First of two parts
The West Kootenay transit system is experiencing some growing pains, and depending on how you look at it, it’s either a good thing or a bad thing.
Increased ridership is good for proponents of a robust public transportation system, for decreasing vehicle emissions and eliminating road congestion.
But it seems like a bad thing for passengers in over-crowded, standing-room only buses and would-be riders left behind at bus stops because the bus was already at capacity before it reached their stop.
Lately, a number of West Kootenay bus routes look more like scenes from Vancouver or Toronto than Castlegar and Nelson. People are complaining, but the solution is more complicated than one might think.
Those speaking loudest about transit challenges are Selkirk College students. Stories abound of missing classes and missing tests due to missing the bus. Of particular concern are the morning and late afternoon routes that connect Nelson and Trail with Castlegar and the route that goes from the Castlegar and District Community Complex to Selkirk College’s Castlegar campus.
Winter has only exacerbated the situation. Standing on a bus for up to 40 minutes while travelling on a highway on a good day is challenging, riders say. Doing it on a winter day where road conditions include snow and ice can be downright frightening. Missing a bus in frigid weather and having to remain outside until the next one arrives can be very uncomfortable and at times dangerous.
“It’s scary and it is cold,” said Vishwa Joshi, a student who catches the bus to Castlegar in Thrums and pretty much always has to stand if she does make it on the bus.
Selkirk College student ambassador and international student Rasika Saxena has talked to a lot of students about their fears and frustrations and experienced them firsthand herself.
She says the situation is especially challenging for international students who are already facing the challenges of adapting to life in a new country and culture.
She also fears the bus situation will cause tension between students and rest of the community.
“I am afraid the local people are quite annoyed because so many of us are there — they are commuting from one place to another too,” said Saxena. “Everyone is frustrated.”
“International students are already afraid because we are in a new place,” added psychology student Alexander M.K. “The last thing we need is oppression from the local community.”
Although college students do make up a large portion of transit users, they certainly are not the only users. About 60 per cent of riders on the No. 99 Kootenay Connector route running from Nelson to Castlegar get off at Selkirk College, leaving the remaining 40 per cent traveling to other stops.
It’s not just students experiencing difficulties. When a bus is standing room only, parents with small children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, people with mental health challenges and those with respiratory challenges can have trouble navigating the situation.
Saxena says she has watched people get off the bus well before their stop because they just can’t deal with the situation.
Increased demand for medical-related travel is also filling busses.
“Our rural areas are aging quickly as we encourage communities to age in place,” said RDCK research analyst Tom Dool. “Seniors are advocating for more access to public transit as driving becomes more costly and physically challenging,”
According to an RDCK West Kootenay transit committee report, capacity issues on the No. 98 and No. 99 Columbia Connector route between Trail and Castlegar are in some cases preventing people with mobility challenges from using public transit to get to Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in the morning and late afternoon.
“This is where the crisis can emerge — when people can’t get to the hospital because so many people are trying to get to the college,” said Dool.
Dool says a need for affordable housing also drives transit demand. As people working in municipalities move to more rural areas to find more affordable housing, inter-community transit demand increases.
“Crowded buses are not desirable,” acknowledged BC Transit planner Adriana McMullen when she was at Selkirk College recently for student transit consultations. “Safety is a priority. It is definitely something we are aware of and we are trying to address as soon as possible.”
Next: Solution will take time