by Timothy Schafer
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nelson Daily
The regional transit service has been suffering and the community is stepping up with solutions, noted a member of the West Kootenay Transit committee.
Rik Logtenberg said the contract the Regional District of Central Kootenay — along with the City of Nelson — and BC Transit has with NextGen has struggled with a lack of bus drivers on some routes, causing the cancellations on certain days.
Over the Christmas holiday season there were a number of cancelled transit routes with people “stranded on the side of the highway,” he explained recently during a Nelson city council meeting.
The incident was another in a series of cancellations that sparked the formation of a community group to begin advocating for a better transit service. The group had its first meeting with Logtenberg — also a City of Nelson councillor — in early January to talk about solutions.
Their vision is connected to a broader vision across the province to create an inter-regional transit system, Logtenberg related, so that a person could effectively take a bus from Nelson to Vancouver, or from Nelson to Cranbrook.
“In addition to that, one of the things they will be looking for is an on-demand transit service, which has had some success in a few communities in B.C., and certainly more communities around the country,” he explained.
On-demand transit is essentially using a phone — or a direct call in — that would put a person into a queue and the transit route gets re-directed for pickup.
“It’s not like a taxi service but more like a dynamic routing system where you can start to pick people up closer to their home, more on the time when they need it,” said Logtenberg. “It’s pretty exciting as an idea and it makes sense that it is one of the asks of this community group.”
Two months ago a report on the ongoing cancellations of trips in the West Kootenay Transit System — and the summary of efforts by BC Transit, NextGen and the RDCK to reduce the impact of those missed trips — was delivered to a regional district board meeting.
The report, authored by RDCK research analyst Tom Dool, noted that — despite an increase in ridership in 2022 — there was a corresponding increased impact from service interruptions. It was found that labour shortages — compounded by “compensation and retention challenges” — were driving the bus when it came to service interruptions in 2022.
Although Nelson, Castlegar, North Shore and Salmo saw only three per cent of scheduled trips missed to-date, other routes were slightly higher — Blewett and Kaslo at five per cent, Perrier at four per cent — but the hardest hit was the northern Nakusp (18 per cent) and Nakusp health connection (58 per cent) routes.
Those northern routes were impacted by driver recruitment, Dool explained, with a four-month period when there wasn’t even a local driver available — drivers having to be brought in from other areas of the service.
A loss of one trip on a northern route that only runs three times per week would result in a 33 per cent reduction, he stated in his report, while one trip cancelled on an urban route that runs 10 times per day would deliver a two per cent reduction in service.
“Having said that, the urban route cancellation would likely effect a significantly higher number of riders,” Dool pointed out.
Logtenberg said transit was a delicate service that needed more forward thinking.
“Transit is one of those things … that there are tipping points within it, that if you are starting to miss routes people will start to become disillusioned with it; they stop choosing that as a transportation solution, which then means less ridership, which means less investment, which kind of sends it into a death spiral,” he said.
“On the other side, if you can get it going, maybe take some initial investment up front, you can set it onto a positive feedback loop … where it becomes a choice for young people and they carry that choice of transportation solution in to their teenage years or adulthood.”
Logtenberg said there will be more coming from the community group and the WKT committee sometime in the next month.
The missed trip issue was raised by regional district staff with BC Transit and operations contractor NextGen Transit last year, but it was found to be a microcosm of a larger problem.
With operating hours in some rural and remote areas not comprising a full-time job for a driver, transit employment in those areas was considered part-time, which effectively limited how many people would want to apply for the position, Dool explained at the time.
As well, this increased the frequency of non-service trips — with buses and drivers travelling considerable distance to be put into service — that used up operating hours.
“When Nakusp and area lost its only driver, drivers from other parts of the system were brought in on a rotating basis to provide coverage until a new driver could be found,” Dool said. “While service was reduced, a minimum of service was maintained by this arrangement as opposed to the persistent closure of the service, which had been the case previously.”
Despite a recruitment program, there are dearth of people seeking employment in the field, both locally and across the province. Provincial employment and labour statistics reveal that the rate of unemployment in the transportation and warehousing sectors in the Kootenay region is at a 10-year low of 1.9 per cent (3.6 per cent provincially).
“Effectively, anyone who is interested in working in the sector is already doing so,” said Dool.