Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Omnibus Ubique: Peterborough Transit

Not every city is fortunate enough to have the population, or population density, that makes a rail transit system possible - but that doesn't mean that bus-only systems aren't worth considering. Follow along as Acts of Minor Treason evaluates bus-based transit systems in cities and regions near and far.

This will be the first of an occasional series supplementing Tunnel Visions. I've still got a post for Vancouver in the pipeline and more will be following it. Nevertheless, you can't take an analytical look at urban mass transit and not pay attention to buses. Far too often, bus systems represent the only public transit system the people have.

They call Peterborough the Electric City. It's the gateway to the Kawarthas, Central Ontario's cottage country, and a regional center of 75,000 people, 125 kilometers northeast of Toronto. Until fairly recently it was a blue-collar city through and through, with a General Electric plant generating both steady employment and, so I'm told, a targeting solution for at least one Soviet nuclear missile. Unlike many cities in the Greater Toronto Area, it's not a festival of sprawl. Its downtown is healthy and, from what I've seen, its post-war development is modest. We'd probably be better off now if more cities resembled Peterborough instead of, say, Barrie.

The city is served by Peterborough Transit, a bus-only operator - streetcars operated there early on, owing to the local hydroelectric generating capacity, but the last stopped running in 1927. In addition to serving the city in general, it provides express routes to Trent University and Fleming College - the lifeline of the student bodies. It was the first transit system I had to know, because there was nothing for me to fall back on.


Peterborough Transit buses depart the Downtown Transit Terminal on a Thursday afternoon

Peterborough Transit operates twelve regular routes, four express routes, and the Handi-Van, a paratransit service that provides door-to-door, appointment-based service for people who cannot use the regular system, throughout the city of Peterborough, and transports 2.1 million people every year. Service does not presently extend beyond the city boundaries, as Peterborough is surrounded by low-density countryside; Oshawa is the closest major city. The only public transport system it connects with is GO Transit, which commenced bus service between Oshawa GO Station and Trent University in September 2009.

Like many smaller, bus-dependent cities, transit service is oriented along a hub-and-spoke pattern. The Downtown Transit Terminal on Simcoe Street is the nexus of Peterborough Transit service, and the vast majority of inter-route transfers are made there. Beyond the central terminal, roadside stops alternate between signposts only and covered shelters.

Even though Peterborough isn't a particularly sprawling city, it's large enough that bus service can't be justified in every single corner of it. To combat this, Peterborough Transit works with local taxi agencies to provide Trans-Cab service, which allows people in specific areas of the city, presently not served by the bus routes, to complete parts of their journey via taxicab with only a slight premium above regular fare.

Fares are comparable to most Ontario transit agencies, though Peterborough Transit differs in its disinclination to provide discounted fares. If you're below the age of 2, you don't have to pay - for everyone else it's $2.25 into the farebox for a ride, with no child, senior, or student discount fares. Day passes are similarly level, with a $7 pass providing unlimited service to all Peterborough Transit routes on the day it's purchased. Discounts come into play only with the monthly ass, which is $55 for adults and is eligible for the federal government's transit pass tax credit program. Full-time Trent University students don't have to worry about it at all, though - their tuition includes unlimited use of Peterborough Transit from September to April. I'm not sure if the system has changed since 2006, but when I was there it was just a matter of flashing my Trent student card at the driver, the same thing I do with my Metropass now.

The big problem with Peterborough Transit is its hours of operation. During the week, buses run from 6 AM to 11:20 PM, on Saturday they start forty minutes later, and Sunday service is limited to less than twelve hours, from 8 AM to 7:20 PM. While this is an improvement from earlier - it wasn't until relatively recently, from what I recall, that Peterborough Transit had any Sunday service. Still, it's not the most friendly to someone who doesn't maintain a strictly orthodox schedule, and it means that the taxi companies pull in a lot of money from drunk Trent and Fleming students stumbling out of the bars with no other way to get back to the dorms or home.


Peterborough's Downtown Transit Terminal

The only real station in the Peterborough Transit system is the Downtown Transit Terminal on Simcoe Street in downtown Peterborough. It's the ground floor of a parking garage and incorporates a pass vendor, a waiting room with ATM and vending machines, a small diner and a convenience store. The twelve regular routes are scheduled to arrive here every forty minutes, with passengers transferring from route to route while drivers lay over or switch between buses. Lansdowne Place, the anchor of Peterborough's southern commercial district and served directly by the Monaghan bus, offers some station amenities such as interior seating and pass sales.

If you're buying passes, though, do so as early as possible - I'm not sure when exactly the ticket kiosk in the downtown terminal closes on weekdays, but it's definitely before 5:45 PM, and there are no ticket or pass vending machines that I could find. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you're leaving Peterborough via GO Transit - fortunately, though, in that circumstance there's always the option to buy a ticket directly from the GO Transit operator.

Most people will board Peterborough Transit at roadside stops, identified with the ubiquitous and standard bus image. The signs are in the process of getting replaced, in the wake of a livery change in the last few years - buses were originally white and orange, but now the standard colors are white and green, though orange bus stop signs can still easily be found outside downtown.


Bus #25 waits at Trent University before turning south

Peterborough Transit has replaced much of its fleet since I made regular use of it. Today, it almost exclusively operates Canadian-made Nova Bus LFS low-floor buses - only thirteen of its buses are other models, compared to thirty 21st century Novas, and those new buses are the only ones I saw in service on my most recent visit. They're kneeling, accessible buses that are easy to board, air-conditioned with an elevated seating section behind the rear doors. Side-facing seats toward the front of the bus can be folded up to make room for strollers, wheelchairs, or other articles that need more space than usual.

Unlike the majority of bus operators in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, there are no bicycle racks mounted on Peterborough Transit buses. There's no engineering difficulties - the Novas operated by TransLink in Metro Vancouver have the standard front-mounted racks - so I can only presume that Peterborough Transit doesn't believe that rack installation is worth the expense. There's nothing I can find on the Peterborough Transit website regarding bikes on transit, so I would suppose that the decision of whether or not to let a passenger bring a bicycle aboard is up to the operator's discretion. Even so, the Novas don't have plenty of unused space, so getting one on board wouldn't necessarily be a sure thing.

Peterborough's is the only system I know of that continues to use old-style linen destination rollsigns instead of modern digital versions. Granted, they're in the process of phasing the linens out and new buses are equipped with the digital boards, but it's not hard to find some of the older ones on the road. They have no side or rear screens, unlike TTC or TransLink buses, and so if you don't see one from the front you can only guess at which route it's running.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Riders transfer between buses at the Downtown Transit Terminal

Remember how I said that the twelve regular bus routes are scheduled to arrive and depart from the downtown terminal every forty minutes? Well, the first thing you need to understand about Peterborough Transit is that those schedules are horrible, horrible lies. In my personal experience, the only routes that can boast reasonable on-time performance are the Trent University express routes, and that's because they operate independently. The system as a whole is a very Three Musketeers, "one for all and all for one" system, in that it's set up in such a way that if one bus is late, every bus will subsequently be late.

In my recollection, it's typically the Lansdowne bus that's late; most likely because it has to deal with the traffic on Lansdowne Street, Peterborough's main big-box commercial drag. This was the case on my visit to Peterborough, watching the buses stream into the downtown terminal while I waited - the Lansdowne bus arrived about five minutes after what I'd thought were the last stragglers had arrived, but because of the nature of the system, none of the other routes could leave until the Lansdowne bus had arrived and left off its passengers. Once they leave, of course, it's a dance of twelve buses trying to depart through two exits in a timely manner.

What this means is that relying on Peterborough Transit is inherently a game of chance and luck. Though service will start out by the schedule in the morning, minor delays will snowball and steadily push the actual arrival/departure times away from those printed in the schedules. Ultimately, as delays continue to stack, the buses' departure will eventually become so late that they are actually on time again. So it goes.

Furthermore, if you're getting around on Peterborough Transit, you'd best become as familiar with the routes as possible as quickly as possible, because it's not going to give you any help. The destination signs have very little information - just the route name. Not even a route number, and especially not any information about the destination, and there's significant potential for confusion. For example, say you want to go directly to Lansdowne Place down on Lansdowne Street, one of Peterborough's two major malls. If you want to go directly there, you'd think you'd take the Lansdowne bus, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong; while the Lansdowne bus does pass Lansdowne Place, it doesn't stop there, and service directly to its doors is instead provided by the Monaghan bus.

Bus stops give little information beyond the fact that they are, in fact, bus stops. I didn't find any that had so much as an indication of what routes served them, let alone route maps. It seems, to me, to operate very much with the opinion of "you should know this already," and I can imagine this lack of information beyond the printed route maps could be a major barrier to higher usage of the system.

There are no automated announcements on the Peterborough Transit system; the buses do not appear to be set up for it. Personally, I have no real nostalgia for the times when I was riding an unfamiliar bus route and couldn't relax because I had to keep staring out the window, checking every street sign as it went by, to make sure I didn't miss my stop. Things like that are likewise barriers to greater use, in addition to being a necessity for visually-impared riders.


For what it is, Peterborough Transit is a system that manages to work - that said, there are a number of places where it could improve and better serve the people of Peterborough. Granted, public transit agencies everywhere are being pushed to the edge recently, and it could be that Peterborough Transit simply doesn't have the resources to push through the reforms that might make it easier to use for first-time and recurrent riders. Route clarification could be one of the simplest and cheapest changes to make. Take, for example, the George North bus - right now, the only information its destination sign gives is "GEORGE NORTH." With a digital rollsign, it wouldn't take much effort to program a new display pattern - rename the route 1 George North, and add something like "To Trent U via Hilliard" in the manner of a TTC bus when it's going north, and "To Downtown" when it's southbound.

Given more resources than that, I would completely redevelop the current downtown terminal: tear down the parking garage, bury it, and replace it with an architecturally pleasing station complex that combines shops, services, waiting areas, and plenty of room for Peterborough Transit and GO Transit buses to arrive, lay over, and depart without having to all back out in one massive show. The scheduling, too; the way I see it, Peterborough Transit could greatly increase its on-time performance by staggering departures - have half of the routes arrive at, say, 10:00, and the other half arrive at 10:20 or so, rather than condensing them all into a single point in time.

They invented time for a reason, you know.

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