On July 11 I did my most unusual Exploit into the Unknown yet: I rode the city bus.
What, riding the bus is not unusual? It was unusual in this case, because this was the first time I rode the bus in the Battlefords since moving here four years ago.
What’s more, this was my first experience travelling on the new and improved Battlefords Transit System since the changes last fall, when the city ended their contract with First Bus Canada and took over responsibility for transit with the acquisition of two new small buses.
I covered the story of the changes in the local transit system for the paper over the last few years, having reported on the conversations that went on when consultant Dennis McCullough was canvassing the community about what a new transit system should look like.
Among the changes replacing yellow school with the identifiable new white buses that you see on the streets now.
My own idea about transit was rooted in my familiarity with the transit systems in cities like Saskatoon, London, Ont. and especially Toronto, where I rode buses, streetcars, subways and trains to get where I needed to go.
In short, I am used to massive transit systems and crowded transit vehicles. The Toronto Transit System provides service literally every five minutes and covers the whole city. When I rode transit there, while there were times when buses would not be very full, during rush hour the buses and trains would be jammed with people.
It was a far different situation when I waited for the city bus to pick me up outside the News-Optimist offices on 104th Street just after 1 p.m.
As it turned out, the bus arrived a little earlier than scheduled and the bus wasn’t crowded at all. The bus driver was Al Love, who happens to be the transit manager.
As we proceeded along on the route he talked about the transit system and some of the changes that had been brought in.
The whole idea of the transit route, Love was telling me, was to hit every area of the city. The goal, he said, was for nobody to have to walk any farther than 1,000 feet to get to a bus. Right now, though, Killdeer and Fairview are missed out on the route, so the hope is to include those areas on the route at some point.
I got a copy of the public transit route map and timetable, which can be picked up at City Hall, the library or inside the bus itself. The transit hours are Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. (Saturdays at 8 a.m.), with the final loop of the city starting at 6 p.m.
The bus runs on an hourly loop around the city, so when it says on the timetable that the bus arrives at Territorial Co-op at 00:32, that’s when you can usually expect the bus to be there and to be ready to depart.
As I found out this day, though, it helps to arrive early across the route, because there were not too many passengers. In fact, there were only two on my entire trip, apart from myself, likely because it was a weekday and not yet the rush hour.
The bus itself was a lot smaller than ones I had ridden in other cities. It seats only 23 passengers. Apart from the more compact size, once inside it looked and felt like a regular bus service, and there was standing room available if the seats were full up.
Our bus went into downtown, made two stops at Valleyview Towers, and we drove through the west end.
“This whole area we’re entering was not covered at all by the old system,” Love said.
He said the ridership in that particular area hasn’t blossomed yet, but he says people have to see the bus come through on a regular basis before they have enough faith in it.
One thing notable about the route was the fact that it tended to avoid most of 100th Street, which seems odd because it is the major thoroughfare of the city.
“Unfortunately, that’s the most dangerous one to drop people off on,” said Love.
The bus did make a mandatory stop at the Territorial Mall Co-op just before the half-hour mark. The idea for the extended stop is to make sure the bus stays on time and doesn’t run too far ahead of schedule, and also allow a bus driver to be able to head to the washroom or get a coffee before resuming the route. Unlike the old route, there are no scheduled coffee breaks so this is as close as it gets.
When we stopped at the Co-op we talked about the panels on the outside of the buses – the ones that show the various images of North Battleford on the windows. It turns out these panels are great absorbers of heat. That helps with keeping the inside of the buses cool and comfortable and save on air-conditioning costs – and air conditioning was definitely welcome, because it was a noticeably hot day outside. I could feel the heat when the doors swung open for passengers.
One of the passengers noted the striking new look of the bus on the road as a positive. “
I think it’s definitely recognizable,” she said, comparing it to the look of the old yellow buses.
Love said the decals representing the city on the windows, giving the bus system an image that people can be proud of.
“It’s just paint and pictures,” Love said, calling it an “easy fix.”
One criticism Love acknowledged from passengers used to the old route was that it seemed to take a lot of driving to get where you wanted to go. The idea, he said, was for the new buses to be able to loop into the various neighbourhoods so people would be able to access the bus system. There were 61 bus stops on the whole route.
To me, it did seem like there was a lot of driving into a lot of neighbourhoods, and that seemed to bog down the trip by the end.
It meant that it took an hour for the bus to go from the News-Optimist to Walmart – a trek that could be completed by foot in about twenty 20. Then again, it would have been a much shorter trip for me to Walmart if I had chosen to board the bus at a different stop farther up 104th Street at a different time later on in the hour.
It seems obvious to me that riding the bus in North Battleford takes careful planning of your trip in advance to match the run times of the schedule and the destination you want to go to. Another issue is that there is only one bus looping the city every hour, so if you miss the bus at your bus stop, you’ll have to wait a whole hour for another one.
Then again, it probably is wise for people to keep in mind this is still a limited bus transit service to a great degree. The bigger the city, the more extensive the transit service is going to be. That just is a fact of life.
Love pointed out that while the North Battleford transit service does have two buses, they can only deploy one on the route at any time. If the one on the route ever breaks down, they need the other one ready to go right away to promptly pick up passengers.
“The reality is that if I have a flat tire on this one, I have to have a vehicle that can get on the road right away,” Love said.
They have a staff of four bus drivers, and three more who drive for Handi-Bus who can transfer over to drive as well. They hired the people from scratch, as the people who drove under the old system stayed with First Bus after the contract ended.
We changed drivers close to the end, and the bus made its way past the Frontier Mall and the stores there. The CUPlex will be part of the route once it opens.
The bus finally made its way to Walmart, and having arrived at my destination I rang the bell and stepped off, satisfied that I had learned quite a bit more about the North Battleford transit system.
I noticed some similarities, but also quite a few differences from the transit systems I had been used to riding before.
Here was one thing I noticed about the trip: the bus drivers were definitely courteous and friendly. That was a big difference from my experience riding buses in Toronto whose transit system is notorious for riders’ complaints about rude and unfriendly service from the drivers.
Yes, there are some things in the big-city transit systems that North Battleford definitely should not emulate.