Ask someone about Abbotsford’s transit system and you’ll hear stories about buses being late or never arriving. Connections that get missed. Routes that don’t go where you want, when you want. Buses that show up, but don’t stop.
But although, Abbotsford’s transit system may be broken, officials and planners say those faults hide tremendous potential.
In July, the system will get its first major overhaul in more than a decade, and the city hopes the new changes will be the first step towards making transit “delightful.”
Many riders would settle for buses that just get them from point A to point B on time.
Right now, that’s not happening. A survey conducted prior to the changes found far more people unhappy with Abbotsford’s bus system than those who were satisfied. Buses were too infrequent and too often late. Connections were unreliable and inconvenient. Sure, the public said, the drivers are nice, and buses are safe and uncrowded, but those items were deemed less important than the fact that the transit system was unreliable.
Pushed to the max
Planners had been aware of the problems long before the damning survey results.
Stories of unhappy bus riders abound. At a council meeting last week, Coun. Les Barkman spoke about recently waiting for a bus beside a mother with young children. Slowly, the mother seemed to realize the bus they were awaiting may not be coming.
“I’m going, ‘This is really cold out here,’ ” he recalled. Eventually, Barkman said the woman gave up and called a taxi to get where she needed to go.
The survey results showed clearly how the system was falling short.
But the problems don’t have a simple solution.
The buses that never arrived, or that sped past waiting passengers, were a symptom of a system pushed to the max.
More traffic combined with a growing ridership has increased the time buses need to finish their routes. If something went wrong – if a bus hit traffic, got tied up behind a train, or was snarled in construction – the problems reverberated for hours and through various routes. Schedules could only be tweaked so far because the city had also run out of room for more buses in its transit yard.
In 2016, the city completed an official community plan (OCP) that had, on its very first page, the goal that residents have “access to transit that is frequent, fast, and reliable.” Abbotsford’s buses were none of those.
And while the OCP, and a subsequent transportation masterplan, laid out the long-term vision for the system, BC Transit’s Matthew Boyd said the public made clear what the immediate focus should be.
“As planners, it’s always easy to jump to solutions,” Boyd told The News. “But as part of a process like this, step one is always to identify what is the problem; what’s wrong with the system today?”
“At engagement, what we heard is that the problem is that the buses are not reliable.”
A counter-intuitive fix
Which brings us to this summer. Planners have a three-stage plan to fix Abbotsford’s transit system, but more buses won’t be coming until next year, after the completion of a $28-million depot being built on Gladys Avenue.
So, this July, one of the first steps will be a reduction in the number of trips buses make.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but addressing reliability will mean providing wiggle room when things to go wrong.
That means not only giving buses longer to complete their routes, but also adding buffer time at the end of routes was key, Boyd’s fellow planner, Levi Megenbir told council last week.
“That way, if one trip is running a little bit behind, it has the time on the exchange so it can get back on schedule, so any impacts of congestion, an accident, aren’t going to have ripple effects through the whole day and the whole system.”
That buffer time cannot be willed into existence, though. With no buses coming this year, a handful of routes serving outlying areas will see one bus every hour, rather than two. Those routes are underused, with fewer than 14 riders served each hour.
But people do still rely upon them. Mayor Henry Braun said he sympathizes for those people who may be impacted by the changes, something needed to change.
“If you try to serve everybody, you serve no one well, and that’s part of the problem,” Braun said. “I feel for those people but anytime there’s changes there will be some people who are not happy.”
He added that he would work to find solutions for individual cases of hardship that may turn up.
For the next year, service on the most regular routes will also be scaled back slightly, so buses run every 20 minutes rather than every 15. Those core routes are likely to be among the first to see additional service once new buses arrive next year.
The changes will also see the rerouting of the three most-travelled bus lines, with a new Route 1 forming what is hoped to be the backbone of a “rapid transit” network that runs from the University of the Fraser Valley, to the historic downtown, past South Fraser Way’s malls, and ends at HighStreet. It’s expected service will run at least every 15 minutes on that corridor soon. The bus will no longer travel up McKee Road; planners found that reaching that area took too much time, given how few passengers used the bus to get to and from the neighbourhood.
The route changes will set the stage for actual service increases next year.
In 2020, and then again in 2021, Abbotsford will get new buses, allowing it to significantly boost service. Those buses will be focused on areas with high ridership. And they will be aimed at increasing the number of neighbourhoods with regular and frequent transit service. There is also likely to be more route changes in store.
Boyd said the city’s new plans gives transit officials a sense of how Abbotsford will grow and where potential riders can be served.
The system envisioned in planning documents does not include long lines that zig-zag across the city. Instead, the transit network of the future is dominated by straight lines, intended to make transit simpler, more reliable for riders. Boyd said that reflects the idea of a bus “network,” rather than a series of independent routes.
“As Abbotsford continues to grow as a major metropolitan centre, you have to start making transit more attractive to potential riders,” he said. “What transit riders really love are straight, direct fast connections that take you to where you want to go.”
The city and planners haven’t yet decided exactly where those new buses go. Some riders say they want service later into the evening. Others have pointed to the need for routes connecting residential areas with the industrial parks around the airport. Barkman pointed out last week that Gladwin Road, where hundreds of apartments are being built, doesn’t have service up and down it.
But for planners looking to make their mark, Abbotsford’s underperforming buses provide a rare opportunity.
“Abbotsford is one of the most exciting transit systems in the province because there’s so much potential ridership, there’s so much potential growth,” Boyd said.