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EDITORIAL: Transit users shouldn’t have to be hermits on Sundays

Sunday buses would do more than move people

Like the blooming fireweed that marks the end of summer, Yukoners can tell a federal election is around the corner when Ottawa starts raining money down on the territory.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell has been popping up all over the place promising money for everything from farming to recycling in a transparent attempt to secure votes ahead of October’s election.

One of the latest gifts from Larry Claus is millions towards improved transit in the City of Whitehorse.

Combined with cash from the territory and the municipality, Whitehorse is planning to put the money towards roadwork, new buses and a fancy new heated shelter in the downtown core.

The city wants to increase ridership and has the goal of increasing the share of commuters who use transit from seven per cent in 2016 to 15 per cent by 2036.

While the upgrades paid for by Ottawa may help towards those goals, more significant change could have come if Whitehorse had decided to put some of that federal money towards Sunday bus services.

The city’s own documentation shows that riders have been asking for Sunday service since at least 2002 but that hasn’t seemed to matter to anyone with the power to actually do something about it.

No one thought that Sunday service was important or likely enough to include it as even a possibility when the city was signing off on its latest union contract. As it stands the agreement with city employees would have to be reopened to allow for buses on Sunday.

In the latest transit plan, released last year, the consultants again acknowledged that Sunday service is something riders want. Many non-riders (the people the city claims it is trying to entice to take the bus) noted they are deterred by a lack of Sunday service and reduced Saturday hours.

Despite the calls, those in charge insist that a set Sunday bus schedule is not economically viable.

It’s true transit costs money. It’s not reasonable to expect transit users to pay for 100 per cent of the cost of every bus and driver. Transit systems are subsidized in almost every city. Whitehorse is not special.

What the city’s number crunchers don’t appear to have truly considered is the economic benefit that would come with Sunday buses.

A 2013 study in the journal Urban Planning found that expanding transit led to between $1.5 million and $1.8 billion (US) annually in economic benefits depending on the size of the city.

Even though Whitehorse would obviously be at the low end of that range, those numbers are worth considering the next time the city thumbs its nose at the idea of Sunday buses.

As reported by the American publication City Lab, every time a metro area added about four seats to rails and buses per 1,000 residents, the central city ended up with 320 more employees per square mile — an increase of 19 per cent.

Even if Whitehorse’s size means it couldn’t hit those numbers, the statistics prove an important point - buses do more than move people.

Buses reduce the traffic congestion that can hinder growth.

Sunday buses would mean more residents shopping and working downtown. This summer, restaurants and other small businesses have been forced to reduce hours or shutdown completely due to a lack of employees.

People working low-paying jobs are more likely to need a thriving transit system if they are going to consider moving north. A cab from many of Whitehorse’s neighbourhoods to downtown costs more than two hours of work assuming you’re paid minimum wage. Who wants to work a full day on Sunday if half of your pay for the day is spent getting to and from work?

Sunday buses would mean more people could live in neighbourhoods further from the downtown core.

If residents continue to resist downtown densification Sunday transit becomes even more important.

Transit users won’t live in neighbourhoods like Whistle Bend if it means becoming hermits in their homes on Sundays.

The consultants paid to compile the Whitehorse transit plan do suggest one Sunday option. They suggest holding the faint hope of Sunday bus service hostage in exchange for eliminating the Handy Bus service for users with disabilities and replacing it with a cheaper, taxi-based program.

According to the suggestion, the Handy Buses and the program’s budget could then be used to pilot a first-come, first-served on demand Sunday service as opposed to the fixed-route and scheduled stops that happen any other day of the week.

This is a mistake both ethically and legally and this recommendation should be ignored.

The consultants who wrote the report appear to be under the misguided belief that the city is not legally required to provide the Handy Bus service which suggests they’re not familiar with the multiple human rights cases surrounding accessible transit.

The city should provide the Handy Bus and Sunday service. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Ottawa could have been asked to spend its money on similar smaller buses to launch the proposed pilot program on Sundays without having to eliminate the Handy Bus.

Now was the time to ask.