Uber-ing around Temiskaming? You’ve got to be kidding me

Last post, I was ranting on the topic of the MTO’s Intercity Bus Modernization plan. The biggest bee in my bonnet on that topic was the Ministry’s naive belief that removing market controls would lead to better bus service in Ontario. As the experience of Alberta shows, doing so can lead to an expansion in operators serving major city pairs but it does little for mid-size cities or small centres not located within popular corridors that new market entrants see little profit in serving. If we hope to get more cars off the road (with benefits for the environment and society) having very limited service to places like Pembroke only serves to enhance the auto status quo; limiting the choice of travel mode for all residents and stranding seniors or young people with no other option.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the plan document also references how “consultation on intercity passenger travel links with a broader government commitment to consult on a provincial approach to the sharing economy.” Oh, here we go, the sharing economy to the rescue! Don’t worry if your bus service was cut, the gods of ridesharing shall provide.

Forgive my cynicism but in the research I do as a local transit advocate I have seen how misguided faith in the so-called sharing economy has led to conventional transit cuts in locales across the world. Mainstream media are beginning to wake up to this problem, for example in this piece for the Guardian or here for Slate. While less expensive (for now, as Uber is losing money to offer cheap rides to capture market share) than a traditional cab, an unsubsidized Uber ride is most likely going to be more expensive than public transit almost anywhere, making it not an option for regular travel for most people, even in relatively affluent cities. Ditto for Ontario’s North.

The MTO is hoping that the sharing economy can fill in the much-discussed “last mile problem” that potentially could make it difficult for riders to access intercity bus stops/terminals. Of course, concern for how people get to their bus is valid but starry-eyed focus on ridesharing is causing the policymakers who designed this document (and the politicians probably heavily lobbied by Uber) to ignore two easy solutions to the last mile problem…….good stop/terminal locations and local transit connections!

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog (and why wouldn’t you, it’s the coolest place on the internet) you remember our post on Edmonton’s bus terminal and how it’s location in an area unserved by transit and impossible to walk to makes passengers dependent on taxis or being dropped off. If you’re someone who drives everywhere, for everything, you would be forgiven for thinking ALL intercity bus stops are like this and perhaps, this is what’s driving the fascination with ridesharing as a solution: how many senior civil servants do you see in your local Greyhound terminal after all? However, we already have examples in Ontario of intercity buses being well connected to local transport options. The premier example for me is the Toronto Coach Terminal; operated by the TTC until recently, the terminal is connected to the subway by an underground walkway and is located in a very walkable/bicycle friendly downtown location. Although the terminal is slated to be closed, the bus operators are in negotiations to use a new terminal near Union Station also to be used to GO Transit; which will be equally well connected to transit and downtown. Nobody talks about “last mile solutions” for this well-placed terminal! Smaller centres too can take advantage of a centrally located terminal. Owen Sound’s Greyhound stop is shared with the small local transit system and is adjacent to the downtown area, which is walkable by Ontario standards. Even locales with no transit still benefit from main street/downtown locations; a good example of this is Port Elgin. (served by Can-Ar, as seen on the map) I’ve taken the bus there and the stop is shared with a small grocery store just south of the main street. I distinctly remember being able to walk up the cool (to my then high school aged mind) bookstore to wait for a pickup. Such a better experience than standing next to the pavement hell Yellowhead highway in Edmonton!

As these examples show, ridesharing for the last mile is a solution in search of a problem. Instead of indulging in Uber fantasies, the province can take leadership to prevent the relocation of terminals to inaccessible locations. Unfortunately, they aren’t doing so and in fact, are themselves moving terminals to the suburbs. Take the new Ontario Northland location in New Liskeard. Why talk about New Liskeard? I’ll be going up North later this summer, so this has been on my brain for some time. Anyways, until 2012 this Northern Ontario city had a stop on the Northlander train service. When that was axed, the downtown station functioned as the main bus terminal. As of this February, passengers are dropped off at the Chamber of Commerce up next to the big box hell at the north end of town. While the new location still is connected to the local transit system, it’s a far cry from being a pleasant place to wait for a bus.

You can compare the location of the old train station below: (Google Maps won’t go all the way up the road but you get the idea of how the area looks)

333 Whitewood Ave W – Google Maps

Now take a look at your typical Walmart landscape where you’ll get dropped off now:

Temiskaming Shores Walmart, Ontario – Google Maps

Why oh why is the ONTC doing this? Search me but if we had kept the old terminal location, we might have less worry about last mile solutions and the dreams of civil servants hoping to Uber their way around Ontario’s North would not be dominating the conversation.

So what can we do? Attend every public meeting you can, write letters to the editor and generally make a stink if your local bus terminal is set to be moved to some inaccessible location and you’re told to just take an Uber. Drivers make themselves heard whenever some minor inconvenience is proposed and bus riders need to make themselves heard as well. I don’t have any illusion that one short post is gonna change the world but if only a few bus riders speak up consistently, we can push policymakers into rethinking bad decisions.

 

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