Sunday #2: January 8, 2012 – Wheels on the Bus

When my sister-in-law Susen heard about 52 Sundays, she asked me if I would have trouble finding something to write about every week. With confidence, I told her I didn’t think it would a problem. I told her I always find things in the newspaper, in magazines or on TV that I have strong opinions about and that I would just choose one and write. At the time I made those comments, I expected to locate two or three things that could easily be topics for my blog. What I did not expect was to have so many things that I could write about that the challenge would be choosing just one. If I’d had the time and the energy, I could have a written almost a blog a day this week with all the topics that irritated, interested or inspired me. Since I could only choose one, I decided on this one, mostly because it was the most recent.

 Wheels on the Bus

Last night, the city of Edmonton launched the three month pilot of “Night Ride,” the late night bus service from Whyte Avenue which, for non-Edmontonians, is a street bursting with bars and pubs. The street has a reputation for being a place where, every weekend, many young people, especially students, get ripping drunk and then spill out into the streets in hammered hordes at last call. This recurring mass of inebriation has caused the city and the neighbourhood multiple problems, including noise, littering, puking and—most concerning—violence.

One of the many issues that accompany the arrival of last call on Whyte is that so many people—revellers and bar staff who finish their shifts when the bar closes—are out on the street at once with limited transportation options. Transit service normally ends at 1:25 a.m. and taxis are scarce and expensive. With so many people needing to get home at the same time and options that don’t match the need, many concerns arise, not least of which is that some partiers will choose to drive impaired.

Night Ride has been touted as a solution to help reduce the problems on Whyte Avenue after last call. It involves a series of busses running on Friday and Saturday nights between 1:25 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. to transport the bar patrons and staff from Whyte Avenue to Southgate shopping center. From there, passengers must make their own way home. (Southgate was chosen as the end destination based on a survey that indicated many potential users live in that area.)

At first glance, Night Ride seems a great idea. It will get people off Whyte Avenue quickly and efficiently, thereby reducing noise, traffic congestion, loitering and littering and (hopefully) impaired driving. Some people, including some of last night’s first riders, are enthusiastic about the trial and hope the program will become permanent.

At second, closer, glance, this idea could have potential problems. For one thing, enclosing many intoxicated people in one bus has great potential for hostility and violence. Stu Litwinowich, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 560, is highly concerned about what that situation might mean for driver safety. In light of the severe beating of an Edmonton bus driver in December 2009, his fear is neither unfounded nor easily dismissed.

Yes, I know, not all the passengers on the bus would be drunk, and not all those that were drunk would be violent, but since intoxication increases the potential for violence, then clearly multiple drunks amplify the potential even further.

Another problem with this program is one of location. In essence, the program does not solve the problems on Whyte Avenue; it merely moves them to Southgate. Those large numbers of people, many drunk, many disorderly, are still going to be out on the street late at night; the only difference is which street. Those people exiting at Southgate will still need to find their way home; they will still have no other bus to transfer to; many will still need a taxi to get to their end destination or to get an alternate ride home. And the program has no usefulness to bar patrons who don’t live near Southgate. They either remain stuck on Whyte Avenue, or they travel even further away from their destination and then try to get home from there.

Ridership on the launching evening was low, but proponents anticipate that, when word gets out, Night Ride will find many users and will be the solution to Whyte Avenue problems that everyone hopes it will be. I worry that it will cause new problems and merely move the old problems to a new location. I hope that while this pilot is ongoing, the city will continue to examine the problem to come up with either more or different solutions, ones that work rather than just move the problem. I particularly hope ETS will consider manning the busses with a driver and an assistant for added safety, and that they will consider another bus that goes to the north side of the city.

The full three-month trial of Night Ride will eventually tell the tale; I hope it will not be a tale of tragedy; I hope it will not be a tale of the wheels falling off the bus.

If you want to read more about Night Ride, including responses from some of the riders on its inaugural evening, see The Edmonton Journal article at:

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