Saskatoon Transit is a confusing mess, but BRT could help fix it

Saskatoon Transit is expecting new high-frequency routes in the northeast part of the city to have major impacts on how people move around. New routes are being introduced which will offer 10 minute service and limited stops on Preston Avenue and Attridge Drive to the intersection of Nelson and Lowe Roads, but during evenings, weekends and holidays service will be reduced to 30 minute frequencies.

"With the service changes we are making to improve the frequency, people are recognizing transit as a viable option," Jim McDonald, Director of Saskatoon Transit, said in a press release. "Connecting the northeast corner of the city with higher frequency is another step towards bus rapid transit".

There are six more routes that are being added, nine that will be changed and four that will be discontinued, and the changes will all take place on July 1. All the changes can be viewed on the transit agency's website.

The changes are due to increased ridership levels "in the 2017 Saskatoon Transit Annual Report," he continued. However, the annual report has not been published on either Saskatoon Transit or the City of Saskatoon's website and as such, there's no way to accurately tell how many people used the transit service in 2017. The Saskatoon StarPhoenix has published data for the missing year, but it is incomplete and the publication did not provide a link to the data in full, or explain that the numbers are for electronic boardings only (ie. Go-Passes and day passes, but not the full, predicted amount of riders).

Saskatoon Transit ridership growth

Due to the way Saskatoon Transit collects fares — through the use of both the Go-Pass and cash — it's not completely possible to accurately tell how many people rode the bus. The counts of payments made by smart cards are accurate due to the nature of them, but cash cannot be accurately accounted for and as such, Saskatoon Transit produces calculated estimates for the total amount of people that actually rode the bus. The latest report with this data was produced for the 2016 year.

In recent years the city has seen some growth in transit ridership throughout the main corridors and because of this growth, is hoping to implement a bus rapid transit system along the city to provide frequent and fast transit service. However, this doesn't fix the issue that transit in Saskatoon is currently a mess and for new people to the city, confusing and difficult-to-use.

Transit in Saskatoon is a mess

Regular transit riders in Saskatoon might not notice how difficult it is to navigate the public transit system, but for newcomers to the city it is. The city has numerous routes that go to all corners and neighbourhoods of the city which is great, but many routes follow the same path for the majority of the time, making it confusing for riders to figure out which bus they should take.

Route overlap is dangerous not only because it is confusing for riders, but because it makes one route redundant and unnecessary. Take university students, for example, who are trying to get from the University-Place Riel terminal to the transit terminal downtown. They could take the 4, 40, 45, 60, or 65 bus — all which follow the exact same routing for this portion of the trip. This is only speculation, but replacing this portion of the route with one frequent BRT route and making the Place Riel hub the terminus of routes in this portion of the city would make things much less confusing.

For people coming from downtown to the university, bus destination signs (the signs on the front of the bus that say things like "1 City Centre") fail to mention that their route goes via the university transit hub, making it difficult for people to determine what bus to take when they all just say gibberish.

This issue isn't only limited to this portion of the city's routes, but in most areas of the city there's route overlap of some sort. Going from downtown to Confederation Terminal you can take either the 40, 45, 60, or 65 which all follow the same exact route, or the 2, 5, or 9 which follow the same path too. Something like this really makes no sense and would be better served by a single route along each street currently serviced, and an "a/b" route designation at the end if the buses continue further on. The same goes for other routes as well — for instance, the 4, 6, 22, 40, 45, 60 and 65 all take the same path from Place Riel Terminal to the downtown hub.

 Getting from the downtown hub to Confederation Terminal, there's four groups of routes that all take the same path: the 40, 45, 60, 63 and 65, the 2, 5, 9 and 10, or the 2, 9, 60 and 65.

Getting from the downtown hub to Confederation Terminal, there's four groups of routes that all take the same path: the 40, 45, 60, 63 and 65, the 2, 5, 9 and 10, or the 2, 9, 60 and 65.

Replacing transit services that follow the same routing with a single transit service might not actually improve the frequency of routes, but by providing a single, more-frequent route than before, it can give people the sense that their wait for the bus isn't as long as it actually is, and they will not be disappointed or annoyed when a bus passes by them.

The city is hoping that BRT will help

These route overlap corridors provide the perfect opportunity to implement BRT along them, providing things like more comfortable stops with more distance between stops and off-board vending machines for fares. In the city's growth plan for when it reaches 500,000 residents, it proposes a BRT system covering most of the existing streets where there is extensive overlap in bus routes, but a long-term plan is not ideal for solving something that takes relatively little change to address.

Though this improvement to bus service in the city is generally welcome by riders who would see the results of arriving to their destination more quickly, it's not always approved by businesses in the area.

With the city's first BRT line, dubbed the Blue Line, planned for the Broadway corridor, shops in the area are protesting the possibility of a possibility of losing some parking to make way for the project. The other concern is when construction would take place as to not interfere with tourists and pedestrian traffic. Though this can all be mitigated, all construction for projects like this requires some compromise from both sides of the table.

The city is considering running the line directly on Broadway, from the Victoria bridge to 8th Street or up Victoria to Broadway via Main Street, according to Global News. These options will all allow for faster travel via bus since dedicated lanes are a requirement for the system to be recognized as BRT, but the system will take at least several years to be fully implemented. A map of the initial high-frequency network which will lay the groundwork for the BRT system has been published by the city.

 The initial high-frequency network will have three lines, all connecting downtown. 📸:  City of Saskatoon

The initial high-frequency network will have three lines, all connecting downtown. 📸: City of Saskatoon

The proposed system aligns with where several routes already run, replacing them with one singular route with low headways. However, the map brings to light the issue that the city is refusing to switch over to a more grid-based system instead of the current hub-and-spoke system which we can see today.

Hub-and-spoke systems consist of multiple terminals located throughout the city which all bus routes connect to (such as the downtown terminal, where some bus routes go out of their way to connect with), whereas with a grid-based system, more transfers are available and routes tend to be more direct. The initial high-frequency route has all three lines running to the downtown core to cut the amount of transfers passengers must make. The Green Line doesn't even need to run downtown and could run solely on the east side of the city, providing a quick and efficient north-south connection to other routes. Without both the Red and Green lines running along the same path, the frequency of the Red Line could be increased above and beyond 10 minutes, because it travels through the downtown core which is highly frequented by transit riders.

Even with these flaws in the transit plan, Saskatoon is still slowly moving forward. By introducing a higher level of service, it becomes more convenient for people to take the bus and by expanding the ways in which people can both pay for and track their buses, easier for anybody to use the system. Introducing BRT in the city will take some time, but it should solve some of the biggest transit issues that the city is facing today and attract more riders in the future.

📸: Wikipedia 📈: Bus Riders of Saskatoon