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COMMENTARY: Public transit a wise investment for Pelham

'Women will live an average of 9.4 years without a driver's license and men about 6.2 years'
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Public transit is a priority for addressing affordability, labour participation, equity, housing challenges, population growth and a climate crisis that is no longer in the future but is very much in the present. Thank you to PelhamToday for this opportunity to discuss and endorse the 2024 budget for the operation of the Niagara Transit Commission (NTC). Here are some observations about transit, in general, and transit, as it applies to Pelham, in particular.

We are moving quickly into a super-aged demographic landscape. For years, successive governments have made it very clear the policy direction is to support older adults to live and stay in the community as long as possible. A succession of health and financial challenges have sharpened the focus and confirmed the wisdom and inevitability of this policy.

The Canadian Medical Association reports that life expectancy often exceeds the time we will be able to drive. Women will live an average of 9.4 years without a driver's license and men about 6.2 years. It's important for individuals to plan ahead while we're healthy and be able to explore alternatives to driving.

Driving provides a sense of independence and a feeling of competence and connection and that's why retiring from driving can have a profound impact on a person's sense of self. The loss of driving privileges can alter the quality of life and create a loss of social contacts and create a sense of social isolation.

Most of us want the independence and dependability of living in our own home as long as possible. Moving closer to services like a doctor or changing a doctor is not a real option for most of us. With the cost of owning and operating a new mid-sized vehicle estimated to be around $15,000 a year, should we really be devoting so many of our retirement resources to one activity?At the opposite end of the scale are our teenaged drivers. Using published data, the proportion of licensed teenage drivers has dropped by 24 percent in the years between 1995-2021. In the U.S, only 40 percent of teens hold a valid driver’s license. Citing the high cost, climate concerns and driving anxiety, young people are drawn to transportation options like transit, e-scooters, e-bikes and active transportation. Research shows that 40 percent of on-demand users are 24 years old and under.

Despite tough market conditions, NTC’s on-demand ridership continues to grow. The on-demand, on-time performance is excellent at 98 percent. The system average wait time is 13 minutes. The average rider satisfaction rating is 96 percent. Vehicle utilization continues to improve. Nearly 30 percent of rides are shared rides. It is unlikely that are on demand service can match the convenience of making up your mind in a split second to go somewhere but people are making the choice to on-demand.

We all know that the transportation solution will not be based upon unlimited financial resources. The system will be challenged to meet the fiscal challenges, but it has the potential of immediate exponential growth. Our on-demand system has much more agility than the fixed route system creating endless possibilities for a customized service for the people of Pelham.

'With the cost of owning and operating a new mid-sized vehicle estimated to be around $15,000 a year, should we really be devoting so many of our retirement resources to one activity?'

The primary strategic objective must be to expand and integrate Pelham’s on-demand access to easily access more transportation hubs. The second objective must be to program Pelham’s on-demand vehicles by using technology to get at real-time supply and demand data. This will allow NTC to make better operational decisions and optimize driver hours and vehicle fleets.

Just about any type of vehicle can be used for on-demand services including electric, hybrid, vans and small buses. Automated aggregation systems will encourage riders to share vehicles. Zero-emission vehicles will come faster to the on-demand than the traditional NTC diesel bus fleet. On-demand is poised to lead the efforts to cut down on road congestion and greenhouse gas emissions and provide better coverage and improved service.

According to the NTC budget documents, the estimated average annual investment required to replace the existing conventional NTC fleet is $10.8 million per year for diesel buses and $16.8 million per year if the transition is to zero-emissions fleets. Right now, there is only $400,000 available in the NTC capital reserves. In an era of inflation, broken supply chains and the high cost to replace capital vehicles and equipment, it’s just not enough. The 2024 budget wisely makes responsible contribution to the reserves.

There is, of course, room for constructive disagreement on the NRT budget. As usual, the trade-off is higher fares, taxes or service reductions. NTC is in the process of consolidation its gains from the first year of operation in preparation for growth in services and harmonization of service and fares. It is a poor time to be making retrograde steps. In Pelham, we certainly don’t want to go backwards. Instead, we want to add services like Sunday and holidays.

Why is it that equity seems to get lost and undervalued in a financial debate? Low-income households make up the majority of the non-student ridership of the transit system. A regressive fare increase will further penalize the same people who always suffer first; women, newcomers, the marginalized, job seekers, and the people working at minimum wage. These riders have had to make a commitment to transit. They cannot ‘trade down’ to a more economical transportation option.

The proposed budget increase of 7.8 percent results in an average annual increase of $5.85 per household. That’s less than the cost of a one-way regional trip. This budget represents a responsible and balanced approach to ensuring that everyone has an affordable, convenient and safe transportation option.

Pelham’s portion of the 2024 NTC budget will decline by 14.9 percent from the 2023. It’s true, Pelham’s portion goes from $1,118,510 in 2023 to $952,105 in 2024, in the proposed budget. That doesn’t change the importance of maximizing three dimensions of value to the people of Pelham: cost, quality and response which means agility and flexibility. Transportation leadership begins by being in tune with new realities and developing a practical response.