Moving to the big city is a big deal. Going from St. John’s to Montreal has been a learning experience in many ways. But one of the biggest things I have learned is how amazing public transportation can be.
It sounds funny to say, but I have fallen in love with what most Montrealers despise: the bus, the metro, and living life without a car.
This leaves me wondering: why did I never use public transportation in St. John’s? Townies love their cars, and car dependency has become part of our culture. But what if we made public transit better? With rising gas prices and the cost of living, it’s time to start thinking of ways to improve the lives and wallets of Newfoundlanders, and public transit might be the way forward.
Townie in the Big City
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When I decided that I would be moving to Montreal, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take a car with me. In St. John’s I lived far away from my university and downtown, meaning that work and school required being driven or driving myself. And although it was a part of my daily life, I hated driving.
But now that I am living in Montreal, it is so easy to get around the city without a car—which for me is thrilling. I don’t need to check a bus schedule because the bus in front of my apartment comes by so frequently I know I will not have to wait long. And to get downtown, I can hop on the easy-to-use Metro system. I can travel all the way from the west-island to the east in an hour. Since moving to Montreal, I have explored everywhere, without getting behind the wheel.
I have taken the bus a few times at home from Memorial University. But the bus schedules were hard to navigate and I was alway unsure of if the bus would show up on time. So most of the time, I never used it. It was never reliable or easy, like it is in Montreal.
Why does St. John’s Public Transportation Suck?
Based on Twitter interactions, it is evident that I am not alone in feeling this. I spoke with Hilary Blake (@concerning709) on Twitter who told me: “In my opinion the whole public transit system needs a grave overhaul. If the buses ran every 15 minutes, and got people places on time, more people would use the system. The routes don’t make any sense and really need to be reworked. There also needs to be accessible transit to places outside of the direct metro region. It’s so hard to get around this province if you don’t have your own vehicle.”
So why doesn’t St. John’s have a good public transit system? When I asked David Brake, journalist and transit activist with the Essential Transit Association, this question, he said: “well there are a hundred reasons, but if I had to pick just one, it would be an absence of provincial will.”
Brake moved to St. John’s in 2015 after living in Toronto and London, England. After living without a drivers license for years, he was taken aback when he arrived in St. John’s and realized he definitely needed one now. He wanted to find an organization that would advocate to improve public transit in St. John’s, and he found the Essential Transit Association. “I felt, and I hope accurately, that the situation here in terms of transit is so comparatively poor, that a small amount of improvement, a small amount of effort towards improvement, could help a lot. It wouldn’t take much to really drastically improve our public transit system from where it was”
“Money is the critical issue,” Brake continued. “Public transit receives a limited amount of project-specific provincial funding. And the province helps purchase new buses when necessary, although only because they’re required. Otherwise you wouldn’t get any federal money either. But there are millions and millions of dollars that are available, in principle, to the city’s mainly federal money that they have not been able to take up or have been willing to use, because they would have to foot the entire bill, to run new buses.”
Brake also noted that it is not just a financial issue but also a planning one.
“The problem is that it’s nobody’s job to ensure good regional transit,” he explained. “We need someone in the province who sits there and says ‘we run ambulances, we run school buses, we run medical transport, we run community buses, we provide a bit of support to St. John’s with all that money, but what’s the best use all that money to support to best support the people in this province?’ But better still, to look at it from the other direction and say ‘what are the transportation needs of the people?’”
I also spoke with Anika Bursey, who is an urban planner living in Vancouver and originally from St. John’s. Bursey has been living car free since 2019, when she realized that the public transportation in Vancouver was so good that she no longer needed to own a car.
I also asked Bursey why she thinks public transportation is not great in St. John’s, and like Brake she said: “The City of St. John’s really struggles to get money and funding from the province, and I think that is really key, because you need money to invest in transit.”
The city has made efforts in the past to improve public transit, such as the Zip program, when the city funded the metro bus with $500,000 to improve certain bus routes and increase frequency of buses in these routes.
“Transit use skyrocketed with this program, so the first thing that is needed is investment,” Bursey noted.
“The other thing is [that] through planning and design, we have created a city where people are so dependent on their car,” she added. “It’s a hard thing to get out of car dependency.”
In St. John’s there is certainly a culture of car dependency. It is a common experience to get your driver’s license in high school and save up for a car after graduating. A popular pastime amongst younger folks in St. John’s is going out for car rides to Signal Hill. A fundamental shift in our culture is needed to convince people we need better public transit.
Brake also reflected on his experience in St. John’s.
“I have two teenage kids, right? So anytime they have to go anywhere I have to drive them,” he said. “As a parent, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to drop what you’re doing and take different people different directions? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to drive even when the weather was terrible, that some better skilled bus driver and a safe vehicle would do that job for you?”
Cars have become the easiest way to get around town. Bursey reflected on her experience in St. John’s.
“I grew up in the East End and went to MUN,” she said. “It was a seven minute drive from my house to campus. And if I wanted to take the bus, it would be two hours.“
How can we Improve Public Transit?
For Brake and Bursey, two things are needed: funding and dedicated planning.
“If you want people to take public transit more often, you have to make it more convenient,” Bursey explained. “There needs to be more funding and support for additional drivers, bus stations and shelters.”
Brake believes that there needs to be a dedicated effort to really improve public transit, rather than making little changes. It will have to start with “setting up a relevant department for public transit and making it a priority.”
And then, people will need to be convinced that public transportation will benefit them.
“I think it’s the crucial thing is that people believe that it’s going to happen and be supported,” Brake explained. “Then, if they do, ordinary people—people who are not forced by circumstance to take the bus—will start to take the bus. Then you’ll have a real constituency of people who will defend public transit and defend bus spending, and will look to increase it.”
And for Bursey it comes down to the transit hubs. For example, the Avalon Mall functions as an exchange spot. More transit hubs can improve exchanges and how easy it is for someone to get from one spot to another, such as from Paradise to Downtown.
The other thing is that we need more rapid lines.
“I think faster routes—like more frequent and reliable transit—is going to make a huge difference,” she explained.
“We need to really try to get people that commute from like CBS into St. John’s out of their cars,” Bursey added. “We need to get some sort of route that gets them out of their car. Once people start seeing how much their life has improved—instead of being on the Trans Canada in their car, they can be sitting in a bus drinking their coffee and reading a book. Once people can kind of see the positive side of things, then it is like a snowball effect, and you make a case for why improving public transit is a really good thing.“
For Bursey, faster and more reliable transit will make a huge difference—and it all comes down to design. The design of transit routes, determining hot routes and setting up shelters will make the system better and convince people that taking the bus is convenient.
For example, in Montreal, I live on a main road in a neighbourhood outside of the city centre. There is a bus line that goes back and forth on the street, and a bus will pass by each stop every 15 minutes. The bus goes straight to a Metro station at the very end of the line, where in only a few stops you can be in the city’s downtown core. In St. John’s, convenient routes from the outskirts that bring you to the central areas—like downtown and Memorial University—would significantly benefit people’s lives and encourage transit use.
The other issue that many Newfoundlanders would point out is that “we just don’t have the weather for it,” but for Brake and Bursey, this is where planning is key. Bus stop shelters and sidewalk clearing would also be crucial for encouraging public transit use. And in the winter time, taking the bus might even be the safer option then driving through the snow yourself.
Public transit as a Sustainable Solution
The government of Canada has touted public transportation as a solution, and a way forward, to fighting climate change and decarbonizing. According to the Government of Canada website: “When we look around the world, nations are installing high-speed transit networks, investing in electric transportation, and encouraging their citizens to be active by biking and walking through cities. The alternative—traffic jams and polluted urban centers—is just not an option. This is why we announced an investment of $25 billion to upgrade our public transit systems across the country over the next decade.”
For the federal government, investing in public transportation is key to fighting the climate crisis. But how is that actually being implemented?
Quebec is ahead of other provinces on the path towards decarbonizing public transit. The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) has implemented 730 hybrid buses, and is set to have 300 more. The STM also has a plan for implementing fully electric buses, indicating a focused a clear path forward on decarbonizing public transit.
For David Brake, however, the priority first needs to be more buses than electric buses. St. John’s is only looking at electrifying buses on a very small scale, while we still need significant changes to our entire public transit system.
“Electric buses are in good and big demand, but we may not be able to physically get any electric buses replaced and the cost of replacement concerns me,” he explained. “Because at the moment, they do cost twice as much.”
For Brake, the costs required to implement electric buses will slow down the progress of actually getting public transit, including training staff and building better infrastructure.
“The transit organization will be so busy adapting that they won’t be also expanding,” he continued. “I’d rather that we buy diesel buses than stop improving our public transit. Because if we have a better public transit system, and it helps people stop driving as much. it would be a good thing. A diesel bus that replaces a couple people driving their cars is a climate event.”
Bursey also felt that more needs to be done to improve the transit system first. “Electric buses are amazing,” she explained. “But let’s get the bus [system] good first, right?”
Bursey explained to The Independent that we need to get people using the bus, before we start putting money into electric buses.
“If we can put all of our money into just getting more regular buses, that is still so much more environmentally friendly than a bunch of people in their cars,” she said. “At the end of the day, we just want people riding the bus. We just want people out of their cars.”
Transit is for Everyone
While sometimes the bus in St. John’s may be considered a mode of transport only for low-income folks, and may be described as dingy or “skeety,” in Montreal it is different. All walks of life utilize public transport for its convenience.
There are many reasons why anyone would prefer to use public transit rather than drive a car themselves. But good infrastructure and clear sidewalks would be needed to encourage people to use it.
Bursey noted that when the bus is free, it encourages more people to use it: “A lot of people take the metro bus to the regatta because it’s free on regatta day.” So implementing a free bus pilot project—where people do not have to worry about having coins or a card to pay their bus fare—would encourage people to use the bus for its easy and free use.
But the bottom line would be making the bus more convenient for people. If that means making the bus free, or creating better routes and making bus schedules more frequent, it could mean more people using the bus and fewer people driving their cars.
It is clear that public transit has many benefits. From quick and easy transit to lower transportation costs, increasing public transit could be a way forward in Newfoundland and Labrador. Moving to a new city has opened my eyes to the possibilities of public transit, and while more people and more money makes having good public transit easier, all it takes is a motivated public and a government that cares about improving the public’s lives, to improve the well-being of our community and have good public transit.
The benefits are clear, but the path forward is not so much. But more buses may be the first stop.
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