In the 2023 budget presentation, the HSR predicted bus ridership would return to pre-pandemic levels—roughly 21 million rides per year—sometime this summer. There is a lot at stake as the city had committed to a $36 Million 10-year transit plan that would transform public transit, while preparing for integration with the proposed LRT system. COVID dealt a serious blow to some of the assumptions that supported both the 10-year plan, and possibly LRT—although the latter will not be operational for several more years and conditions may change by then. From the roughly 21 million riders that had been the norm for the HSR over the past decade, ridership cratered to just under 12 Million in 2020 and just under 10 million in 2021. In 2022 ridership bounced back to 15.2 million. That still leaves roughly 6 million additional rides needed this year just to get back to 2019 levels. Meanwhile the annual cost to taxpayers for the HSR since 2019 has gone up $10 Million for Transit to $80.7.
To address the issue of not only getting users back on the buses, but growing transit ridership, a fundamentally new transit plan has been drafted in conjunction with McMaster researchers. Titled re-Envision the HSR, the plan would see bus routes re-configured to connect multiple hubs across the city, rather than concentrating all routes into the downtown core. The current downtown-focused routing is fundamentally unchanged since the 1950’s before shopping malls were developed and when the Mountain was sparsely populated. Dundas and Waterdown would see substantially improved service. There is even a recommendation to explore extending service to Binbrook.
The proposed network would be similar to the BLAST network that was approved in 2007, but with enhancements. One of the goals of the plan is to increase the number of residents who live within 400 meters of bus service. Another is to reduce the number of times a transfer would be needed. Transfers were listed in a public survey conducted by the HSR as a major disincentive to transit use.
Connectivity to GO terminals is a major feature of the new layout. Currently the West Harbour GO station is served directly by one bus route—the A Line. Under the new system there would be at least seven buses serving the station. Similarly the proposed Confederation GO terminal will be served by multiple bus routes. This will be in addition to several routes serving the downtown GO Centre.
The challenge with the plan will be the cost. Adding the new routes will add an estimated 55.8 million increase in the annual operation cost, although the report notes that an increase of $36.5 million was contemplated at the end of implementation of Year 5-10 of the 10-Year Local Transit Strategy, making the actual increment $19.3 m. But that assumes the 10-year transit strategy was going to be fully implemented, and council already found it necessary to pause the 10-year plan twice because of financial challenges. Still it is a futuristic plan that is designed to attract people to public transit who have not used it before, and that could help restore ridership.
The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the plans over the spring and summer. The full reconfiguration document can be accessed here.
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