Time to get on board

We all know there are times when getting around in our city can be a hassle. Heavy traffic, bad weather, a stalled car or collision at an intersection — or just feeling over-booked on a too-tight schedule — can make getting from A to B to C and back again a real chore. And that’s for those of us with the means to make decisions about how we will get from A to B to C and back again. There are more people in Red Deer than we might think, for whom there is only one choice on a trip that’s too far to walk: using transit.

We all know there are times when getting around in our city can be a hassle. Heavy traffic, bad weather, a stalled car or collision at an intersection — or just feeling over-booked on a too-tight schedule — can make getting from A to B to C and back again a real chore.

And that’s for those of us with the means to make decisions about how we will get from A to B to C and back again. There are more people in Red Deer than we might think, for whom there is only one choice on a trip that’s too far to walk: using transit.

For them, the barrier to showing up at a doctor’s office for instance, will be the $2.50 bus ticket there and another $2.50 return. The same might apply for some people on a training program for a job that would move them out of poverty.

A quick survey of 12 agencies in Red Deer that serve people in some kind of crisis found almost 40,000 people in our city who sometimes find that getting on a transit bus is a hard choice. These would be some seniors, single moms with their children, and others who live on the lowest income rank.

Red Deer is no different from other cities in this regard. The difference is that other cities have found a solution that works — for people in crisis, for the transit system as a whole and, ultimately, for the taxpayer.

In 1996, Edmonton city Coun. Allan Bolstad proposed a system by which people could donate money to purchase bus tickets for people who needed them. It started as fare donations made by people using city transit on New Year’s Eve, when all rides were free.

Well, the taxpayers know there is no free ride. But his idea, Donate A Ride, has morphed into something much more efficient. It has become a package that is free for organizers and city councils to copy and paste anywhere.

And it’s coming to Red Deer.

Spearheaded by the Red Deer Action Group Society, and with the blessing of the mayor’s office and the assistance of transit management, Red Deer will soon begin a donation campaign for Donate A Ride.

The program is designed to be simple and low-cost. This year, fundraising will run through May. (In Edmonton and Calgary, for instance Donate A Ride campaigns run in December, to coincide with the end of the United Way campaign. In Red Deer, it is hoped to eventually run this way as well.)

A small board consisting of city representatives and local non-profits will use the money to buy transit tickets. Then, they will divide those tickets among local agencies that apply for them, in the same way the United Way divides its donations between its member agencies.

The agencies can then hand out bus tickets over the course of the year, to clients who need them.

The donations (in many cases, from businesses) are actually capped. Official sponsorships begin at $1,000, but no donation over $5,000 will be accepted.

Jean Stinson, a friend and colleague of mine, is the president of the Action Group Society’s board and chair of the Donate A Ride organizing committee. She says the cap is in place to prevent draining the corporate donations pool. There are many requests out there for all kinds of causes and Stinson is sensitive to that.

Eventually, the Donate A Ride board will self-dissolve and the program will be run by a steering committee.

Here’s where the benefits meet the transit system and the taxpayers.

Every year, transit authorities struggle with budgets. Who doesn’t? Transit needs to balance costs with service standards, and a fare schedule that doesn’t rule out the people it is set up to serve.

The city has to list and acknowledge all the costs of its transit system. (Car owners, for their part, almost never do. If they did, thousands of Red Deerians would find that it is actually cheaper for them to buy a monthly transit pass to get to work — and possibly get rid of one family vehicle.)

In Edmonton, the program constantly sets new records. In 2012, Donate A Ride raised $202,000 — which went to Edmonton Transit to buy tickets. These tickets go to people who might otherwise not be able to use the system. That’s about 91,000 additional rides, helping the transit system recover costs, and hold down price increases for everyone else.

Don’t expect those numbers in Red Deer, but one of the barriers to improving service here is that growth in ridership is slower than growth of population. More riders means better service, which ultimately makes transit an easier choice for people who could save the money they now spend on a car.

Check out donatearide.ab.ca to see more about the program. Locally, the Action Group Society expects to have an online link to info sheet and downloadable sponsorship form on their site at rdactiongroup.ca by the end of April.

Stay tuned.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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