Hamilton's transit service should be governed by a commission of citizens, transit experts and councillors to shepherd the troubled agency through the coming cultural transformation.
By Jason Allen
Published October 22, 2014
During a frozen winter morning last February, I was keeping a close eye on Twitter during my more-than-an-hour-long transit commute. My attention was caught by a string of tweets and invective from people waiting to catch a bus at the corner of King and Dundurn. Some were McMaster students, many were faculty and staff, all had somewhere they needed to be.
But they were going nowhere fast. Seven packed buses sped by before one stopped.
Another friend in Strathcona who doesn't drive once explained to me how difficult it was to get to Meadowlands by bus on a Saturday to pick up school clothes for her son.
In the end, she decided to wait until she could cage a ride from a friend who was headed up there. Doing without was better than facing the 60-90 minute ride with her son with special needs.
In short, HSR is broken. Anyone who rides it regularly, myself included, knows the buses run on an inconvenient schedule, do not sync up properly with GO Transit trips, and are decorated almost exclusively with ads for social service agencies. This is not a strategy that grows ridership.
Indeed, as rides per thousand residents go, Hamilton is way behind transit growth in the region. Without even comparing ourselves to Brampton's explosive 81 percent growth in ridership - due largely to their significant investment in a partial-BRT system - even St. Catherines' much maligned system posted a 15 percent increase last year.
Hamilton's was just under 3 percent.
A large part of the problem stems from governance. While HSR is only just in the process of being taken out from under the leadership of Transportation Planning, the culture there is described by those within as nothing short of toxic.
Employees are required to write their own annual reviews, systematic sexual discrimination and harassment has been documented and there is an "old boys" culture that often protects the perpetrators.
Even a long-promised shakeup at the top turned to disappointment for many. When it was announced that the newly hired Director and Senior Manager would be trained and mentored by existing leadership as they assumed their new roles, the concern was raised that this would lead to a continuation of the existing problems.
Beyond the cultural issue, route planning at the HSR is dismal. It's a patchwork of pre-amalgamation routes, with changes often made at the whim of individual councillors, sometimes in response to small, vocal groups who do or do not desire specific routes for their local bus. This has led to inefficiency throughout the system.
The thinking that we used to create these problems will not solve them. It's time for a clean break - by returning to the past.
Up until 1977, HSR was governed by an independent commission. This commission originally consisted of the owners of the previously privately-held HSR, which is not a model we can consider.
The commission I'm proposing, however, would consist of citizens, transit experts, and city councillors, to guide the decisions about route planning and to shepherd the troubled agency through the coming cultural transformation.
In London, ON, their independent commission is appointed by council, the way many of our city boards are, and their system is one of the fastest growing in the province. In 2012, the commission had to go back to the city and province to request more resources, as so many people were crowding on to the buses.
12 percent of London rush-hour commuters were opting for transit, a far cry from our numbers in Hamilton. This spike also occurred at the same time that commendations for bus drivers rose and complaints about them dropped.
I am far from the only person calling for this change. The Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee issued a report to council four years ago requesting the same thing, and it has found its way into Councillor Judi Partridge's re-election platform.
The police service in Hamilton is governed by an independent body (as mandated by provincial law), but I would venture that the HSR is just as vital a service to many citizens as the police are, when we consider how much it is used, and how important a part of every day life it is for so many Hamiltonians.
It's time for HSR to get the attention and proper governance it deserves. It's time Hamiltonians get the transit they deserve, with well thought out, inter-connected routes that have the resources they need - so no one stands on a street corner in February watching bus after bus drive by.
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