Smarter Niagara

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At the Smarter Niagara summit held in Welland last week, transit experts Luis Fragomeni and Clive Rock spoke of their experiences in Curitiba and Vancouver, respectively.

Curitiba is often held up as a model for others to follow.

In the late 1960s, the South American city decided to develop a rapid transit bus system to get people in and out of the downtown core efficiently. It has evolved into a system of express routes and circle routes.

For a flat rate, a rider can go anywhere in the city of 1.8 million. At a typical station a bus stops every 40 seconds during peak travel periods.

Fragomeni said city planners could not have envisioned the success of their system. Its continued success in the face of numerous challenges is the result of the continued improvement of the system. His advice isn’t for Niagara to try to replicate Curitiba, but to start to make serious progress to tie the region’s municipalities together.

“What I would recommend is get started,” Fragomeni said. “Develop your plan, talk to your communities and get started.”

Where the basics of intercity transit are in place, they aren’t half bad. Take, for example, the connection between Welland and St. Catharines. Welland Transit runs express buses from Niagara College to Brock University every hour (or so) on weekdays.

There is room for improvement (it takes three buses and two transfers to get from downtown to downtown) but compared to service in the rest of Niagara Region, this is an excellent connection. Contrast this with the bus from Niagara Falls to Brock University, which is less frequent and has stops in suburban Niagara Falls – bonus points for going to one downtown, though.

Worse still, there are no buses from Fort Erie or Niagara-on-the-Lake to anywhere.

Frequency, speed, and destination are of supreme importance to intercity transit. The bus has to be leaving when you want it, travel time has to be competitive with driving, and the routes have to take people where they want to go.

Rock, whose experiences in Vancouver are being used to develop transit in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, said developing transit can transform cities by focusing future urban development in areas where residents want it.

Municipal politicians have a responsibility to make tough decisions that will eventually benefit their communities.

“Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission,” Rock said.

Vancouver’s politicians followed that mantra while expanding their transit network in the 1980s.

They wanted to avoid the excesses of urban sprawl, so they decided to designate a number of transit hubs in the city.

With a plan in place, they approached the provincial government and were successful in getting some funding for the system of buses and light trains to serve the city.

In a smaller region like Niagara with numerous cities, it might also make sense to improve public transit within the individual cities, Rock said, because most trips are likely to be within municipal boundaries.

And having fewer routes with frequent service, say every 10 minutes, could boost ridership, Rock said.

If people feel safe while riding, do not have to wait long for a bus and can rely on the service, they will use it, he added.

In the long run, tying together Niagara Region (and GO transit to the GTA) is important, but in the next few years greater gains can be made at the city level. Routes with headways of 10 minutes are not unrealistic in the south end, to Fairview Mall, and – in a few years – to the new hospital and shopping sprawl in the west end.

Good public transit is not an extravagance for larger, richer cities. Reliable, frequent service is in our price range and necessary for future growth in a city with nowhere left to sprawl.

[photo] “Prototype bus stop flag” by oranviri

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