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Bus Service to Edmonton?

Yesterday, Greyhound announced that it will be ceasing service to Western Canada in October. Click here for a CBC article.

This is disappointing and scary news to many who rely on the service to get between Grande Prairie and Edmonton. I hope a private company comes forward to provide take over this service. But if one doesn't, should government get involved? Is this service a big enough public good that taxpayers should ensure it exists? If so, is it solely a provincial responsibility? Or should the City of Grande Prairie offer resources to ensure our residents have access to affordable and safe transportation between Grande Prairie and Edmonton?

I honestly don't know where I stand on this. But I've asked to have conversation about it added to Council's Community Living Committee agenda on Tuesday. I’d love to hear your thoughts to inform our discussion.

Following are reasons I think that ensuring transportation similar to Greyhound exists might be a worthwhile public good. Then, I outline some options for municipal involvement. Finally, I outline my current thinking about this matter. As a bonus, I also wanted to share my favourite Greyhound story at the end of this post.


IS A GRANDE PRAIRIE - EDMONTON TRANSPORTATION ROUTE A VITAL PUBLIC SERVICE?

I've personally relied on the Greyhound in the past. Notable trips include:

  • As a just-graduated high school student, I took the Greyhound for my first adventure visit to a big city. This was followed by a month of volunteering at summer camp near the city.
  • As a college student in Calgary, I spent my summers doing forestry work in northern Alberta and BC: I brought the Greyhound up north.
  • When we were dating, my wife's family lived a few hours away. Since I didn't own a car, I took the Greyhound to meet them.

My wife and I have also had many opportunities to pickup or drop off others at the Greyhound. Notable occasions include:

  • People re-locating to Grande Prairie for work or school
  • People going to Edmonton for an important medical appointment
  • People going to attend a family funeral or visit a very sick loved one
  • People fleeing abusive situations

The Greyhound has provided important service to myself and countless others. Often the people it is helping have low income or are vulnerable. Additionally, local employers are starting to have trouble finding labour- not having a bus to get employees to Grande Prairie would present an additional barrier.

For these reasons, there is a case to be made that a low cost transportation service between Grande Prairie and Edmonton is a vital public good that government needs to ensure is provided.

On the other hand, some think that (outside of basic infrastructure), transportation should be provided solely by the free market. I certainly understand and appreciate this view. The government should always be hesitant to get into new ventures, and it should never provide a service which can be adequately filled by other organisations.

At this point, I'm still developing my position on government's role in providing transportation between urban centres.


OPTIONS FOR MUNICIPAL INVOLVEMENT

I'm hopeful that the free market will fill the void left by Greyhound. If that doesn't happen, then the province may decide to stimulate solutions. But if no service is becoming apparent, the City should at least consider getting involved.

From a City of Grande Prairie perspective, I think the only linkage we need to worry about is between here and Edmonton. Once someone can get to Edmonton, they can access specialist medical appointments and other vital services not available in Grande Prairie. They can also access existing bus services to other regions.

So what are our options to connect Grande Prairie to Edmonton? Following are some I have come up with. They are presented in order of how much municipal commitment each requires. The top options require little or no commitment, the bottom options would require significant municipal investment.

 

Option 1: Just Get Out of the Way of Business

We could take the position that if there is sufficient demand for a vital service, the free market will meet it in an economical fashion. In this case, we would do nothing except streamline any regulations or processes that might get in the way of a business servicing Grande Prairie.
 


Option 2: Advocate to the Provincial and Federal Governments

We could take the position that this is a vital public good for our citizens, but it is also not the responsibility of municipalities to provide. In this case, we wouldn't do anything directly but would make this an advocacy priority when talking to senior government.

 

Option 3: Provide Startup Assistance to New Or Expanded Services

I'm sure that there are private companies looking into the opportunity presented by Greyhound's departure. There may also be non-profits willing to provide this important service. But there are risks to starting something new or expanding into a new region. Additionally, Grande Prairie may be low down on their list of potential service areas.

We could mitigate some risk and make Grande Prairie a more enticing place to bring service to by offering startup capital. Under this option, I'd picture us committing a set amount over the first year or two years of service. The hope would be that it would help establish a service that lasts beyond our funding period. However, any capital provided should be low enough that we are confident it would give a worthwhile social return even if service only existed throughout the funding period.

 

Option 4: Offer Per-Trip Travel Subsidies

Under this option, we would allow business and non-profits providing services to register with the City. This registration would ensure they meet basic safety requirements. Once registered, we would provide them a set amount of funding per passenger taken between Grande Prairie and Edmonton.

We could put restrictions on these subsidies. For example, we could say that they can only be applied to people with disabilities or who qualify for low income support. 

If we pursued this option, I would suggest setting up a defined amount of annual funding. This funding would be equally split between companies and organisations based on how many passenger trips they conducted. For example, if we funded $100,000/year and there were 10,000 trips we would give companies $10/trip. If there were 15,000 trips, we would give companies $6.66/trip. This is how the Halifax Regional Municipality funds organisations providing regional transportation- they report good results from this model.

 

Option 5: Establish a Bus or Shuttle Service

The City could operate its own bus or shuttle service between Grande Prairie and Edmonton. Alternatively, it could partner with others to establish a non-profit service. If it did this, the City would likely need to commit to long-term operational and financial support


MY CURRENT THINKING

Should government or the City be involved?

I don’t think the City should be committing to any course of action in the near term. Right now, we should be waiting to see what options start to formulate for our citizens. However, we should also be proactively thinking about “what if no new service is readily available by October?”

Transportation between Edmonton and Grande Prairie is important for our citizens. Many of our residents do not own a car and cannot afford to fly. There are informal ride sharing options, but I don't think these provide the safety, reliability, or ease of access needed (I have nothing against formalized ride sharing with safety measures in place, but don't think the informal networks used here right now are adequate). Something that delivers similar service to Greyhound is needed.

If market solutions do not arise on their own, I think this is important enough for government to get involved. But I would hope that it would be at the provincial level. This is something that effects every community and localized economy in Western Canada. It makes sense to me that the province would work at a large scale solution rather than hoping for a patchwork of local solutions to arise.

However, if no market or provincial solutions arise, my initial thinking is that the City should have limited involvement. Our people need it. Additionally, regions that have bus links to major urban centres will have an economic advantage over those that do not. This is an area of investment that may be worthwhile.

 

Which model is best?

At the same time, I don't want to see us increasing our tax rate or significantly impacting other services to offer this. I am also well aware of the limitations of government. I'm skeptical that municipalities can act quickly enough to get services of their own running by October. If they do, they will likely spend more money than private or non-profit organisations. And government is likely the least suited sector to find innovate service models.

I favour options 3 or 4 above. If we do get involved, it should be by providing limited funding to other groups creating service. This is our best chance of seeing an economical, adaptable, and sustainable service in our region. It also allows the City to quickly disengage if a provincial system or other solutions arise in the future.
 


We Shouldn't Be Tied to Coach Buses

It is worth noting that even if affordable public transportation between Grande Prairie and Edmonton is needed, it does not need to be in the form of large coach buses. There may be better models, such as utilizing smaller vehicles or organizing and ensuring ride sharing. If we support service at all, we need to be open to supporting innovative deliveries of it.

 

Working as a Region

While I think the City should be involved if no other solutions arise, we should not do this on our own. We are already working with regional municipalities to create transit links between them and the City (this blog post has more information). Asking these partners if they also want to collaborate on an Edmonton - Grande Prairie transportation link is a natural outgrowth of existing work. This is something that effects all of our communities, and we can provide better services when we work together. I would only be supportive of the City taking action if we did it collaboration or consultation with others.


I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

Above I've outlined my current thinking. However, I've only been thinking about this for 24 hours and have not had the benefit of much research or conversation. My mind is far from made up. So, let me know what you think. Especially if you disagree with me.

Should the City look at supporting Grande Prairie - Edmonton transportation if needed? Why do you think it should or should not?

If the City does get involved, are there other models I haven't considered? What are they?

If the City does get involved, what model is preferable? And do you have a sense of appropriate funding levels?

Finally, what should I be researching? Over the weekend I'm going to take time to educate myself. Are there existing or historical services I should read up on? Are there any articles or papers I should be reading? If so, I'd love to hear about them. I'd be especially grateful for any links you can provide.

Thanks for reading and talking!

-Dylan


BONUS GREYHOUND STORY

My favourite Greyhound story:

Right after graduating high school, my friend Shawn and I took a Greyhound to Vancouver. We planned a few days of seeing the City before heading up the coast to volunteer at a summer camp.

We were sitting across the aisle from a 60+ year old grandma.

A few hours into the trip, I decide to teach Shawn how to play crib. I wasn't very good at teaching crib. So, this woman decides I must not be very good at playing crib. She leans across the aisle and says "young man, why don't you let grandma teach you how to play: you versus me?" I agree. And then she says, "great. Your first lesson: real players don't play for free- 10 cents a point." I told her I didn't have any dimes, but was willing to play for a quarter a point.

I ended up making enough money to buy a couple of slurpees and a big bag of chips at our next stop.

So that is how I hustled a grandma on the Greyhound.

Later, we got chatting. It turned out that she was on a cross-Canada trip. The main thing she was doing at each city: going to punk-rock shows. How cool is that!? I hope I’m sort of like that in my 60’s....