The morning sun beams through a light haze of smoke from forest fires on Saturday morning as a few early risers gather at bus stops around the city to catch a ride on one of Red Deer’s fleet of transit buses.
Theirs are the anonymous faces of people barely seen by drivers of trucks and cars, whose chief interest in transit buses is to avoid being caught behind one when it makes its stop.
Forty years ago, when I first moved to Red Deer, there were only four buses during the week, and none on Sundays or holidays. As the saying goes, Red Deer Transit has come a long way, baby.
So this reporter, who has not relied on public transportation in more than 30 years, decided to take Red Deer Transit for a test drive.
Saturday, 8:04 a.m. — Buses from downtown are due to arrive at the Parkland Mall in 11 minutes. There is only one other rider at the stop, a young man who plans to get Route 11 as far west as possible, and then hitchhike to Rocky Mountain House for work. Route 11 pulls up, he misses his cue and will have to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus. Next in line is the BOLT regional service, which runs to Blackfalds and Lacombe. There are five passengers on the bus: Two middle-age women in the front seats, a teenaged girl sitting sideways on the first seat of the upper deck and a teenaged couple in the next seats.
Barb Y, who is a bit shy about seeing her full name in print, is on her way to work in Lacombe. She doesn’t normally talk to people on the bus, because she is a little worried about getting involved with strangers. But she knows all the drivers and all the regular riders; she knows who can be trusted and who to avoid.
She says sometimes there may be someone who kicks up a fuss on the bus, but she has confidence in the drivers and their ability to manage unruly riders.
For Barb, the regional bus is a lifeline. It allowed her to move to Red Deer without having to give up her job in Lacombe, where she has worked for the past three years.
Barb says the $90 she forks out for a BOLT pass provides her with reliable, safe and economical transportation.
She gives the service a 10 out of 10, saying the only way it could be better is if the hours were extended.
“It’s about a half an hour commute in the morning. There’s the express bus and then on Saturdays there’s a local bus. This one, you get on it, you go through Blackfalds on both sides.”
The express makes just one stop in Blackfalds and two in Red Deer.
Although the time seems to fly by, the local loop is a two-hour trip.
9:42 Bus driver Theo Klooster arrives back at the hospital, heading south after piloting his unit through the streets of Lacombe, dropping off the handful of passengers who had come from Red Deer. The bus is empty now, so Klooster takes some time to talk about his job. He is new to the BOLT route, which he finds quite long and not very busy.
Back in Blackfalds, retiree Susan Massincaud is on her way into Red Deer to do some shopping. She gives the service an 8.5 out of 10, saying she wishes the service hours could be extended into the evenings. The last bus leaves Red Deer at 4:50 p.m. on weekdays and there’s nothing on Sunday, says Massincaud.
“So, it’s very, very tight to get around and do things in Red Deer. You really don’t have a lot of time.”
However, the savings are enormous. Massincaud said a fellow rider had commented to her about the difference in costs between owning a car and riding the bus. She had worked it out to $5,000 a year. Those savings can be eaten up pretty quickly if a person has to get a taxi home, says Massincaud.
“The drivers are very nice, and when they don’t know their way, they generally ask us where they’re supposed to go and we’re happy to tell them where to go, because quite often, the first time they do the route, they get lost.”
It’s easy enough to understand the confusion in the new subdivisions in Blackfalds, which has expanded immensely from the tiny village that it used to be.
Besides the money they save, bus riders see other benefits that people in cars miss, says Massincaud, who is trained in photography. She loves to watch out her window and take in the scenery. People in cars and pickup trucks drive by, unaware of the watching eyes in the bus, like the boy playing video-games in the back seat of his SUV or the pickup truck with the big dog in the back that passes the bus as it enters the north side of the Red Deer — an infraction of city bylaws and a moral offence to people who love dogs.
10:28 Klooster stops at Village Mall, where I depart and head across the road for a snack before hopping into my trusty rusty pickup truck to head to the south side of Red Deer.
11:30 Bennett Street — Route 12 departs to Gasoline Alley. The driver says it can be standing-room only when shifts change at local businesses. Right now, the only other riders are two young women and four young men. The two women have a brief chat, then each takes her own seat for the ride. The men disperse themselves at the back of the bus. They all stay on board as I slip out the door, heading to a well-known local restaurant for a flapper pie and ginger tea. I’m back at the stop in time for the next trip back to Bennett Street.
Sorensen Station is a ghost town after the buses leave, it’s parking slots emptied of buses and not a soul in sight, until a slim man arrives and takes a seat at one of the empty benches.
Wilmar Buenafe moved to Red Deer from the Philippines about five years ago. Every day, he takes the Olymel route to work and back. The seats fill pretty quickly on work days, meaning Buenafe and other Olymel workers often have to stand up for their trip. It’s quiet today, though. He plans to do a little shopping, maybe pick up some groceries.
Buenafe refuses to find fault with the transit system. Like Barb and Massincaud, it’s his lifeline, getting him to work and back or wherever else he wants to ride. The advantages of riding a bus versus buying a car are quite simple, says Buenafe.
“I’m not a rich man.”