Here’s an old joke: A motorist stops on a rural road and asks a local farmer, “How do I get to Midville?”
The farmer ponders for a moment and replies, “Sorry. Ya can’t get there from here.”
That is funny because we know that, given proper directions and sufficient fuel, motorists can reach virtually any destination connected to a public road. The farmer must be wrong. But for numerous travellers who rely on public transit, many destinations really are inaccessible: “you can’t get there from here.”
Currently, many Vancouver Island communities have terrible intercity transit service. For example, between Duncan and Victoria there are only four daily trips, all departing Duncan before 6:30 am and returning late afternoons. There is no reverse commute or evening service, and only three weekend trips. The fare is $10 each way. Service to Nanaimo is even worse. There are only one or two buses per day, with $24-34 one-way fares. This combination of poor service and high prices explains why less than 0.1% of trips over the Malahat are made by public transit.
It wasn’t always that way and needn’t be in the future. With more multi-modal planning, we can ensure that everybody, including transit users, have convenient and affordable mobility options. Everybody benefits, including people who use those services, and motorists who experience less traffic congestion, crash risk, and chauffeuring burdens.
The BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways new South Island Transportation Strategy identifies various ways to solve regional transportation problems. These include giant Saanich Inlet bridges ($2.25-2.74 billion), Malahat Highway expansions ($560-967 million), and commuter rail service ($513+ million). However, the Strategy ignores the most cost-effective and beneficial option: frequent and affordable bus service between Victoria and Nanaimo, with at least hourly departures from 6:00 am until 11:00 pm, and prices no greater than two local fares, so a one-way trip between Victoria and Nanaimo costs less than $5. Because it requires no new infrastructure, bus transit is by far the most cost-effective travel option, saving hundreds of millions of dollars that can be reinvested in other critical services. It would take advantage of the Island Highway’s new bus lanes between Victoria and Langford, which makes bus commuting faster than driving to many destinations.
This speed helps make transit useful and attractive, increasing ridership, but even more important is service frequency and operating hours. For many trips, travellers need to know that if they miss one departure they can catch another, or another, or another, late into the evening.
Many travellers will use bus service if it is frequent and affordable. For example, 22% of Sooke-to-Victoria commuters take transit because it is frequent and affordable. The #61 bus makes 30 daily round trips, starting before 6:00 am and continuing until after midnight, with rush hour express service. Fares are just $2.50 one-way, or $5.00 for an unlimited-use daily pass. Similarly, 20-40% of weekday trips between Fraser Valley towns, such as Langley and Pitt Meadows, to Vancouver, are by public transit.
The Strategy includes various incentives to encourage travellers to use the most efficient option for each trip, such as commute trip reduction programs and mobility. If implemented with frequent and affordable transit service, this approach should attract a significant portion of trips, including travellers who cannot drive, and motorists who want to avoid driving stress or save money. This can be the cheapest way to reduce Malahat Highway congestion and accidents.
Many people are enamored with rail transit. I certainly appreciate the romance of trains. However, regardless of whether or not service is reestablished on the E&N line, Island travellers need frequent and affordable bus service. According to the South Island Transportation Strategy it would cost more than one billion dollars to provide just one daily train that departs Courtenay early weekday mornings and returns late afternoons, with $10-30 one-way fares. If ridership grows sufficiently, a second daily train may be added by 2038, but the Strategy includes no reverse commute, evening and weekend service. Because the rail line ends in Vic West, most travellers must transfer to buses to reach their final destinations. For many trips, buses will be faster, more affordable and convenient than either rail or driving. As a result, even if rail service is reestablished many travellers will need bus transit if they want to depart earlier or stay later than the train, travel on weekends, or reach destinations away from the train stations.
For the last century, transportation planning has favored automobile travel. This is unfair and inefficient. It deprives many people of their independence, and it increases consumer costs, traffic and parking congestion, accidents and pollution. We can do better.
It’s time to implement more multi-modal solutions to Vancouver Island’s transportation problems. The South Island Transportation Strategy contains many good ideas, but overlooks one of the most important: frequent and affordable intercity bus service connecting our communities.