Winnipeg Civic Elections, Part 1 – Winnipeg in Transit

By Owen Black, UMSU VP External and Jakob Sanderson, UMSU President

Transit is the lifeblood of any urban centre. Candidates in Winnipeg’s upcoming civic elections should commit to substantial, long-term investment into improving public transit services to enable world-class livability for transit riders and car owners alike.

The importance of public transit is underlined by that fact that it is one of the rare issues that intersects with nearly all aspects of municipal public policy – economic, environmental, health, land usage and public safety. However, in Winnipeg the vision and political will needed to fully transform our transit system into something safe, affordable, accessible and reliable has thus far been missing amongst city officials. Unfortunately, this civic election cycle appears no different so far.

At an all-mayoral candidates’ forum held at the U of W on September 18 under the theme of the environment, the consensus top-two candidates, incumbent mayor Brian Bowman and leading challenger Jennifer Motkaluk, both answered ‘no’ when asked if they would support a policy that prioritizes walking, cycling and public transit over individual cars. To her credit, Motkaluk spoke to safety concerns on transit, and re-iterated her pledge to electrify the city’s bus fleet within 6 years. She also vowed to improve ridership by offering more buses on more routes to increase capacity and decrease wait times. However, Motkaluk’s desire to abandon the construction of rapid transit corridors – including the second phase of the Southwest Transitway project already under construction, for which Bowman deserves kudos – leaves her plan looking incomplete. Both the union representing Winnipeg Transit and the head of the U of M city planning department, Richard Milgrom, have pointed out that adding more buses to already congested roads will generate limited improvement. For his part, Brian Bowman announced his transit-related campaign pledges on October 1, which include installing heaters in 55 new shelters and making improvements to accessibility at bus stops, as well as a low-income bus pass. However, when asked for details on the low-income pass Bowman was unable to say the estimated cost of program for the city, or the proposed price of the pass for eligible riders.

While each candidate has touched upon valid points of improvement, they don’t amount to the type of bold action that evidence from across Canada suggests is necessary. Thanks to increasing urbanization, the demand for public transit has consistently grown in Canadian cities for the past two decades. According to Statistics Canada, from 1996 to 2016 the number of commuters taking public transit in Canada’s largest cities grew by 59.5% – more than double the rate at which commuting by car increased during that same period (28.5%). City development that relies heavily on individual car ownership needs to become a thing of the past.

The mounting body of evidence pointing out the collective benefits of public transit for communities is undeniable. Investment in transit reduces traffic congestion on our roads, thereby improving everyone’s commuting time – including for those that still drive by car, since there are less vehicles on the road overall. The reduction in the number of cars on the road also creates healthier, more sustainable communities by decreasing noise, air pollution, and allowing for more flexible property development based on higher-density housing and mixed-use structures absent the need for parking lots. In terms of jobs, more effective bus services enable those without a vehicle to widen their search area when applying for jobs, or to work further away from home. For consumers, they can eat, shop and play at a larger variety of locations in the city. This encourages economic development since business owners and entrepreneurs know that employees and customers can reach them no matter where they live due to greater interconnectivity.

One proven strategy for stimulating growth in transit usage is to encourage collectively bargained bulk-purchase schemes negotiated between Winnipeg Transit and existing institutions. A prime example can be found in the universal post-secondary transit pass (U-Pass) arrangement implemented in Fall 2016 for students at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. After negotiations in 2014 between Winnipeg Transit, UMSU and the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, an agreement was reached – and later ratified by student referendums at both institutions – wherein students pay for their U-Pass automatically as part of their tuition payment and then receive a semester pass at a 51% discount. Students at both institutions retain the option to opt-out of the program if they live outside of city limits or in areas unserved by existing transit routes.

A report compiled by Winnipeg Transit last month reviewed the first two years of the program, finding an annual average of 22,900 eligible students at U of M and 6,900 at the U of W with participation rates of 83% at U of M and 90% at U of W. The report also noted a significant increase in ridership on the U of M routes since program began, which was matched by nine additional buses deployed to service the routes. While still relatively new, the U-Pass arrangement is proving that bulk-purchase arrangements are a win-win: they provide Winnipeg Transit with an additional revenue stream and deliver the type of stable increase in ridership that enables better planning of routes and resources to bolster services, while also slashing the fare cost for users. Similar schemes should be considered for how they can be tailored for the private sector.

Yet overall, implementing improvements to Winnipeg’s public transit system no doubt still requires substantial long-term public investment. This is typically of low priority for car owners and upper-middle class voters, who represent the category of the electorate least likely to take the bus. In the context of Winnipeg, the funding issue is complicated by a provincial government decision in late 2017 to terminate the practice of matching municipal funding for public transit on a 50/50 basis, punching a $10 million hole in Winnipeg Transit’s operating budget for 2018. As a result, transit riders – comprised primarily of youth, the elderly, students and low-income persons – have borne the brunt of that decision; Mayor Bowman cited his unwillingness to raise property taxes in the city beyond his self-imposed 2.33% cap as the reason why the city has not done more to cover Winnipeg Transit’s funding shortfall.

According to Functional Transit Winnipeg, a local advocacy group, Winnipeg lags badly behind similar sized cities of Ottawa and Edmonton, which invest roughly $220 million per year into transit on top of annual revenue generated, compared to Winnipeg’s $65 million. Instead, based on a per-capita spending scale Winnipeg should be closer to the $170 million benchmark, according to the group’s president, Joseph Kornelson, who points to erratic service and overcrowding of buses as two of the most obvious symptoms of an under-funded transit service. In late 2017 the hashtag #SardineLife attempted to vividly illustrate these conditions to city councilors, of whom only 1 of 16 rides the bus daily to work. This scenario begs the question of whether there is an inherent disconnect between those who rely on bus services and those that govern them.

Therein lays the fundamental issue of properly funding a public transit system: who is to show leadership by advocating for a collective good that benefits all residents of a city, but that on the surface only a portion of the city uses directly? It’s commonly accepted that our tax dollars go to cover roadwork, but many argue that their tax dollars should not be directed to transit if they only ride the bus a handful of times per year, if ever. Heading into October’s civic election, leadership candidates would do well to remember that that pushing for bold investments in multiple areas of public transit represents a forward-thinking mentality. It shows a commitment to building healthier, more sustainable neighborhoods and eliminating car ownership as a pre-requisite to meaningful participation in the labour force and local economy. Those are causes we can all agree on as money well spent.