It took 45 minutes to cross the city south to north a couple days ago, and the buses were running on time. That’s 20 minutes from Brock University to the downtown terminal on the 16, a few minutes waiting for the next bus, and another 20 minutes to get to Port Dalhousie on the 1.
The entire journey, by car, should take 15 minutes.
I had quite a bit of time to think about transit in this city:
1. Express Routes
St. Catharines Transit already operates an express bus, the Brock Bullet, between the university and downtown, but only until 10 am. This is a good start, but if the parking lot at Brock is a good measure of how many students are in class, the real crowds are between noon and 5 pm. Service needs to be extended to the entire business day. Not only does this benefit people travelling between downtown and the university, but it would relieve some of the pressure on route 16.
Highway 406 has never, in my memory, been congested. It is like a bus rapid transitway without buses. $259 million is being spent to build a busway through Mississauga. We have one already built between Brock University, the Pen Centre, downtown, and the new development in west St. Catharines. But we aren’t using it.
2. Direct Routes Around the Periphery
The city’s west end is poorly served by transit. It is an area of recent and continuing suburban growth, but the routes are mostly antiquated. The 15, which connects west St. Catharines to downtown and the Pen Centre, has a long and convoluted route that seems to fold in on itself. Sure, most residences are within walking distance of a bus stop, but it makes for an interminably long ride up and down suburban streets to get somewhere that is five minutes away by car.
The 3 is similarly loopy and connects the downtown terminal with the west end and a new shopping centre on Fourth Avenue anchored by Wal-mart. There is no direct route between the Pen Centre and the Wal-Mart. It is nice that transfers are quick and mostly sheltered from the elements at the downtown, but it would be nicer if there were no transfer at all.
Another problem in the west end is a small section of Louth Street at Wal-mart on which no bus runs. It is not possible to travel the entire length of Martindale and Louth, which are essentially one street, from west St. Catharines to Port Dalhousie. You have to take two buses and transfer downtown.
Maybe nobody wants to travel directly between these two destinations. But without the service, they have no option. There should at least be a transfer point between routes 1 and 15 besides the downtown terminal. People on route 1 have to cross a road and enormous parking lot to get to the shopping centre anyway, so why not bring that bus into the Wal-mart loop?
Although I don’t have personal experience with it, I can see from the service map that there is a similar detour and transfer on the east side of the city between Thorold and Port Weller.
3. Frequencies of 15 Minutes or Less
I understand St. Catharines is not a big, dense city. Some bus routes are probably barely economical running hourly. Many routes, however, are a different story.
According to a study of Mid-Size City Transit in Canada which included St. Catharines, ridership by Brock University students increased 200% with the introduction of a mandatory U-Pass for students in 2004. The routes serving Brock, the Pen Centre, and downtown are apparently the most frequented in the city.
I can say from experience that the bus from downtown to Brock packs people in like sardines at peak hours. Sometimes the bus is so full the driver refuses to pick up people waiting at stops. Usually another bus is sent out to pick up people who were missed on the first pass, but wouldn’t it be better to simply schedule more buses? The service on this route is already the most frequent in the city at 15 minute intervals. I would like to know I can count on another bus coming in, say, 10 minutes than have to cross my fingers and make a wish.
The 122 between the Pen Center and Brock is equally crowded, but it only runs every 30 minutes. It mirrors a section of route 4, but instead of staggering the arrivals of these two buses to create a de facto 15 minute frequency, we get two buses arriving every half hour.
Besides the increased capacity that comes with increased frequency, reliably short wait times for buses can create demand. Maybe more people would ride the bus on Sundays and evenings if service weren’t reduced. When a bus comes every ten minutes, it is more competitive with a automobiles. You won’t get people out of their cars with hourly service, because riding an hourly bus means everything you do revolves around the bus schedule. You are constantly checking your watch, because missing the bus means being an hour late or paying an expensive cab fare.
[photo] “Welland Bus Line” by sigma.