Why one rider likes taking the bus

By Ross Longbottom
The Hamilton Spectator

HAMILTON - Fred Lee, a Hamilton lawyer who lives in nearby Ancaster, could be a poster boy for transit authorities.

He's a long-time car user who decided three or four years ago to take the bus.

While transit authorities across North America are trying to lure riders with special deals, more service and environmental pleas, Lee rides the bus for a different reason: It's enjoyable.

What could be attractive about turning a 15-minute car ride into a one-hour commute?

``It's efficient. It's clean. It comes on time,'' says Lee, who began taking the bus when his car broke down.

Lee begins his morning just before 7, with a 1.5-kilometre walk to the nearest bus stop. There the bus travels down Hamilton Mountain to McMaster University, where Lee transfers to another bus that takes him downtown. It's a one-hour commute, door to door.

Across North America, transit experts are trying to get people to think more like Lee.

Our car dependency has grown enormously the past 50 years. According to the Royal Commission on National Passenger Transportation, while urban automobile use in Canada has grown by 500 per cent, transit use has not quite doubled.

To reverse that trend, experts say, transit must become a desirable alternative. It must be dependable, affordable, comfortable, and travel times must be as fast or faster than the car.

Traffic gridlock is a relatively new problem in Canada, but the United States has been studying the issue for years, says David Schrank of the Texas Transportation Institute, co-author of the 1999 Annual Urban Mobility Study.

What's really needed, says Schrank and co-author Tim Lomax, is a change in mindset among citizens, city and transportation planners and political leaders, that the city should not be designed only for the car.

That means people living in the community where they work. That means zoning that mixes urban, commercial and industrial zones.

Portland, Ore., admired for its progressive transit outlook, is taking a ``holistic'' approach, says Keith Lawton, director of travel forecasting and research.

First you begin with urban planning that invites people to live and work in their home community. Zoning is mixed so there is not one business area, but many, and several ways to get there - including high quality bike and roller blade paths. Companies with 50 employees or more must purchase each worker a yearly transit pass.

In the GTA, McMaster University has taken a similar tack that's working well. Tuition now includes a $58 charge for a nine-month transit pass.

Co-chair Terry Cooke, Hamilton-Wentworth chairman, advocates seamless transit passes and designated lanes for buses and high occupancy vehicles throughout the GTA, larger free parking lots at rail stations, and more GO train service.

``You start with the low hanging fruit,'' says Cooke, also co-chair of transportation for the Greater Toronto Services Board. ``The stuff that doesn't cost a lot, but provides a fairly quick return in terms of easing congestion.''

Ancaster's Lee says it has dawned on him that many people could probably use transit some days.

``If I don't need the car all day, what's the point (of taking it)?''