Winnipeggers call for more reliable bus service as gas prices continue to surge

With gas prices hovering above $2/litre, some Winnipeggers looking for cheaper ways to get around say the city’s bus system needs to be more efficient before they’ll get on board.

As fuel costs surged in recent weeks, so did transit use, but ridership is still about a third below pre-pandemic levels. Many point to infrequent service and inconvenient routing as possible reasons for the slow rebound.

Christian Okwudiwa, 28, moved to Winnipeg from Nigeria nine years ago, and has been taking the bus ever since.

“It saves a bit of money, and it’s also saving the environment,” he said.

Okwudiwa wishes bus lines would connect more neighbourhoods in Winnipeg’s south end, so he wouldn’t have to travel north to transfer downtown, then head back south on another bus. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Okwudiwa walks to a bus stop a few blocks from his home in Winnipeg South, and listens to music as he waits … and waits. 

“The buses are not usually on time,” Okwudiwa said. “Because of that, they get delayed and sometimes you miss the transfer.”

That leaves Okwudiwa scrambling to find another route in the busiest parts of the city core, usually around Winnipeg Square or Portage Place.

“Either I have to wait for another 15 or 20 minutes, or I have to take a walk,” Okwudiwa said with a big laugh.

Like spokes on a wheel, most Winnipeg Transit routes travel to and from downtown. So when young people move to Winnipeg’s south end to be near the University of Manitoba, for example, they often find the campus hard to reach by bus.

Kwene Appah is considering leaving her home province for another Canadian city with more extensive public transit, such as Toronto or Calgary. (Kwene Appah)

“I’d have to budget about an hour and 45 minutes, both ways” said recent grad Kwene Appah, “where if I drove my car it would take me 12 minutes.” 

Appah, 25, eventually gave up on riding the bus and started driving to campus from Bridgwater, shelling out more than $600 a year to park.

“It’s just not more efficient to take transit than to pay MPI annually and pay gas,” said Appah, “even with gas at the price it is now.” 

Appah would rather use public transit for both budgetary and environmental reasons, even if that means moving away from her home province. 

“If a car is too expensive to keep — which, with the way gas is going, it might be — do I want to live in a city where I can’t rely on the transit system?”

Appah has used public transportation in other Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Victoria,  and described those transit experiences as “seamless.” 

The City of Winnipeg says its bus grid will be more in line with other cities once it implements its 25-year Transit Master Plan. It calls for dedicated bus lanes, simplified routes and more east-west lines between neighbourhoods. 

But by the time that network is completed, both Okwudiwa and Appah will be in their 50s.

The chair of Winnipeg’s Transit Advisory Committee says the city is trying to improve bus service over the next few years, but for now, roadwork comes first.

“I’ve asked the administrators if we can just fast track it and get it done in terms of changing the routes,” said St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard. “But they tell me some capital upgrades are needed in terms of fixing up the streets.”

Coun. Matt Allard, chair of the transit advisory committee, says he wants to add dedicated bus lanes and more routes within years, rather than decades, but city administrators tell him Winnipeg streets are the current priority. (Matt Allard)

A frequent bus user himself, Allard said the city is asking the federal government to fund the master plan under its Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, but said Winnipeg also needs more support from the province.

“The federal government exclusively has helped in keeping our transit system going,” Allard said.

However, an executive member of the public transportation advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg said the reason residents will wait decades for better bus service is a lack of political will from city council.

Brian Pincott served 10 years as a city councillor in Calgary, where a survey found half the downtown workforce uses public transit daily. 

“Calgary made a recognition 25 years ago that it just can’t keep having all of these people driving downtown for work,” said Pincott. “Everything from parking policy to development policy went to support increasing transit.”

Brian Pincott with Functional Transit Winnipeg says the city’s Transit Master Plan needs to roll out more quickly to help mitigate climate change and offer more affordable transportation to residents. (Darin Morash/CBC)

Pincott says Winnipeg needs to implement its transit plan in five years, not 25.

“If city council is concerned about climate change, it needs to invest in transit,” he said. “If they’re concerned about the cost of living for average Winnipeggers, they’re going to invest in transit.”

Okwudiwa also wishes the city would step up the pace.

“Twenty-five years,” he said, bending over a little with laughter. “I’m not sure how many people will still be using transit then.”

In the meantime, Okwudiwa says he’ll keep waiting for more bus routes and more reliable service.

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