a position to accept those additional patients, whether they’re local or from the GTA.”
Biron stresses this will not jeopardize emergency care for St. Thomas and Elgin county residents.
What it will do is further push back non-elective surgery which was already facing a lengthy backlog.
“We want to reassure the community we are here for them as well. Even though we are accepting patients from other communities, our hospital remains open and it’s a safe organization to receive care.
“If they need emergency care, come to the hospital and our teams are ready to receive them for the care they might need.”
For those who live in constant coronavirus denial, their spin is sure to be this is STEGH – and other hospitals – making money off people with the flu.
Because you do know the government gives hospitals money for every person who dies from COVID-19, don’t you?
And for those participating in Freedom Marches because you are forced to wear a mask or your rights have somehow been violated, pray that a healthcare worker isn’t forced someday into making that ultimate decision on your behalf.
FOR THE CALENDAR
City council will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Monday for an update on the status of the strategic plan. The three pillars of the plan are designed to build a compassionate, vibrant and thriving community.
To join the meeting, visit https://www.stthomas.ca/city_hall/city_council
There is also a closed session for the purpose of educating or training the members.
Now, what could that be about?
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.