On a recent Friday morning, the No. 7 Sumas Mountain bus chugs through a suburban Abbotsford neighbourhood, three passengers on board.
One is a young man heading to the Abbotsford Recreation Centre for a skating practice – his daily routine. There is a young carless woman who says she plans to transfer for a University of the Fraser Valley-bound bus. And there is this Abbotsford News reporter, asking the limited occupants their destination.
Throughout most of its morning trip – leaving from downtown at 8 a.m. and returning half an hour later – the bus has only a handful of riders, with most hopping on board nearer to the city’s centre.
In this respect, the morning No. 7 is not unique – a fact that’s hard to miss by those who yearn for a time when Abbotsford’s transit system carries a significant portion of the city’s residents.
In the 2013/14 fiscal year, the Central Fraser Valley regional transit system, which serves Abbotsford and Mission, had a ridership of nearly 2.4 million, or about 6,500 trips per day.
That number lags behind other BC Transit regional systems in Kelowna, Kamloops, and the Regional District of Nanaimo – all of which serve smaller populations. Kelowna’s system is the best performing, moving more than 13,000 riders per day, while Kamloops carries more than 9,000 riders daily and serves around 100,000 people. Tourist-dependent Whistler, which has a significantly smaller population, boasts a similar ridership to Abbotsford-Mission, while Prince George had around 360,000 fewer riders but spends less on transit and serves a smaller population than Abbotsford and Mission.
On a per-rider basis, the Central Fraser Valley spent the most of all BC Transit regional systems, with each recorded ride costing a total of $5.10. Of that figure, riders paid an average of $1.20, with local taxpayers funding $1.50 of each ride, and the province subsidizing the rest. (A single fare is $2.25, or $1.75 for seniors. Tickets can also be bought in packages of 10, and monthly passes are also available). Prince George’s transit system was the most efficient, with a total funding of $3.72 per rider, while the other regional systems cost between $4.19 and $4.82 per rider.
The use of buses also isn’t growing fast, with ridership increasing just 2.4 per cent over the previous three years. Over that same time span, the total cost of the system had risen by more than $2.5 million in the last three years, to $12.3 million. In that slow growth though, Abbotsford is not alone, with no regional system posting a ridership increase above five per cent.
Not every bus is empty, however.
An hour after the mostly empty No. 7 bus rolled down Sumas Mountain, a News reporter climbed on board the No. 3 Clearbrook – UFV GoLine bus at the Bourquin Exchange. It contained more than a dozen people. As it made its way first west, then south down Clearbrook Road towards UFV, the bus halted its progress at nearly every stop, either to let riders off or on. By the time it crossed the highway, nearly 20 people were on board.
The route is one of the most-travelled in the Central Fraser Valley, carrying students to UFV and other commuters up and down the busy Clearbrook corridor.
Derrick Swallow, the founder of UFV Urbanists, a club that promotes urban issues locally and organizes events, is one of those students who rides the No. 3 bus every day.
As a fourth-year geography student with an eye on a master’s in urban planning, he can see the issues that haunt the Abbotsford transit system. And as a daily bus rider, they have affected his life directly.
While Swallow shares a car with his wife, she uses it during the week to get to work. When he first began attending classes at UFV, he was living in the Clearbrook area and found himself fortunate to be living along the No. 3 GoLine. But when it came time to move from there, Swallow chose an apartment with busing to school in mind.
“When I moved, I knew I had to be on the No. 3 line.”
That’s exactly the decision urban planners want a transit system to influence.
However, the Abbotsford system has challenges that make Swallow’s foregoing of a vehicle the exception to the rule.
The easiest of those issues to fix are probably the most common complaints – late buses, or buses that don’t show up at all; a cumbersome website; and infrequent buses that make scheduling difficult.
Matt Boyd of BC Transit said there are plans to start rolling out such “quick fixes” this year to improve general service based on a recently completed review of the system. A report on those efficiencies is slated to come to Abbotsford and Mission’s Joint Shared Services Committee in April.
“There are some existing on-time performance issues,” he said. “Priority number one … is to make sure we’re delivering the service that’s scheduled.”
Those changes to routes could come online in September, and it’s hoped they will improve the reliability of the system for users. Larger proposed changes, including moving the main bus exchange downtown, could take a couple more years.
Getting more people trying out the system in the first place though, is a much greater challenge. According to Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, it may require rethinking both the concept of municipal transit and the way the city undertakes development.
Braun hears about the empty buses, but he’s also quick to point out the popularity of certain routes – although he said some people don’t believe him when he tells a story about having to stand on an Abbotsford bus because all the seats were taken.
Braun would like to see the system focus on the well-travelled transit corridors like South Fraser Way between HighStreet and downtown, Clearbrook between downtown and UFV, and George Ferguson Way and Marshall and McCallum roads. He envisions smaller buses running into outlying residential developments.
“We need to … provide a much better level of service to our citizens in our urban core.”
That strategy is to essentially favour good transit in the city’s densest areas over mediocre coverage for the entire city. And while it could address some of the concerns raised by commuters like Swallow, Braun knows it might also anger the relatively few bus users who live in outlying areas.
BC Transit’s planned changes were conceived under the auspices of “budget neutral planning” – in other words, no funding increases. Braun thinks more investment is needed, suggesting an additional $500,000 per year would be reasonable.
But changes go beyond even that, to a re-thinking of Abbotsford’s development and future growth, Braun said.
“We need to plan a city that takes [transit] into account,” he said.
Braun said that means increasing density in the city’s core and sometimes foregoing “hopscotch” development in outlying areas.
Building denser neighbourhoods can help generate ridership for better transit system, which can in turn draw more people to live in Abbotsford’s core.
“We have to densify this city so we have a livable and accessible core for people who don’t want to own a car,” he continued. “We just can’t sustain what we have been doing.”