By Kerri Breen
Illustration by Tara Fleming
I write to you from Toronto, the city whose 24-hour public transportation is the Wi-Fi to the St. John’s Metrobus’ dial-up. As I’ve learned, the public transit grass is greener here, as in most metropolitan areas, but that doesn’t mean takin’ the bus in the city of legends is a total bust. In fact, with the right insider’s advice, you can make the most of our flawed public transportation service.
Here’s my guide to happy, efficient riding—especially useful for those new to town.
There’s no shortage of complaints about Metrobus, and rightfully so. Buses are infrequent, even by standards of similarly sized cities, and service to communities such as Shea Heights is very limited. But before you step on the bus, or even load up the Metrobus website, you have to understand with what difficulty these fine folks deliver the service.
There are many stumbling blocks in trying to create a cost effective public transportation system in any smaller city, but take a closer look at what we’re up against in particular:
1.) Service spanning two municipalities and three small communities
2.) Unforgiving geography.
3.) Roads that were established when city planning was a mere twinkle in someone’s eye.
4.) An overwhelmingly car-centric culture, which makes improving bus frequency less of a fiscal priority for our governments.
In 2006, the average weekday ridership was 14,815 people. If you think that’s low, that number is actually up from 2004’s 13,608. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation: We avoid the bus because it sucks, and it sucks because we avoid it.
I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t ways Metrobus can be improved, but until a larger segment of the population opts to get on and be moved, it’s reasonable to assume not much can change. In the meantime, here’s how you can ride most efficiently with what we have.
Good for something
The bus is especially good for trips to certain areas at certain times of the day, vague as that sounds. Most routes are generally on schedule in the morning if you need to get to work on time. But by suppertime, watch out, especially in the downtown area (where there’s perpetual construction as well) buses are frequently late.
Compared to a few years ago, access to box-store shopping areas such as Stavanger Drive and Kelsey Drive is a lot better. The Village Mall is the epicenter of Metrobus service because it’s the most logical connecting point for service to areas such as Mount Pearl, the Goulds and Kilbride, and Cowan Heights. The Avalon Mall, despite it being more hip with the kids, is not so special.
Access to institutes (MUN, CNA, etc) starts at 6:30 in the morning, but expect to wait an hour for many routes servicing the university (like Route 10) if you’re heading home after that night class. Most routes stop before or around midnight.
Unlike in many capital cities, Metrobuses are rarely crowded, so you might not even have to sit next to someone you don’t know, if that up-close-and-personal aspect of public transit bothers you.
Tricks of the trade
This is the state of affairs we’re dealing with: Of 24 buses on the road at around 4pm on a Tuesday, ten were running between four and ten minutes late by Metrobus’ own record. Try to be patient. If you are frustrated with the service, call or send an e-mail. There’s a link to a feedback form at www.metrobus.com. Try to resist taking it out on the driver, for obvious reasons.
At the best of times, buses run no more frequently than once every twenty minutes or half an hour. Keep in mind that bus service at night—with about an hour between buses most of the time—is dicey no matter your destination. The more you know about Metrobus schedules, the better you can work around them.
The good part about there only being 23 routes is that it’s possible to commit some basic info to memory. Metrobus’ website does not have an online route planner yet, but Metrobus assured one customer on its website that one is in the works as part of its Google Transit project.
There are some handy features already in place on the website. Timetracker lets you know if your bus is off schedule, and you can chat live to someone from Metrobus about route information. You can also reload or purchase an M-card with rides through the site.
My last trick is to do your math and avoid getting duped into buying more bus rides than you need. Remember, for an adult, a $70 monthly pass is only a good deal if you plan to ride more than 31 times. A semester pass (good for four months) means you need to ride at least 27 times per month to have any advantage over paying the cash fare, aside from convenience.