I have spoken to a number of residents in recent weeks who are rightfully frustrated that Meaford's public transit pilot project will come to an end this summer as a result of low ridership.
For those who have been using the service, it has been valuable. One reader who lives in the downtown area told me that once the pilot ends, she's unsure of how she will get to this town's only grocery store. For someone with mobility issues, it is a long walk up the hill to get a few groceries, something that wasn't an issue when there was a grocery store located downtown. Another resident told me that they would have difficulty getting their laundry to the town's only laundromat once the bus service is discontinued.
The fact that the bus has been transporting less than one passenger per hour on average makes it difficult for council and the municipality to justify funding the service in an era when every penny matters, but that harsh reality doesn't make the service any less important for those that really need it.
Nobody has been pulling for the transit pilot project to succeed more than this scribe. I do believe that it is a necessary service, and I do think it important to find a way to provide transportation services of some kind, even in a small rural municipality.
The pilot project has been flawed, however. The project certainly got off on the wrong foot in 2016 when the initial fare was a whopping $4, much higher than average transit fares in other communities, and particularly given that there are a limited number of stops, and absolutely no connectivity to any service that would allow Meaford residents without their own transportation to travel to other communities; to Owen Sound for a medical appointment, for example, or to Blue Mountains for a job interview perhaps.
Roughly six months into the pilot, council wisely suggested lowering the far to a more reasonable $2, however there was no real increase in ridership.
Some have asked why the municipality hasn't done more to promote the service in order to make more people aware that it is available; others have asked why the hours of the service are odd and inconvenient.
You can't blame municipal staff recommending the discontinuation of the pilot project after reviewing the data, and you can't blame council (who have in fact approved extending the pilot project period twice in order to give the service a chance) for agreeing that, given the apparent lack of interest in the service, there are better areas where money can be spent. Transit services are expensive to operate, and cost recovery is all but impossible, so public transit services must be heavily subsidized by municipal governments.
But that doesn't change the fact that there are some who definitely need a local transit service, and the number of folks who will need such a service in the years to come is likely to grow given our ageing population, and the growing number of folks, particularly young people struggling to survive on less than a living wage, who can't afford transportation of their own.
So what is a small rural municipality to do about public transportation? I think what is really needed is support from the provincial government and cooperation between rural communities in order to establish local transit systems, and to link them in order that someone in Meaford could get to Collingwood by bus if they needed to.
Some councillors have argued in the past that allowing residents to travel to other communities by public transportation could hurt Meaford businesses as those folks could very well shop elsewhere. As I pointed out a few years ago, such an argument is just silly. First, we are talking mostly about residents with limited means and no ability to buy and maintain their own vehicles, or we're talking about elderly residents or those with mobility issues – how much shopping could those folks possibly do that would hurt the bottom line of Meaford businesses? Not to mention that if councillors feel that these residents should be trapped in this municipality, what about the things that simply aren't available in Meaford? To members of council I asked where they would buy a tie if they couldn't leave Meaford's borders, or where would they buy that brand new Honda when there is no Honda dealership in town?
As someone who has covered this municipal council for a decade, I understand the financial realities of governing a small rural municipality. I have seen the challenges, and I appreciate the balancing act that a local council has to undertake in order to provide as many services at as low a cost as possible to as many people as possible, but on transit, I think council needs to step up and start thinking outside the box.
What the solution is that would allow a small, efficient transit system to operate in Meaford, I'm not certain, but I suspect a good start would be to sit down with neighbouring communities in order to find a way to provide connectivity between those communities, which I think might attract more users.
It would require a new pilot project to be undertaken, but I think it would be worth it as the need for public transit will only grow in the years to come, and though their numbers have been small thus far, those that have come to rely on the small transit system cobbled together for this pilot project will soon find themselves without it. But their need is still there.