Big, empty transit buses driving at night could be replaced by dial-a-buses, or even vans, under the new Red Deer transit plan unanimously green-lighted by city council on Monday.
Mayor Tara Veer called the plan’s approval a “watershed moment, in terms of a small city becoming a bigger city.”
Starting next fall, a new so-called backbone system of having buses run up and down Gaetz Avenue will be introduced. It will replace the spoke system of having neighbourhood buses bringing all riders to the central Sorensen Station in the downtown.
While some buses will continue to arrive at Sorensen Station, the new configuration will feature two other transit connection points — bus shelters at Gaetz and Kingston Drive in north Red Deer, and at Gaetz and Barrett Drive, south of the Bower Place mall.
Council was told that having three connection points will make it more efficient for a transit user to get from one corner of the city to another. Neighbourhood buses will bring riders to crosstown routes, along Taylor Drive, 67th Street, 30th Avenue and 32nd Street.
These routes will then connect with north-south Gaetz Avenue routes.
The system will allow for more flexibility, said city transportation engineer Niki Burkinshaw.
For example, if few people use certain neighbourhood or industrial routes outside of peak hours, large buses can be replaced, in future, by smaller buses, dial-a-buses or vans, she explained.
Councillors heard many complaints in the last civic election from people who thought driving “big empty buses” around the city in the evenings was a waste of taxpayer money.
“Citizens wanted to see a refresh in our of service and delivery and they will see it,” said Coun. Ken Johnston, who was generally enthusiastic about the new plan.
But while it addresses both routes that are “under pressure” as well as under-utilized routes, city manager Allan Seabrooke cautioned there will be bumps in the road.
He noted some people will not be happy that their low-usage routes are altered, or their bus stops eliminated.
“There are two sides to this …. this may be good work, based on solid data, but you will not be able to please everyone.”
Veer was concerned some residents will have nearby bus stops eliminated, or new bus stops will be built in front of their homes. She was told these kinds of changes would be kept to a minimum and done with neighbourhood consultation.
Coun. Frank Wong believes some people will not want to walk further to a transit stop, noting the 400-metre previous distance guideline was ramped up to 500 metres.
“We’ll see what the response is … we might have to see about putting some city parking stalls around the hubs,” Wong said.
Coun. Vesna Higham wanted to see little-used night routes already ear-marked for smaller buses, and she suggested that park-and-ride stalls be available at the three connection points on Gaetz Avenue.
Burkinshaw said this could be considered in future, as both would require an immediate investment of more money to buy smaller buses or private land for parking lots. Administration was told to examine short-term changes that would not require a lot more investment, she added.
The approved plan will still require some road improvements, which will be considered at capital budget time.
City officials hope more efficient routes will help boost ridership — especially since more baby boomers are retiring, noted Coun. Dianne Wyntjes.
The new transit route system will be implemented by fall of 2020.
“What we are doing today is a great start,” said Coun. Lawrence Lee.
Council was told Action buses and Bolt transit will not be impacted.