Frequent bus cancellations at Peterborough Transit are taking a toll on local businesses, with employees often showing up late to work and seeking out jobs with shorter commutes, according to the Peterborough and the Kawarthas Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber wrote a letter to city council recently calling for more investment in transit to ensure employees can get to work on time, according to a post on the group’s website.
“The status quo isn’t working particularly well,” said Joel Wiebe, the chamber’s vice president of government relations and communications, in an interview. “It’s frustrating for employers; it’s frustrating for staff.”
Peterborough Transit has been experiencing a persistent driver shortage in recent years, which has been causing frequent bus cancellations – sometimes dozens per day, as Currents has previously reported. “High rates of absenteeism” among drivers is adding to the problem, according to a statement from the City last fall.
Wiebe said he hears frequently from business owners who say employees are showing up late to work multiple times per week because of the cancellations. The unreliable service is also making it difficult for employers to attract and retain staff, as some workers look for jobs closer to where they live, he said.
“I just want to see solutions.”
Kayleigh Hindman is the general manager of a hotel in Peterborough’s south end where the majority of employees commute by transit (she said corporate policy prevents her from disclosing the hotel’s name).
She said bus cancellations are causing “a lot of stress” for staff, and her. When a staff member can’t get to work on time, it means someone else has to stay late, said Hindman, who also sits on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce.
“It really sucks when your coworkers are 30 minutes late – and if you’re in housekeeping, you’ve got to pick up that slack. It doesn’t change the fact that rooms need to be cleaned before 3 p.m.,” she said.
One of Hindman’s employees now has to walk more than an hour to and from the hotel for his shifts, she said. “It’s more reliable for him to take an hour-and-20-minute walk to work than it is for him to take transit.”
“It’s not a small issue…it’s [about] people getting to work to provide livelihoods for their family and themselves,” she said. “I just want to see solutions.”
Hindman said even though she doesn’t ride transit herself, she wants to see the city invest more in the service to make sure it’s reliable.
“It’s probably been about two decades since I rode a city bus,” she said. “But I don’t mind paying for it [through property taxes] to make sure that my staff get here on time.”
Morgan Bell, general manager of Hanoi House, on Lansdowne Street, said it’s a struggle for some of her staff to get around by Peterborough Transit as well.
Employees often have to arrive at work 30 minutes early just to avoid being late, because transit isn’t frequent or reliable enough to allow them to get there when their shifts start, she said. And they often have to wait outside for long periods to catch a bus home at night, which she said causes her to worry about the safety of young female employees. “We’re on a busy street, but you never know,” she said.
Bell also manages Naka Japanese Food & Drink, on downtown Hunter Street, which has the same owners as Hanoi House. She recently offered to transfer two employees from Naka to Hanoi House, to allow them to work more hours. But they had to decline because they said the commute to Lansdowne Street by transit would have been too difficult.
“We want to make sure that people are able to get to work, obviously, so that they can have a job and make money. And it’s hard when the transit system isn’t really allowing for that,” she said.
On-demand transit service causes frustration
Last year, the driver shortage led Peterborough Transit to cut evening service on many routes and replace it with on-demand service.
That switch made it harder to fill the Saturday evening shift at Bobcaygeon Brewing Company’s taproom, on the Parkway in Peterborough’s south end, according to retail operations manager Luke Best.
He said one of his staff members can’t reliably get home by on-demand transit, putting him out of commission on Saturday nights. “He told us that there was about three weeks in a row where he wasn’t able to catch a bus because he had to book it on demand, and it just never came,” Best said. On-demand transit is supposed to allow transit riders to hail a bus to their nearest transit stop during evening hours, via an app that uses similar software to that used by ride-sharing apps.
“We have a very sort of limited staff here as it is,” he said. “So it’s really sort of thrown a wrench in [scheduling].”
Best also takes transit himself occasionally, and if he misses the bus that comes right after his shift, he has to wait up to half an hour for the next one, he said. That’s a much longer wait than he was used to in Victoria, B.C., where he’s originally from.
“The bus system there has its own flaws but it’s pretty consistent and you know that if you miss the bus, it’s going to be 10 to 15 minutes [until the next one comes]. And I feel like that’s sort of expected in most cities, especially if it’s a city that hosts colleges and universities,” he said.
Last January, City council voted to freeze Peterborough Transit’s operating funding at 2022 levels for 2023, despite warnings from city staff that it would lead to less frequent bus service and transit staff layoffs. However, staff have given no further public updates on the impact of the funding freeze since then.
Meanwhile, city staff are studying how the current grid route network is working, as well as the impact of potentially returning to a hub-and-spoke route network, as was in place prior to the pandemic. City council is expected to receive that report in September.
The Chamber of Commerce isn’t taking a position on what route network Peterborough Transit should use, Wiebe said. But they would like to see more funding to improve service. Wiebe said council needs to be prudent with taxpayers’ money, “but we also are trying to make the case that there’s dollar value attached as well to investing in transit, and that comes back within our local economy.”