SAINT JOHN – Over the last few years, the city centre has been growing with both new commercial and residential developments – and the city wants it to grow more.
The city recently released a public guide to its Central Peninsula Neighbourhood Plan, which includes developing vacant and underutilized land and enhancing commercial offerings in the uptown core. On the residential front, the city is focused on improving the supply of quality affordable housing.
Private developers are also anticipating growing interest in the core with many recent announcements of retail and high-end residential developments. It’s safe to say more people will be living and/or working in Saint John’s city centre in the years to come.
This is generally viewed as a positive thing because vibrant, bustling urban centres are crucial for economic growth. But there’s a question people will inevitably be asking as development happens:
“Where will we park?”
It’s no secret that Saint John and New Brunswick has a really car-dependent culture. We use them to get to work, go to entertainment, and run errands. With people already complaining about the lack/cost of parking in city centre and with plans already underway to take away surface parking lots to build new developments, it’s perhaps time we start seriously looking at the alternatives – the most obvious one being public transit.
Right now, much of those who use Saint John Transit do so because they have to. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is voluntarily leaving their car in the driveway to take the bus.
The city is aware of this – increasing public transit use is one of the goals of the Central Peninsula Neighbourhood Plan. Yet, breaking down the entrenched car culture will be a huge challenge.
We decided to ask Saint John Transit CEO Ian MacKinnon and Tom McGraw, a recently retired bus driver and current president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1182, for their thoughts on what can be done to get more people to leave their cars at home and take the bus:
1) More Frequency
Saint John Transit’s main lines include the buses that take passengers from the city’s East Side, where the main shopping mall is, to uptown, then on to either the city’s West Side, or North End where the university and hospital are. MacKinnon says recent data gathered from passenger counters on busses show these routes already need to be increased.
“The counters tell us where we should invest in additional frequency. For example, from King’s Square [uptown] to UNB and the hospital area. We know that is one of, if not the busiest route in the city,” he says. “At certain times of the year, there are folks standing on our bus. We know that 20-minute frequent run needs to probably go to about 15-minutes. We know we can make some changes and that will happen.”
2) But Don’t forget about the other routes!
Though he agrees increasing frequency on the main-lines is important, McGraw says you also need to make sure the buses that “feed” the main lines are optimized as well. These “feeder” buses are the ones that go to and from areas that are often more residential and with lower commercial activity. Passengers on these buses can then transfer to one of the main lines to get to their destination. McGraw says these routes are important because if they are not convenient or if passengers are waiting too long for a second bus, people will still prefer to use their cars.
“With all the feeder lines, unless you’re feeding passengers every 30 minutes, you’re kind of working against yourself,” says McGraw.
“It’s just better scheduling. Because if you promise the public something, you’ve got to try to deliver it and I think it’s the only way that we’re going to get people to leave cars in the driveway.”
3) Move out of the 1960’s and into 2018
Both MacKinnon and McGraw agree that Saint John Transit needs to leverage technology on several fronts.
“We’re dealing with a farebox, a system that’s older than me. When I was a kid, that farebox system was the very same thing,” says McGraw.
The transfer slips are also outdated and can be a cause of grief for both passengers and drivers.
“It’s a cutoff transfer and it’s very inefficient. It’s hard to know whether the transfer is legitimate and drivers don’t have the time to be in confrontation [with passengers], because people will throw things at you and run down the back of the bus,” he says. “You need a system that’s easier to use for the public and for the driver.”
MacKinnon says Saint John Transit is working on a partnership with HotSpot Parking on a possible transit solution. The city is already partnered with the New Brunswick startup to use its popular pay-by-phone parking app.
“They’ve been talking to us about pay-by-phone for transit as well. In fact, they went live in Moncton last year. We were going to let that settle in Moncton and understand their learnings from that process,” he says. “Now we’re just coming back around to that to determine what we might want to do.”
He says adopting this kind of system would not just make things more convienent for passengers, but also for Saint John Transit operations as well.
“We handle a pile of cash, and that’s expensive, so there’s real value to that,” says MacKinnon. “Plus we get great intel out of an electronic payment system.”
4) Make Transit “Sexy”
McGraw says Saint John Transit is actually a well-used bus system with more than 2 million rides a year. But, he says about 95 per cent of those rides are taken by what he calls “the working poor.” He says city transit needs to be marketed so that those who don’t need take the bus, will.
“You have to push back car culture. That will allow transit to develop. It just simply has to be an option on the table for people. It’s gotta be a little sexier and it’s got to work,” says McGraw.
“There are very few people that are leaving cars and driveways and getting on the bus and I think we have an image problem. How do we change that?”
McGraw says some of the ways this can be changed are by things like cleaner buses, but most importantly having a truly reliable and convenient transit system.
“You’ve got to get a sense that you’re confident enough that the bus is going to show up and it’s going to do what it says it’s going to do,” he says.
5) More Development. Then we won’t have a choice!
MacKinnon says when developments happen, particularly those over surface parking lots, both parking and transit are impacted.
“[Development] causes a bunch of different things to change. We have a number of surface parking lots. So development happens, development takes over a surface parking lot, surface parking lot goes away, then all of a sudden, parking supply doesn’t meet demand and transit becomes important,” says MacKinnon.
“Our planning piece now is to try to figure out six month, nine months, 12 months ahead of time, what’s happening for development because it impacts parking, which impacts transit.”
MacKinnon uses NB Liquor’s relatively new uptown location and the new location of the New Brunswick Museum as examples of surface lots being replaced by new developments. He says as more development happens and surface parking options diminish, more people will start looking to transit.
“I think that will just evolve because parking will diminish in favour of development,” says MacKinnon. “As we grow and as we develop, folks will naturally gravitate toward alternate means of transportation, whether it’s a bus, bike, walking trail, that’s where we’re going.”
6) Better Public Input
If you want more residents to use the bus service, you need to find out what they want from their bus service. Mackinnon admits that has been a big challenge for Saint John Transit.
“We tried to establish a passenger advisory committee and we had limited uptake on that. It caused us to stop and really rethink how we asked for that input,” he says.
MacKinnon says the application process to be on the committee may “not have been the best.” He says Saint John Transit will now be taking a more “one-on-one” approach to getting public feedback.
“We might park busses in particular areas and ask people to stop in and talk to us. Fredericton has some success recently in doing that,” he says. “But we definitely need public input. We’re running a business and we have difficulty getting input from our customer.”
7) Bring Back the legendary Saint John Transit jingle
Ok, neither McGraw or MacKinnon suggested this, but hear us out.
Back sometime in the early 2000s Saint John Transit had a catchy radio jingle that has since become legendary and a source and nostalgia to many residents. Why not try to tap into that? Not to mention, the jingle actually highlights the benefits of taking the bus! The song still makes taking the bus sound like a super chill experience:
This is just a suggestion, of course.