Mass transit is one way to help improve the sustainability of cities. However, one of the greatest shortcomings is population density. Transit is more expensive for every kilometre travelled. Additionally, there is a high cost associated with building (or rebuilding) & running mass transit infrastructure, especially in areas with a low population density.

According to a 2012 study put together by Charlie Gardner of Old Urbanist, “no city with an overall density of less than 4,000 per square mile” has achieved 10% modal share, and many of those above that threshold fail as well. Here in Greater Sudbury, the urban density is 1,159.7/km2 (3,004/sq mi), with the larger area dropping to a population density of 49.5/km2. Despite these exceptionally low numbers, Sudbury attempts to manage a transit “network”: GoVa.

According to Open Data Sudbury, in 2014, prior to the new GoVa routes, ridership was 4,947,537 over the year. Assuming 2 trips per rider, per day for 365 days, that would equal 6,778 riders per day. That’s equal to roughly 4% of the city’s population, which is well below the 10% modal share benchmark.

Three Services: GoVa, GoVa Plus, and GoVa Zone

GoVa, although presented as three sets of services, is really just city buses. The main service, GoVa, operates a series of routes that meet up at one or more central “hubs” and operates a “high frequency” route between several major hubs. GoVa generally services the urban core of Greater Sudbury. There are also routes running to hubs in the various smaller suburbs (formerly independent towns) a few times a day. In some of the denser suburbs, GoVa also operates 1 or 2 routes that serve their core.

Riders with accessibility issues use GoVa Plus. Passengers book their trips in advance and a special mini-bus is dispatched to pick up several individuals in the same area. Unfortunately, this means that pick-up & drop-off times are somewhat irregular and unreliable. Additionally, severely handicapped individuals may end up waiting outside businesses in frigid temperatures for a pick up.

GoVa Zone is Sudbury’s answer to the lower population density outside of the main city & suburban cores. Riders in rural areas basically order a taxi from their home to the local mobility hub. They then transfer to a traditional GoVa bus. This helps reduce the costs of servicing an area much less utilized, but also makes transit significantly less convenient. A GoVa Zone rider books their ride at least 90 minutes prior to when their bus is scheduled to leave the hub. For the return trip,riders need to inform the driver that they’re need a GoVa Zone transfer.

Transit Schedule

On weekdays, the main line’s first run starts at 6:15 am, with a final departure at midnight. Weekends start at 7:15 am, with a final departure from downtown at 11:45 pm. This route runs the more frequently than any other, connecting all 3 major hubs: New Sudbury, Downtown, and South End. Three significant stops along its route include the Government Taxation Centre, City Hall, and Health Sciences North. Additionally, the downtown core is littered with small coffee shops & numerous bars and nightclubs.

With work at the tax centre starting at 7:30am, employees can take the bus to & from work, assuming they live in the core. Anyone coming from a suburban area, won’t arrive in the city until 9:30 am or later. Many in City Hall & at the police HQ start, or end, their shifts outside of transit hours. Shift change at the hospital also happens prior to buses starting up for the day. By the time bars close, most transit lines have stopped for the night.

To add to this, there is no city transit to mining facilities, which employ 6,000 people directly and an additional 10,000 indirectly. This accounts for nearly 10% of the city population. Even if transit ran to the mines, most employees start outside of the running hours of the main line.

As all other lines run less frequently, start later, and end earlier than the main line, the having 10% of commuters choosing transit as their primary most of transportation is clearly not a realistic goal in its design.

Route Design

The current routes are the result of the first major overhaul of the Sudbury Transit system since the city was forcefully amalgamated with all of the various bedroom communities to form the largest city by area in the province of Ontario. The previous system was significantly worse, with all routes starting & ending downtown. This made for exceptionally long routes with significant overlap, painful costs, and the inability to properly service, well, anyone.

With a variety of major & local hubs, Sudbury is now using a sort of hub & spoke system. Local routes go to the hubs and main lines connect the hubs together with few detours. A greater area has access to some sort of transit (GoVa or GoVa Zone), with major hubs receiving a new bus every 15-30 minutes (as opposed to every hour or two).

Additionally, passenger rail doesn’t stop anywhere near city transit, and intercity busing from Ontario Northland, is not located on a main route. Giving the late-night & early morning schedules of most intercity travel, mass transit in Sudbury has create first & last-mile orphans.

The Research

Clearly routes & schedules do not meet the needs of the population. So why, with the opportunity for a major redesign, did they settle on this?

They did an online survey and examined their utilization statistics.

What’s wrong with an online survey? People who don’t use transit will either screen out, say they’ll never use transit because it’s inconvenient, or just ignore (or worse, have hostile replies) the survey.

As for utilization statistics, well, if you have an inconvenient system that doesn’t serve the population, utilization will be low. If everyone starts work before 6:30am at the hospital & mines, then there’s likely to be poor ridership from 6:30am – 7:30am. Additionally, if workers drive out to the mining sites, how can utilization data show the need for transit to mines?

The Solution

There isn’t one solution. There are a lot of different solutions, and there’s a lot that needs to be taken into account.

One thing that definitely needs to be done: GoVa needs to consult with the major employers & find out when their shift changes occur. Between the mines, the hospital, city hall, and the taxation centre, a significant portion of Sudbury’s working population has shifts that start and/or end outside of current transit hours. Transit must find a way to cater to the travel needs of the working population.

Still to come

Population density is a significant problem, but there are other issues that definitely affect transit. I plan to examine some of those issues. I also think Sudbury will need to think a little outside the bus when providing transit, so I will explore some alternative options.

Alternative route maps, schedules, and delivery options could help create some interesting solutions. I look forward to thinking through some of them here.

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