Carol Volkart: Just say it, we’re cutting your bus stops

As for the promise of more comfortable rides with less stopping, starting and lane changing, I suggest it’s a hint that TransLink doesn’t understand its own purpose.

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Down the block and just around the corner from me is a bus stop where, for more than four decades, I’ve waited for the east-bound bus along Vancouver’s West 25th Avenue. It’s a fine, recently refurbished stop right across from busy Lord Kitchener Elementary, with a Plexiglas shelter, a bench, and a big new slab of concrete for easy bus access.

I haven’t been using transit during the pandemic, but passing the stop recently, I was stunned to find a sign announcing that it, along with others along the route, is being removed. The reason: “To provide faster and more reliable service.” The nearest stop, the sign said, “is a three-minute walk or roll away.”

I thought a lot of things at that point, but one of the first was about the jauntiness of that phrase, “walk or roll.” Is it an accident that it rhymes with “rock ‘n’ roll”? Doesn’t it sound light-hearted, maybe even fun? Sure, some transit users are young and may arrive at bus stops with skateboards in hand. But in the real world of transit users — the elderly, the disabled, people hauling groceries or children, or just trying to get to another grueling work shift — that wording has a touch of unreality. “Bus much?” we might ask its authors.

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As I dug further into the bus-stop plans, it was clear the jauntiness of the sign wasn’t a one-off. It was a deep dive into the chirpy double-speak we’ve come to expect from authorities these days — the euphemisms that paint over unpleasant realities and seem irrelevant unless you’re the one trudging extra blocks with a bum hip, a heavy load of groceries, or a squalling child.

What’s happening at bus stops isn’t cuts, folks, it is “balancing.”

The Bus Stop Balancing Project so far has slashed stops on the No. 2, the No. 17, and the No. 25 routes, and if your route hasn’t been affected yet, it soon will be. Go to the busstopbalancing website, and you will learn that you have been spoiled so far. Two-thirds of bus stops are closer than the recommended 300 to 800 metres apart (a five- to 10-minute walk), and it won’t hurt you a bit to trudge a little farther.

Removing the excess stops is a “win-win proposition,” says TransLink’s breathlessly upbeat site. For riders, it means shorter travel times, more reliable service, more comfortable rides and reduced operating costs, “which can be reinvested as longer hours or higher frequency of service.”

For non-riders, it’s equally great. Former bus stops can serve many other uses — “patios, bike racks, pedestrian bulbs, queue jumps, short-term loading zones, or on-street parking.” Fewer bus stops free up sidewalk space “to enhance physical distancing and accessibility.” And — bonus for bus riders watching cars zip past while they queue in the rain — it improves traffic flow.

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Some anomalies rear up amidst all the happy talk. When green-minded governments are supposedly encouraging transit use over cars, why kill bus stops and gloat that they can be used for on-street parking? Or tout fewer stops as a way of improving traffic flow? This plan may cut actual travel times, as TransLink promises, but is it counting the extra minutes — painful and difficult for some — it takes to reach the stops? One of the oddest suggestions is that fewer stops means “more space on buses for physical distancing due to evenly distributed passenger loads.” There is no explanation of how bigger crowds at fewer stops will help distribution or distancing — on or off the buses.

As for the promise of more comfortable rides with less stopping, starting and lane changing, I suggest it’s a hint that TransLink doesn’t understand its own purpose. Local transit service is just that — the frequency of its stops is not a slow and bumpy hindrance, but the very reason it’s accessible and serves the needs of locals without cars. Riders know that close, convenient stops for others also means convenient stops for themselves.

Don’t expect to stop the process, which TransLink considers such a success that it will be extended by four to eight routes per year. My own protests — through a survey and letters to TransLink, the provincial transportation minister, and Vancouver city council — got nowhere. However, I was reminded that TransLink had listened enough to some complaints that it reinstituted a handful of stops on the three routes, including one (1!) on No. 25.

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Despite my annoyance at the happy talk, I understand TransLink’s difficulty. Hammered by plummeting passenger numbers and revenues due to COVID, no wonder it’s clutching at the promise of saving $3.5 million a year by cutting stops on 25 of its most frequent routes.

I’m resigned to losing my convenient bus stop, along with five others in my immediate area, and to trudging up a hill or across a busy street for the bus. But after a year of government blundering and obfuscation throughout the pandemic, I fantasize about what an honest “bus balancing” announcement would have looked like.

How about: “Hey folks, we’re in deep financial trouble. It will be inconvenient and difficult for lots of you, but we have no choice: We’re cutting your bus stops!”

Carol Volkart is a former Vancouver Sun editor and reporter, now retired, but still fascinated by civic issues.


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