Ten gathered for this ASK Salt Spring Zoom gathering to welcome BC Transit Planner Ericka Amador. She is the lead for Salt Spring’s year-long analysis of our current system designed to result in recommendations for our bus system’s future. Since August of last year, Ericka has been meeting every month with a team from Salt Spring, including Gary Holman and Gayle (as Chair of the Transportation Commission), to get their feedback about this study.
The timing of. Ericka’s visit is especially-relevant as the community engagement portion of this study is currently underway. If you have not already completed the survey, you have until May 6 to add your opinions to this important study. So far, about 300 Salt Springers have responded. While Ericka is pleased, we can do better, Salt Spring!
After a heartfelt Territorial Acknowledgment, Ericka began by sharing something that “excites and delights” her: While she is so very aware of the tragedies and challenges of our pandemic, she has also recognized that it promises some shifts in the way we use our roads. She envisions lasting improvements in multi-modal transport rather than our singular focus on vehicular travel.
The first question enquired about our current system. We learned that our system carries approximately 116,000 (duplicated) riders every year on six routes - and seven in the summer - with a fleet of five buses. The route to Fulford is by far the busiest, generating between 60%-70% of the system-wide ridership. Tourism is clearly an important component of our system, and the number of riders increases 50-100% over the summer. But, BC priorities are not focused solely upon productivity: service to the community is equally as important as generating revenue.
Our system is financed by a combination of BC Transit and local support. BC Transit pays about 47% of the annual costs, with the remaining 53% is Salt Spring’s responsibility. Part of our portion is generated by ticket sales. Lauded as one of the most efficient small bus systems in the province, ticket sales generate approximately 30% of our local costs. In Ericka’s words, our bus system punches above its weight. Ericka reminded us that our record-making ridership returns may decrease as other routes and more frequency is added to our system. The remaining portion of Salt Spring’s costs come from a tax requisition.
When asked if BC Transit supports funding expansion, Ericka replied that this support is dependent upon a number of factors but that, in general, BC Transit supports the expansion of systems. It was also noted that the pandemic has severely-impacted bus systems across the province, resulting in huge losses with possible implications for expansion plans in the short-term future.
When assessing expansion, six riders per service hour is generally the point at which the number of passengers carried on a bus offsets the equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions if each passenger was travelling alone by automobile. Ridership lower than this not supportable from an environmental or a financial perspective. Determining the viability of a new route or schedule will always include environmental and financial analyses but can be balanced by service imperatives to meet special community needs.
When asked about using small passenger vans on Salt Spring, Ericka told us about many innovative projects in the Lower Mainland with Handy Dart and On-Demand systems. When asked whether Salt Spring was on the list for such innovative options, Ericka was not sure, but suspected that Salt Spring is not currently slated for such pilot projects. (All the more reason to fill out the survey!)
When Ericka asked us if we were bus riders, about half answered in the affirmative while the others cited routes and frequencies that did not fit their needs.
One service expansion that is expected to be approved soon is a Beddis Road route. (This expansion is one that does not require the lease of an extra bus.) This expansion was recommended in a similar BC Transit study done in 2015, concluding that it would not only serve Beddis Road residents but would also provide a link to other routes, such as linking to the Fulford route at Cusheon Lake. When asked whether the speed bumps on the privately-owned portion of Beddis Road would be an issue for our buses, Ericka replied that it was not likely to be a problem, but it is currently being assessed.
The results of the current study will be presented to the Transportation Commission late this summer. At this time, Commissioners will have all the information needed to recommend future service levels, especially those for 2022.
We learned that the BC Transit Bus Shelter Program has made it possible for many small communities without rich coffers to get needed bus shelters. This program offers a variety of Richmond BC-made models to communities for a significant discount. (49% for Salt Spring.) Added to this, the federal government has given temporary funding to increase this bus shelter discount to a tempting 80% discount. We learned from Ericka that these shelters had been painstakingly-designed to address all liabilities and challenges, including snow removal under seats, and dimensions that are guaranteed not to impede bus operations nor get in the way of other modes of transport.
While recognizing the value of this program for other communities, one participant spoke passionately about Salt Spring’s need for locally-built, art-inspired bus shelters. He shared excerpts from local letters extolling the value to our community of structures that capture our uniqueness. These locally-made shelters would also keep the money in our community - and in the pockets of our local artists and builders. He spoke enthusiastically of the timber frame bus shelter at Fernwood and the Moon Snail at Country Grocer as a far better alternatives to the more homogeneous shelters provided by BC Transit.
Why, he wondered, couldn’t BC Transit also financially support these shelters? What would it take for BC Transit to work collaboratively with Salt Spring to fund bus shelters that better reflect our unique character?
While Ericka responded that this question was far from her area of responsibility, she promised to take this plea to those who can address it. Participants were pleased by Ericka’s willingness to take this message to those in BC Transit who are in a position to craft a partnership to accomplish this.
When asked if BC Transit would allow Car Stop signs at bus shelters, Ericka responded that these decisions tend to be local decisions and that our local transit operators would need to discuss this with BC Transit’s Sheryl Stevens, Regional Operations Manager, to determine if there are any challenges to be overcome.
As 1:00 approached, Ericka was asked to predict the results of this year-long Salt Spring study. One unanswered question for her is tourism: she wonders if there will be long lasting impacts on Salt Spring’s role as a destination as a result of the pandemic. She also believes that our system may transition from its tourist/ferry-focus to services more focused on local transit needs. She predicts strong support for the electrification of our fleet as well as more responsive request-driven options. While Ericka cautioned us that BC Transit might at times appear to be slow to change - often conducting many studies before implementing an initiative - Salt Springers do have a lot of local discretion concerning routing and scheduling that can be implemented quite rapidly.
We all enthusiastically-thanked Ericka for her honesty and her willingness too listen to our hopes and needs for our small, but very impressive, bus system before pressing our Leave Meeting button and enjoying another lovely spring day before the needed rains arrive.
Taking a break for the fifth Friday of April, please join us Friday, May 7, 11-1, to welcome our MLA Adam Olsen.
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