Peterborough City Council has paid $75,000 to have the Toronto office of Dillon Consulting review the transit system and create a report of all the changes they believe could improve the economics and efficiency of Peterborough City Transit.

The resulting report, titled The Route Ahead, is very thorough. It includes many suggestions ranging from minor habit changes to major route adjustments and even a brand new transit terminal. There are suggested changes for most routes (including the Trent Express).

The major change for Trent students would be the combining of the Trent East Bank Express route with the city’s Route 9 – Nicholls Park. The change is recommended on a basis of overlap between the two routes. The Nicholls Park bus spends some time in East City before coming up Armour Road almost as far as the Trent bus does. The proposal satisfies the needs of East Bank users by running buses every 20 minutes. This is seen as a potentially pleasant side effect for the Nicholls Park riders now sharing their route.

There is significant controversy surrounding this change.

The conflict began to arise as both users of the Trent East Bank Express and of the Nicholls Park bus spoke out at a public City Council meeting regarding transit to say they did not think mixing the riders would work. Many of the riders using the Nicholls Park bus are elderly and many have limited mobility; they do not encourage the city to mix the two demographics. In their case against the change many elderly riders approached the podium with anecdotal evidence about riding buses crowded by high school students and other young people. Trent students also approached the podium to speak for keeping the routes separate citing how full the bus gets during peak times. One student even recounted the bus breaking down due to the immense weight of the riders. The implication from the multiple Trent students who spoke out was that there simply wasn’t room on the Trent route to absorb another set of riders.

The Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) is a strong supporter of this potential change. Brea Hutchinson, President of the TCSA elaborates on why they are supporting the move to combine the East Bank Route with the Nicholls Park. She explains that the TCSA has had hundreds of requests for more frequent service to Trent during the summer and this route combination allows service to campus to be increased through the summer with no extra cost to students. Brea also explains that many of the community members’ concerns about accessibility on a bus shared with students should be mitigated by the increased frequency of buses coming through their area. She anticipates the frequency of the buses to reduce crowding and to be a welcomed increase in wheel chair accessible seating going through the Nicholls Park neighbourhood. In addition, the TCSA appreciates the desire to merge two routes with such significant overlap.

Some other major changes being discussed are the George North and Chemong Routes. It is the consultant’s belief that by redesigning these two routes a direct service could be provided from the Chemong Corridor to Trent University.

Also, due to low ridership it is recommended that Route 12 – Major Bennett be reduced to operating only during peak hours. Another controversial recommendation was to eliminate the first run of all buses on Saturday mornings because ridership is not heavy enough to justify them. Both of these suggestions were aggressively spoken against by the few people riding these buses as their only means of getting to work.

One of the motivations behind cutting costs from the current system is a potential frequency increase to 20 minute service, at least during peak times on major routes.

The consultant’s primary obstacle to improvement is the bus terminal itself. This terminal was built many years ago and was intended to accommodate 35 foot buses. During past upgrades, Peterborough Transit has moved to using 40 foot buses, causing a delay in how quickly they can leave the terminal for safety reasons. This system is cumbersome and dangerous for drivers and pedestrians. The length of the bus also eliminates the possibility of on board bike racks. The consultant recommends building a more modern terminal to allow buses to “flow through” rather than back up. While it will be five years or longer until the finances can be put in order towards this new terminal, the potential public gains of this move could change the way citizens view public transit.

The public meeting included many very serious questions brought up for and by differently abled riders. To begin with, if the bus already has two wheel chair passengers on board, the driver is forced to leave any other individuals in wheel chairs waiting at stops in absolutely any weather condition. This poses a challenge to those who are differently abled wanting to make spontaneous trips. The handi-van is only available with 24 hours notice.

This item continued into a discussion surrounding the poor condition of Peterborough Transit’s handi-van fleet. Patrons of the service also report vans that pull into the drive way, sit for five minutes or so without a courtesy honk, and then leave without the client.

Some differently abled users also expressed their frustration at the city’s desire for more wheel chair users to do their best to use the bus. Having more users on the bus means fewer in handi-vans, and thereby a lower cost to the city. Users who have accepted the push to go on the bus have sometimes found very unwelcoming treatment from able-bodied passengers. They have reported getting dirty looks and rude comments such as “You should be using the handi-van, that’s what it’s there for.”

Furthermore, there were many individuals who came forward in wheel chairs to recount tales of getting stuck in snow banks or being utterly unable to access the bus, or even the bus stop, because a path was not properly cleared. They stressed that when the bus stops were not properly maintained in the winter there were disastrous effects on their mobility.

A debate which arose at the meeting, which is reportedly not unique to the Peterborough Transit System, was the stroller or the wheelchair – which one more deserves the priority seating on the bus? This is of course an issue for riders on both sides of the debate and one that transit operators have yet to come up an official answer for.

If you would like to see more information on the meeting or read the draft of the recommendations in full, you can find the information HERE