City transit boss defends controversial route changes, says service improvements are coming next month

Peterborough Transit manager Laurie Stratton says system is “faster, more direct” despite anger from riders who say commutes have instead become longer, more complicated

Peterborough’s current transit route network, which has faced blowback from some transit riders since it was introduced last year, is an improvement on the old system, according to Peterborough Transit manager Laurie Stratton.

“It’s a faster, more direct system,” Stratton said. She pointed to the fact that buses now run in a modified-grid pattern, sticking mainly to major streets as they move people between key destinations, such as the hospital, Lansdowne Place, Trent University and Fleming College. That is a major shift from the former, radial network that routed all buses through the downtown, with trips often winding along neighbourhood streets. 

Stratton’s comments come as Peterborough Transit tries to win back frustrated riders who flocked away from transit in huge numbers last year as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the city. Ridership plummeted in 2020, with transit boardings falling to just over 2 million, less than half the total in 2019.  

Downtown resident Heather Luxton stopped renewing her transit pass last year. She said trips now take too long and transfers are confusing to navigate because they now happen mid-route, instead of only at the Simcoe St. bus terminal. 

“The way it is now and if they’re going to continue it that way – I’m done with the bus. I will not put my money into Peterborough Transit,” she said.

But Stratton said she is confident riders will return to transit in the coming months. “I think once people get out again and start traveling again, that experience will reinforce” that the current system works better, Stratton said in an interview with Peterborough Currents.

She said that transit service will ramp back up in September, after running at reduced capacity for more than a year, as people were urged to stay home because of the pandemic. The details are still being finalized, but she said bus frequency will increase on some routes to ensure at least 30-minute service across the system during morning and afternoon rush hour. There will also be a return of some form of express service to Trent University and Fleming College, with buses scheduled as often as every 7-10 minutes. Some routes will also see “tweaks” to improve service, she said.

But that may not be enough to satisfy some riders, who said they feel like an essential city service was torn from them just as the pandemic made life more challenging.

“They literally took away people’s buses to get to work.”

Sathis Chellam purchased a car, after transit route changes disrupted his commute to work. (Photo: Brett Throop)

Sathis Chellam was so frustrated with the service changes that he bought a car. When the switch happened, he said it doubled the time it took to commute to his job at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre. He had to walk farther to catch his bus on Chemong Rd. and wait longer for a transfer bus, he said. 

As someone who is concerned about his environmental footprint, he had never planned to be a car owner. “I don’t want to spoil the environment,” he said. “I feel bad but I have no other choice.” 

Chellam said that he would like to return to transit, after moving closer to work recently. But he said it will be difficult to alter his commute now that he’s used to driving to and from work in only 10 minutes. 

Jason Hornigold said he was forced to use Peterborough Transit’s accessible van service when his bus route changed. He said it used to take about seven minutes by bus to travel from his home in East City to his job at the Quaker Oats factory. With the new routes, he said he had to take one bus to Hunter St. and then wait 20 minutes or more for a transfer.

That was a non-starter because he could walk to work in less time – and he said he has a disease that causes blood circulation problems when he’s exposed to cold temperatures. 

“I was quite upset,” he said. “[They] literally took away people’s buses to get to work.”

He got a note from his doctor so that during the winter he could take the accessible van service, which is available to people who can’t take regular transit because of mobility challenges. He now commutes by e-bike during the warmer months. But he wishes he could have his old bus route back. “It was so handy.”

Jason Hornigold used to commute via bus all year round. Due to a medical condition, he now takes the Handivan during winter months, and rides an e-bike to work in the warmer months. (Photo: Brett Throop)

Majority of transit riders support route changes, survey says

The City brought in the current transit routes last summer to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission at the downtown transit terminal, which used to see thousands of passengers pass through each day. Four of the nine regular routes, as well as all three community routes, now bypass the terminal to limit crowding.

Stratton acknowledges that the routes are a big adjustment for transit riders. “We know that learning any new system is difficult,” she said.

But she said the majority of transit riders support the changes. Seventy percent of respondents to a survey conducted as part of the City’s review of transit routes indicated that they think the pandemic-response routes work as they are currently configured, or would work with adjustments. 

Margaret Slavin is a transit rider who supports the new route layout. During last month’s city council meeting, she said trips downtown from her home near Del Crary park are now faster than they were with the radial system. Plus, she sees the modified grid system as a way to draw more travelers to transit and away from car travel.

“If we’re going to ever get new ridership which we have to get, you can’t take an hour to get across the city,” Slavin said. “You’ve got to be able to get across the city in 20 minutes, or nobody’s going to leave their car at home.”

Stratton said ridership has been ticking upward since the city began to reopen this past spring, and has more or less returned to its regular summer level, which is always substantially lower because of the absence of post-secondary students.

“What we’re seeing is the community is coming back to transit,” she said.

She encouraged anyone with complaints about the current routes to call Peterborough Transit – saying she’s willing to speak to those customers personally.

“I’m happy to talk about the direct routes. [I’m] happy to talk about how it is more convenient and happy to guide them through how it might work for them,” she said.

(Photo courtesy of Peterborough Transit)

Transit routes to change again next year

Last month city council voted to permanently switch to a grid-style transit route network. The new routes are scheduled to come into effect in May 2022.

However, council also rejected a bid to increase transit spending by an estimated $3.2 million a year, to improve service on the new grid network. That proposal would have ushered in 15-minute bus runs during morning and afternoon rush hour and expanded service to new areas of the city, such as the airport.

Town ward councillor and transportation chair Kemi Akapo said she will continue to fight to get more money for transit into the 2022 budget, which councillors will finalize this fall.

“In order for the proposed route network to work very well I believe that we need service enhancements, which would increase frequency,” she told Peterborough Currents. “I do know that it’s going to be a topic of conversation in the upcoming budget.”

Brett Throop is a reporter based in Peterborough. He previously worked as a radio producer for CBC in Ottawa and Toronto. His writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, Canadian Architect and the Peterborough Examiner.

Note: A previous version of this story included a photo that misidentified the subject as Laurie Stratton. Peterborough Currents regrets the error.


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