the riverdale rocket

Like most Whitehorse residents, my only interaction with the city's bus system is to read the bus ads from inside my own car. And to pay my property taxes, of which $76 goes to the transit budget each year.

Like most Whitehorse residents, my only interaction with the city’s bus system is to read the bus ads from inside my own car.

And to pay my property taxes, of which $76 goes to the transit budget each year. City council’s 2009 budget forecasts transit revenues of $1.3 million and costs of $2.4 million. That leaves a deficit of more than $1 million.

Whitehorse Transit is caught in a nasty three-way strategic bind. Their first problem is that the city’s population—and potential ridership—is small.

Second, they have scale economics; that is, it costs the same to drive 30 passengers around as it does to drive one.

Finally, Transit has a structural pricing disadvantage: they charge $2.50 per ride, while the government allows car users to use the roads for nothing. Car users may incur higher gas and depreciation costs than they usually realize, but it still seems like your car is “free” while the bus “costs.”

These three factors drive the transit doom loop: low ridership causes low revenues, which forces cost cutting, which lowers service levels, which drives down ridership. And lower ridership means fares have to rise to cover the fixed-cost base, further reducing passenger numbers.

Bus enthusiasts argue that they are fighting smog and climate change, but seldom convince politicians to cough up more cash for transit.

You can see the doom loop in Whitehorse today.

Getting from deepest, darkest Riverdale to the Canada Games Centre currently takes 43 minutes. The route takes riders on a tedious tour of Riverdale, turning off main arteries to go up Klondike and then down Teslin. You can catch the No. 1 at 5:35 p.m. at Bell Crescent, arrive at the abandoned Canadian Tire store at 5:49 and wait 11 minutes, then connect onto the No. 5 at 6 p.m. and arrive at 6:18 p.m. And that’s if you’re on schedule.

The fares are also relatively high: it costs more to ride from Porter Creek to downtown than the New York subway charges from the Bronx to Wall Street.

And with such long routes and low passenger numbers, the city can’t afford to have many buses. At peak times, the bus comes through Riverdale every 35 minutes. Off-peak, every 70 minutes.

All of this limits ridership and revenues. To use the bus, you have to be a careful planner with plenty of spare time.

The bus debate has been going on since the 1970s and the city’s famous square mini-buses, many of which were more popular in retirement with a wood stove and flower paint job than they were during their official working lives.

But today’s city council has a new opportunity. Why? Because Whitehorse is about to become a world-class city.

Once the Hamilton Boulevard extension is finally blasted into existence, we will have a circular road around the city: Second Avenue, Two Mile Hill, Hamilton, Hamilton Extension and South Access to the SS Klondike.

All great cities have ring roads. And because Whitehorse will have a ring road, we will be a great city.

London has the M25. Paris has the Peripherique. Moscow has the Garden Ring, whose sinkholes I have seen swallow a Lada whole. Even little Brussels has Ring Roads; three of them in fact.

We would have a lot of fun naming it. Maybe Tim Hortons would sponsor the “Whitehorse Doughnut.” Or we could call it “The Big Owe” because the transit system is always in deficit.

Or maybe “New Horizons” because it never ends.

But because Paris is the Whitehorse of France, I’d vote for just calling it the “Peripherique.”

It would even boost the economy, because in every other city the realtors have managed to talk everyone into believing that houses on the “inside” of the loop are worth more.

On the Whitehorse Peripherique, the buses would go in circles in both directions constantly. Every 10 minutes you could choose “clockwise” or “anti.” The buses would be heavily cross-branded with the Canada Games Centre.

In Tokyo, the transit department puts men with white gloves on the platforms to cram more people into the trains. Here, we would have cheery city Parks and Rec staff encouraging people to get off and use the money-losing Multiplex. If you arrived by bus, you’d get $2.50 off your sports fee.

What about the rest of the city?

Like London’s Northern Line bisecting the Circle Line, we would also have a line going from Riverdale to Porter Creek. You could switch for the Peripherique at the SS Klondike or Boston Pizza.

And this line would be an express. Fourth Avenue? Forget it. Lengthy transfer in the snowy wastes of the Qwanlin Mall? No way. These buses would be driven by former KARA speedway drivers. In one direction, it would be called the Riverdale Rocket. In the other, the Porter Creek Panzer.

How would this help solve Transit’s cost problem?

It wouldn’t. It would drive costs up.

But it stands a chance of solving Transit’s real problem: revenue. As noted above, buses are a scale business. If they can offer faster, more reliable service at a 25 per cent cost increase, but double their revenue, they have cracked their strategic dilemma. A few hundred more round-trips per day could cut the transit deficit in half.

Some will object that this leaves out Cowley Creek and MacPherson. They can keep their current service. Others will complain that taking out the labyrinthine wanderings will seriously inconvenience people, particularly those for whom a long walk to a bus stop is difficult (elderly, those with young children, those carrying heavy bags, etc). True. But a bus that drives on every street past every house is more like a taxi than public transit.

The most powerful objection is that people in Granger won’t walk to Hamilton to catch a bus. Or that Liard residents won’t walk to Alsek. This could be true. People might refuse to ride the bus in even greater droves than today.

But that’s OK. Council could just raise our taxes another $76 and go back to the current 35-minute peak schedule.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His next book Game On Yukon! appears in May.