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The riders are back, but how do we entice more? – Metro US

The riders are back, but how do we entice more?

We got a little good news last week, as OC Transpo reported that the 7.8 per cent of riders who stayed away from transit after the strike have finally returned. Even better, we logged a record 8.4 million trips in December.

Now that we’re back to where we started, perhaps we can start thinking about actually increasing ridership.

Our moment of civic triumph was somewhat spoiled when Montreal’s Agence métropolitaine de transport released a survey showing an impressive 15 per cent growth in the use of transit in that city between 2003 and 2008.

Montreal also saw 15,000 fewer car trips, a one per cent drop, the first since these surveys began in 1970. The decline was all the more striking in the face of a five per cent increase in population and 10 per cent in the number of cars since 2003.

Meanwhile, our transit committee last week busied itself dodging an unedifying squabble between wheelchair and stroller users over priority seating on the buses.

Our ridership figures, while they aren’t at all bad, have a long way to go. The city hopes to entice 30 per cent of commuters to take transit, while noting that our current rate of 20.1 per cent is third-best in the country, beaten only by Toronto and Montreal, both of which are served by subways.

That last qualification, to some, might comprise an argument in favour of joining the municipal big leagues and pressing ahead with our downtown transit tunnel.

Is the solution to increased ridership as simple as build it and they’ll come? Maybe. Montreal’s gains are attributed in part to the Laval subway line extension and increased service on existing subway and bus routes. Here in Ottawa, instead of expanding, we narrowly avoided $3-million worth of short-sighted route cuts in the last budget.

In the Montreal survey, many car owners said they preferred to drive on weekend outings or when grocery shopping. For getting to and from work, they increasingly left their vehicles in the driveway, outsourcing the rush-hour drive to the professionals and avoiding the expense and hassle of parking. Thus, they enjoy the benefits of both car ownership and transit use.

It seems the most effective way to boost ridership is to make it an attractive choice to those who have a choice. The captive audience, those ride transit out of necessity, will put up with a lot, but if they feel that the transit experience is second rate, they’ll get a car as soon as they can, ditch the bus pass and never look back.

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