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Posted: November 28, 2021

Time for new thinking about city transit

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

“City concerned with conception of empty buses,” blazed a headline last week. And the city has every right to be concerned for a problem with no easy solution. Maybe no solution at all.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe the latter because I wrestled with the same problem when I was a city councillor myself and was unable to find a solution to those ghostly transit buses travelling around town mostly empty every day.

What really bothered me was the dirty exhaust fumes coming out of the back of the busses and spiralling up into the atmosphere already polluted by carbon dioxide as climate change draws ominously closer. I asked myself then, “why are we adding to the problem with these carbon-spouting machines?” I’m still asking that question now.

But I never get an answer

Back in the day, city transportation staff kept telling us more people were riding the buses every year. We took that information skeptically with a grain of salt as we would see the lonely buses going up and down our streets in vain. As a result, I’m glad to see the current council acknowledging the buses are not half full, but closer to half empty and getting emptier all the time. Covid didn’t help, of course, but I think the problem goes far deeper than that.

Our transit system suffers from the same problem that plagues many aspects of our fair city and ironically was the same problem that faced the Kootenay ICE in the halcyon days before the team slunk out of town. Yes! The Kootenay ICE. What am I talking about? Well, the answer is lying there in plain sight which is probably why so many don’t see it.

Cranbrook is the wrong size for a city that tries very hard to provide the services of far larger centres. By “wrong size,” I mean too small population wise. I remember distinctly when I moved here in 1997 that the Key City listed its population as 18,500. Today, some 24 years later, our population is listed at 21,308. That’s not much growth in 24 years.

But these are the provincial government figures and they’re revised every five years. So, when it comes to the proverbial race between the hair and the turtle, we’re definitely the turtle! In fact, Kimberley recently passed the eight thousand mark in population (8,032) and is growing at a rate of 2.3 per cent annually while in the last two censuses Cranbrook grew at a rate of only 0.75 per cent although the growth rate seems to be picking up now.

So, what does this mean in terms of our beleaguered transit system? Simple! Like the Kootenay ICE, the 4,100-seat facility the taxpayers built for them was too large for a city of 20,000 or so to support. On the other hand, the Cranbrook Bucks have been a success so far this season, but they’re only drawing a little more than 2,000 fans a game. But that’s the sweet spot and we never really needed the extra 2,000 seats for which the taxpayers paid so dearly.

Consequently, when it comes to the city’s transit system, what we have now is a behemoth, far too big for our needs. City transit riders prove that every day by keeping their warm bums out of transit seats the same way Ice fans did with the empty seats at the Rec Plex.

So, what should city council do? As I said at the beginning, there’s no easy answers. Smaller buses and more routes might be an answer. A subsidized free bus system might be appealing to students and seniors, if not the taxpayers.

How about a bike lane system in the city? Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have spent millions on bike lanes and they’re packed with riders. Couldn’t a small city like Cranbrook do the same?

We’ll never know if we don’t try.

e-KNOW file photo

– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and an avid walker and cyclist…

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