Getting people from A to B keeps getting harder

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
February 24, 2018 - 5:00am

IN AN AGE when we can send huge amounts of information to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, here in the Interior of B.C. we have trouble moving people from one place to another.

Greyhound is cutting its bus services again, and the closest anybody has to a solution is to complain about it.

Inside cities, transit systems work well but not everywhere. The parents of Westmount elementary endure morning and afternoon traffic jams in front of the school as they deposit or retrieve their kids. The school board struggles with how to fix it — a new traffic light?

In contrast, there’s a $42 billion plan on the books to build an ultra-high-speed rail link to carry 2 million riders a year from Vancouver to Seattle and Portland.

It would take an hour between Vancouver and Seattle, about the time parents spend in traffic getting their kids between Batchelor Heights and Westmount every day.

There are all sorts of wonderful technologies on the drawing table or already on the tracks. In China, a magnetic levitation train takes passengers 30 km. between Shanghai and the Pudong airport at 430 km/h.

I’ve seen it, never been on it — I made the same trip in a taxi driven by a cabbie who kept falling asleep, but that’s a story for another day.

I have, though, been on Japan’s famous Shinkansen — bullet train — a few times and I can tell you there’s nothing quite like rocketing along a track at 320 km/h.

Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’ concept involves putting people in capsules travelling through vacuum tubes, something like the vacuum system we once used in the newspaper industry to send stories from the newsroom to the typesetting room. Speed – 6,500 km/h.

A competitor to Musk, called the Hyper Chariot, aims to take passengers from Edinburgh to London in eight minutes at about the same speed.

And yet, we can’t get ourselves from Kamloops to Westwold or from Prince George to Dawson Creek unless it’s in a car.

We’ve largely solved the riddle of moving vast numbers of people long distances but getting small numbers short distances — not so much.

Two obvious reasons come to mind: population and money.

Almost 70 years ago, W.A.C. Bennett was known for his “blacktop government” because he correctly believed the rural areas of the province would never be developed and populated unless there were roads to get there.

Cars have been so successful they’re now the only way we want to travel on land.

The bus used to be an option. In the movies, the girl climbs on the midnight Greyhound and is seen settling into her seat, heading out to parts unknown. When somebody wanted to get out of town, there was always a bus at midnight.

As the clamor grows over Greyhound’s cutbacks, the BC Liberals demand to know how the NDP allowed it to happen (as if it wasn’t happening when the Liberals were in power).

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena’s answer is that Greyhound is a private business and the Passenger Transportation Board is an independent tribunal. The government, she says, “will be working with communities.”

To do what? As the PTB notes, Greyhound’s ridership has declined by 30 per cent over the past five years and it now loses about $35,000 a day in B.C.

Many routes have low ridership and suffer large operating losses.

Monopoly or not, a private business can’t be forced to lose money indefinitely. Greyhound wants to eliminate 1.6 million scheduled miles and keep 3.7 million.

Do the politicians who insist “something must be done” intend to subsidize Greyhound with tax dollars? If not, what?

Trains, by the way, don’t work everywhere. Britain’s once-vaunted train system, though still pretty good, isn’t what it used to be. Low ridership has closed a lot of track, replaced by — you guessed it, buses.

But at least they’ve still got buses.

Trains are for moving masses. We don’t have masses in Canada. Not even enough, obviously, to keep the buses going.

As much as we talk about cars going out of style, we’ll always need them in rural B.C. Providing alternative centre-to-centre public transportation for those who can’t afford to own one is a challenge we can’t seem to meet.

That’s where the money comes in. And priorities.

Should inter-city buses be run on a BC Transit model? Is it more important to get Vancouver commuters to work a few minutes faster with a new $1.3-billion Patullo Bridge, or to make sure people outside Vancouver can get from one place to another?

Meanwhile, the Westmount parents continue their daily ritual, lining up in front of a school designed for walking. And waiting for another traffic study.