ON: Transit System Gearing Up Efforts to Attract More Riders; Massive Spending on Improvements Set to Take Place

Howie Hall boards the Number 52 University/Kortright bus at St. George's Square and, without a word, deposits a heart-shaped chocolate in the hand of the driver.

Hall has a special fondness for bus drivers and an overall positive view of Guelph Transit.

"It's a good system. The people are friendly," he says after settling in at the back of the bus.

Hall doesn't know it, but the affection he feels for the city's transit system is mutual.

That's because he is a "choice rider," transit-speak for someone who regularly chooses between multiple modes of transportation - in his case walking, biking or riding the bus.

Choice riders are desirable because they buy profitable cash fares, adding gravy to the revenue generated by student and monthly pass programs, says Michael Anders, the city's general manager of community connectivity and transit.

And how do you lure those choice riders?

"The most influential factor is service," Anders said during a recent interview, noting market research Guelph Transit undertook in 2009 and 2010 found potential riders wanted buses to run more frequently and reliably. "People need to get to work on time, and they have to be able to get to work every day."

This is the logic behind coming improvements to city transit, including a new downtown terminal, a revamped route map and more peak service. Later, the city will implement bus rapid transit, with signal priorities and dedicated lanes.

"We're trying to improve service to retain the ridership we have but, secondly, to make transit more attractive to those who use us occasionally," Anders said.

The measures might entice a choice rider like Wojtek Gabryelski, who would take the bus to work during the school year if it wasn't always crowded and late.

"The problem is, sometimes you cannot count on the bus," the chemistry professor said, while riding to the university one morning. "If you are not very aggressive, you might miss two in a row."

And yet, after a decade of service upgrades including more buses and routes, Guelph Transit ridership has only risen marginally.

After hitting 5.1 million paid rides in 2004 and 2005, ridership slid backward for two years. It leapt up by a million when new fare-counting technology was introduced in 2009 and increased by a mere 0.7 per cent in 2010.

For many riders, the cost of riding remains a deterrent. Gabryelski, a former resident of Edmonton and various European cities, called Guelph's transit system "one of the most expensive in the world."

Hall, a self-employed delivery person, is irked by the price of a cash fare, which has nearly doubled in the past decade, and envious of deep student discounts. "People on disability pay more than students do," he points out. "If they have $86 for students for four months, why can't they do that for everybody?"

Students are by far the city's largest market for public transit, and many aspects of the system, such as seasonal, express and late-night buses, as well as deeply discounted rates, are designed to keep this bread-and-butter group happy.

Working riders often complain of poor service on weekends and in the summer. "As soon as the students go away, my bus commute goes from, like, eight minutes, to 20 minutes," said Ian Baran, a technician working year-round at the university.

When the city cut back the number of buses in the summer of 2010, Hall was a vocal opponent of the decision, carrying a sign reading "Save Our Buses" at demonstrations.

Randalin Ellery, co-ordinator of the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, said low-income people who rely on the bus to attend meetings with case workers, job interviews and doctors' appointments, should also get a discount.

"Right now, it's not working," she said. "If you're making minimum wage, you're still not making enough to purchase a monthly bus pass."

At a city council meeting in February, members of the poverty task force's transit subcommittee railed against a proposed bus fare hike and asked the city to create an affordable transit pass similar to those available in Waterloo, Windsor, Hamilton and Kingston.

"In the end, you get more people on the bus, you start to increase ridership, and you get your money back," she said of a discount pass. "If we can figure out a way to help the students get there, then we need to figure out a way to get others on the bus as well."

Riding to work at a fashion accessory store in Stone Road Mall, Susan Lopez, 24, summarized the feelings of many who want both more service and lower fares.

"I just wish this bus would run on the weekends," she said, noting she has to take a detour and transfer downtown to get to work on Fridays and Saturdays.

Since she can't afford a bus pass, Lopez winds up paying the $2.75 cash fare. "I liked it better when it was cheaper," she said, adding only the prohibitive cost of car ownership keeps her on the bus. "Less gas, right?"

dhalfnight@guelphmercury.com

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