Letter to the Editor: Transit should serve the many, not the few

Mr Staples (Letter to the Editor, Fredericton Daily Gleaner, 18 Sep 13, “Council should be careful when changing how often our buses run”) makes an important observation about public transit: it is at its most effective and efficient when it serves the many, not the few. He misses the mark, however, in suggesting that our system is already as effective and efficient as it can be.

A quick look at traffic on Fredericton’s streets shows how much we depend on our cars to get around. Almost all carry just the driver alone – a hugely inefficient use of our ever-congested roads. According to Statistics Canada, only 3% of us use transit to get to work, far below the national average. Even compared just to other cities of similar size and features, our system is sorely underused. To use Mr Staples’ words: Fredericton Transit – as it is now – is serving the few, not the many.

To redirect our system towards the many, a review should focus on the barriers that keep us in our cars: buses are too infrequent, indirect and slow. By rebuilding the system around standards that current car users expect – perhaps frequency every 15 minutes, with more direct routes from pick-up to destination – bus service can be shifted away from areas that are unsustainable, towards those where more Frederictonians could benefit and thrive with effective public transit.

For example, instead of long, confusing routes that wind through sprawling neighbourhoods, buses could run more quickly and frequently along major roads, following the faster and logical routes a car driver would use to get around town. Rather than extending service to the fringes of the city, where fewer of us need transit, buses could be concentrated around those areas where more potential users are based and towards key destinations for work, shopping and play.

Given our current system’s poor ridership, it’s hard to see how we already have the most efficient and effective way to deliver service, as Mr Staples suggests. But by rebuilding around service that draws drivers out of their cars, and establishing targets to bring our transit use closer to the national average, Fredericton Transit could become the choice of the many, instead of the few.

Suggestion: Fredericton Transit signage at downtown Kings Place hub

Fredericton’s City Centre Plan is up for review, and it looks like anything having to do with downtown is on the table. One thing they could look at is improving Transit’s presence and ease of use in Fredericton’s core.

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At first glance, it looks like Transit is at the heart of downtown – all the routes go there. Cross town commuters learn to call Kings Place their second home. During the dozen or so times a day that the fleet is at port, it’s a transit hub-bub of activity.

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But for the new Frederictonian or visitor, it’s not intuitively obvious. The bus stops are marked much higher than usual signs are placed, way above eye level. And they aren’t even marked as bus stops – whereas stops in the rest of the city have a self-explanatory bus pictogramme, the ones at Kings Place only show a number and name.

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More confusingly, the stops themselves are haphazardly laid out: they’re not even in numerical order, an unnecessary confounder. Once you’ve walked around and found the right stop, if you don’t already know the actual routes, you’re forced to look elsewhere to figure out if the line is actually going where you want to: there’s no destination list anywhere in sight.

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Nor it is obvious where to look for information. There’s a paper copy of the Transit map and schedule posted near the Second Cup entrance, but it’s not within sight of the actual stops and is easily missed.

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Ideally, new bus shelters and maps individualised for each route would be installed, along with benches, bulletin boards and other amenities to really make it a convenient way station. Other towns strike deals with advertisers to install and maintain street furnishings in exchange for ad space, and design information and signage around the inexperienced user who would need it most.

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It’s surprising that Fredericton hasn’t shown any progress putting shelters and benches at its Kings Place transit hub as it has in the rest of the city. You’d think the busiest bus stop in town would have a bench or two for waiting passengers. But in the meantime, some simple additions would improve Transit’s presence downtown, and make the system more clear – especially for newcomers, Transit’s growing clientele.

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A permanent sidewalk sign – marked with a bus symbol – could replace the current unclear route markers at Kings Place. They should include the route number and name at eye level, so they’re easily seen at a glance looking down the block. More usefully, they should also include the direction of travel (North, South, etc) and key destination list, so even if you don’t know the route, at least you know where you’re going.

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Not only would better bus signs at Kings Place and throughout downtown be useful for new users, they’re also permanent billboards to advertise the system. Passersby noticing the signs, route maps and schedules just might clue in and realise how Transit might work for them too. While we all wait for fundamental changes that will make Transit into a viable transportation option, better user-friendliness is at least a quick and easy way to make Fredericton Smarter and Sustainable.

Suggestion: Fredericton Transit Sunday bus service

The upcoming City staff report on potential Sunday transit service is a great opportunity to review our bus routes in Fredericton. Like any other City programme, the way forward will have to find that elusive sweet spot between delivering the kind of service we want, at the cost we’re all willing to pay.

Last month’s City decision lifting the noon-5pm restriction on Sunday retail shopping has improved shopping and employment opportunities for Frederictonians, but without Sunday transit service, many are missing out on the advantages. But Sunday service has been on the radar for a long time now – back in August 2008, the City’s Strategic Plan for Transportation Services highlighted Sunday service as a long-term goal:

With the increase in call centres and Sunday retail activity, many residents are left without transit access to jobs. Also the university students, particularly with U-Pass programs have a strong desire for Sunday transit. Sunday/Holiday service will be particularly important as other ridership growth strategies are achieved such as the implementation of a UNB U-Pass, employment growth in service industries with 7 day staffing requirements and acceleration of infill development.

Knowing that bus use on Saturdays is less than half of weekday service (about 40% according to the report), it’s likely that Sunday demand could be low as well. “With such low demand,” the Plan concludes, it is difficult to design a service that can achieve acceptable financial performance.”

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Fredericton’s regular bus route service: tries to put every address in town within close access of a bus stop – but perhaps too expensive and unwieldy for Sundays?

One potential system the Plan proposes is a dial-a-bus service. A bus serves a defined area, and you can call to have a pick-up/drop-off within that area. Instead of fixed routes and scheduled bus stops, it’s more like a taxi, but with service within an hour, and shared with other trips already booked along the way, and at regular fares. If you want to get out of the area, the bus will drop you off at a transfer point (eg Kings Place), where another bus will pick you up to take you on to your destination in the other zone.

By eliminating fixed routes, a system like this needs fewer buses, and since the buses are only on the move when actually on a passenger call, fuel costs are less too. According to the Plan, a zone bus system is only 1/3 the cost of conventional service – in Fredericton’s case, assuming a 4-zone system between the North and South sides, $179 000/year. The Plan highlights that Oakville switched to this system, increasing ridership yet with fewer vehicles.

But there are other models out there. For example, during the writing of the Plan, Fredericton Transit was compared to 6 other systems of similar size and rider needs: Kingston, Lethbridge, Moncton, North Bay and Red Deer. Instead of dial-a-bus service on Sundays, these cities offer a streamlined, limited version of their regular routes and schedule.

This way, you get reduced operating costs compared to “regular” service, but with a fixed schedule that users can plan around – something that a on-call dial-a-bus system might not offer, which could be especially important for people who need transit to get to work on time. Because a dial-a-bus system works on-call/on-demand, your wait and travel times could vary a lot: you might get lucky and be the only user, and get service almost like a personal taxi. But on the other hand, there might be a crowd in front of you, and you might be waiting.

Since this latest push for Sunday service is based around retail access, one way to deliver a fixed-route and schedule service are simple loops, covering Fredericton’s essential shopping options. Loops mean you can get around your side of the river – retail options are generally duplicated on either side, so there’s rarely a need to cross over for the essentials – without having to come Downtown, as you do with the current weekday system.

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Two continuous loops cover shopping and employment destinations on the North and South sides, and Downtown and other areas in between, like the universities. (Click the image for a larger map.)

North side: according to Google Maps, this route is 22.3km, or about 40 min of straight driving – with lay-up times, it can be timed to take an hour. Key points: Kings Place, Kchikhusis Commercial Centre, Union St, Marysville, Two Nations Crossing, St Mary’s St provincial government centre, Northside Market, Brookside Mall, Main St.

South side: according to Google Maps, this route is 20km, or about 39 min of straight driving – like the North side loop, it can be timed to take an hour. Key points: Kings Place, Regent St Sobeys, UNB, Forest Hill, Dr Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital/Veterans’ Health Centre/Centre communautaire Ste-Anne, STU, Regent St, Corbett Centre, Regent Mall, Prospect St, Smythe St, Dundonald St Superstore, Odell Park, Woodstock Rd.

A streamlined system like these covers much less geographic area than the regular route map, yet provides service for those key destinations and neighbourhoods wherein residents are less likely to already own a car – most of the City population is within a 10-minute walk of the loop. In fact, because it sticks to major roads and avoids as many winding detours – ie, by driving the same path a car would take to get around – it actually would provide faster point-to-point service along the route than the weekday system. It’s one way to find a compromise between service and cost.

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Though sticking to major roads only, most of the City population is still within a 10-minute walking distance, or 800m, of the route. (The northern part of Nashwaaksis would have to walk to Brookside Dr/Main St, as the Ring Rd is not actually accessible.) (Click the image for a larger map.)

But more than that, it might also be a useful starting point to re-examine our Transit system from the ground-up. What if we re-focused service away from simply “covering the city”, and instead towards the most common destinations and the neighbourhoods where people tend not to already own cars? What if we concentrated service along the major roads that car drivers use to get around town? A shift like this could put more buses more often where people need them, as well as support more residential and commercial development along Fredericton’s existing major roads, where we’ve already invested on infrastructure.

Remember, there are two costs to putting buses in places where ridership is low and service isn’t needed: the actual cost of going there; and the lost opportunity to improve the system where people need it more, because we’re diverting resources. The solutions we come up with for Sunday routes, with that extra sensitivity towards cost and attention on the essentials, just might lead to a better system all week long!

No risk of H8 on PL8s

Great news making the front page in yesterday’s provincial papers and today’s CBC News – the New Brunswick government is taking back those licence plates with the anti-Japanese epithet, “JAP”:

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According to the article (it’s the Saint John’s Telegraph Journal pictured above; same story in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and Moncton Times & Transcript), looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed the slur showing up on New Brunswick licence plates – vehicle owners with the sequence also pointed out they could cause offence. They’ve actually been around for years, though I only first spotted them around Fredericton a few months ago:

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I wrote a note back in May – Asian Heritage Month – to Service New Brunswick, the agency that distributes the plates:

Hello,

I noticed recently that NB licence plates are being issued with the letters “JAP”. Although this is probably part of the running letter sequence used for the plates, it is also an ethnic slur against those of Japanese origin.

Next door in Nova Scotia, “JAP” would be banned as a personalised plate (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2012/12/07/ns-banned-licence-plates.html); though I am sure there is no malice intended on SNB’s part in allowing it to occur as part of the random sequence, it is no less a slur when it occurs by inadvertent happenstance.

May I suggest that these plates be withdrawn please? Especially in this month of May, Asian Heritage Month, it would be appropriate to show respect for this community and pro-actively eliminate any unintended insult.

Thank you for your consideration.

At first, it didn’t look like they even understood “JAP” is an ethnic slur – they actually seemed to miss the point:

Hello,

Thank You for visiting Service New Brunswick Online.

The plates starting with a “J” are plates issued with the new sequence. First sequence for a passenger vehicle was “B”. When sequence for the “B” plate was all used, they started with the “G” sequence until it was finish and any new vehicle that will be registered as passenger now will have a “J” plate issued until the sequence is completed.

If you require additional information please do not hesitate to contact us.

Eventually, the note was passed on to the right department (Public Safety), and now the thousand licence plates (presumably there’s JAP 000 through 999) out there are going to be taken back and replaced. It’s unfortunate that there’s going to be a cost to it (eg, an extra 1 000 licence plates and the postage and admin time to sort it out), something that could have been prevented with simple awareness of ethnic slurs amongst the Public Safety staff, or at least screening of the sequences beforehand (as is done in Nova Scotia: they’ve got a database of potentially-offensive ones, and search on Urban Dictionary for any “modern slang”).

The good staff at Public Safety must have had to consider the potential backlash from some New Brunswickers in ordering the recall, especially as the government is making tough choices on spending and keeping the province’s books in order. Based on some online reaction, there are many New Brunswickers who don’t see the potential offence with “JAP”. Instead of considering how offence could have been avoided in the first place through awareness and screening out the sequence, some are actually attacking the Minister and the Department’s decision to make this right.

It’s a bit disheartening, but not any news that there’s still ignorance like this here amongst some in New Brunswick. Just last year, it was a Frederictonian who argued that having someone of Asian descent on the new $100 bill “doesn’t represent Canada” and is “fairly ugly”, leading the Bank of Canada to substitute a Caucasian image. That controversy made national news and brought to the surface some very unattractive truths: “it has confirmed the experiences of many racialist people born and raised here and elsewhere: Canada is a society of “regular,” ethnicity-free, white Canadians, and the rest of us — the ethnic “Canadians” — are guests in our own home, tolerated (sort of), but at perpetual risk of overstaying our welcome.”

But if New Brunswick is serious about welcoming newcomers and respecting Canadians of all backgrounds, avoiding and correcting potential offense like this goes without saying, and it’s great to see government take this on. Racism against Asians in Canada isn’t often on the radar – it’s easy to forget that just a few generations ago, Asian Canadians were considered second-class citizens: citizens of Chinese descent were denied the right to vote; during the Second World War, Canadians with Japanese ancestry were stripped of their property and livelihoods, and herded up into concentration camps.

Anyway, it’s reassuring that there were other New Brunswickers out there, especially those drivers who were issued these plates, that picked up on the oversight and reported it in too. Thanks, props and kudos to Public Safety Minister Robert Trevors and the Department for taking action: a good call, a great opportunity to raise awareness, and very opportune with the Cultural Expressions multicultural festival this weekend in Fredericton!

BMO MasterCard Mobile PayPass Tag

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My trusty two-and-a-half-year-old iPhone 4 may now be two whole product cycles behind the curve, but it can still learn some new tricks even the iPhone 4S and 5 still have yet to take on: near-field communication for credit card payments. Thanks to the Bank of Montreal and MasterCard, you can now quickly and conveniently (though perhaps rudely) buy a meal or grab a coffee – or anything else under 50$ – without ever putting away your phone and engaging the cashier in conversation or eye contact.

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The BMO MasterCard Mobile PayPass Tag is a mini-version of the regular-sized RFID-equipped credit card, with an adhesive backing. The idea is that you stick it to the back of your phone – even without your wallet, as long as you have your phone, you have your credit card! It doesn’t have your card number or name printed on it, so your identity and info is secure if you tend to leave your phone lying on the table at meetings or whilst enjoying the aforementioned meal or coffee.

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Of course, if you do that, you make it obvious that your phone can be used as a credit card, which makes it even more tempting for a passing thief to grab. Plus it’s more liable to unstick when you slip it in and out of your pocket and fall off – where, again, someone can pick it up and take advantage of your unwitting generosity. Tucking it inside a case with your phone is a safer bet. (Here, mine is a moshi iGlaze: hard case on the sides and back – plastic, not metal, so it doesn’t block the tag signal – with a scratch-proof sticker for the front.)

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Logically, because the Mobile PayPass Tag is about a quarter the size of a regular credit card, you would expect it to be more sensitive to interference as the antenna within the card would likewise be that much smaller. I’ve found it to be a bit finicky myself: whereas the regular PayPass credit card works 100% of the time in my experience, in the 30 or so times I’ve used the mobile tag, I’ve had to re-tap it, or hold it longer by the card sensor, maybe five or six times. It has outright failed about the same number, five or six times.

Out of the devices I’ve seen, the handheld keypad terminals seem to work reliably most often. Usually the cashier will hand it to you, though some are fixed in a permanent mount on the counter (eg McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s). Although the terminals have the RFID-enabled logo, sometimes the cashier will still tell you “chip in the bottom”, or the screen will prompt you to “Insert or Swipe Card” only; no option to “Tap” instead. Trying to tap anyway will sometimes still actually work, sometimes no; it looks like it is a merchant option to allow tap cards/tags or not.

So far, I’ve had the ingenico IPP320 (sensor integrated above the screen)

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and VeriFone VX810 (add-on module on top)

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work 100% of the time; on the other hand, the VeriFone VX820 (sensor behind the screen)

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has been 50/50 for the mobile tag. Sometimes, it picks up the tag, but freezes (“Please Wait”, then resets for a new tap). When that happens, taking out your full-sized card and tapping it picks up and charges perfectly fine.

The mounted Vivotech sensors (at the Superstore self-checkouts, for example) are least reliable: half the time, either they don’t pick up the mobile tag at all, or take several seconds to catch it. It doesn’t seem to be a sensitivity issue to the mobile tag vs full-sized contactless credit card: I’ve found that if it doesn’t pick up the tag, it won’t pick the card either. Holding the phone against the sensor and rotating it seems to work sometimes, so perhaps there is a “correct” way to orient the card against the reader.

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Fortunately, the Superstore is rolling out new, bigger integrated keypad and sensor VeriFone mounts at the self- and cashier-checkouts, which have been a 100% success so far. The sensor area is immediately above the keypad; it doesn’t always read the tag right away as you bring the phone towards it, and the privacy shield prevents you from rotating the phone above the sensor, but if you just place it directly against the device, above the shield for a second or two, it seems to read reliably.

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Compared to the chip and PIN, contactless payments seem to have been slower to catch on. Although “it’s had a great pick-up so far” as of 2011, I still have never seen anyone else in a cashier queue pay with a mobile tag (or a proper NFC-enabled phone, for that matter). Though “chip in the bottom” took just a few months to become the standard pay instruction, no one has ever said “tap your card”. That said, I’ve once handed my card to a cashier, who tapped it against the sensor instead of swiping or inserting it into the chip reader – so perhaps it’s just a matter of time ’til it’s the norm.

If the taps can become closer to 100% reliable, there’s potentially some time savings compared to the chip-and-PIN; and compared to swipe-and-sign, you’re saving both time and paper. But for now, I figure that 10-30% tap fail rate (your mileage may vary) that ends up going chip-and-PIN eats up any speed gains. That said, overall, the BMO MasterCard Mobile PayPass Tag is a fast, generally-reliable and still “gee-whiz!” novel way to pay.

Pimp my ride – vice-regal style

Happened to be following a very special vehicle on Fredericton’s streets the other day

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It’s the Lieutenant Governor’s personal vehicle – a Toyota Highlander hybrid. Great to see our representative of Her Majesty setting an example with an efficient, reliable, environmentally-sensitive vehicle. Though a full-sized SUV would usually be unnecessary for most people, given New Brunswick’s heavily-rural population that Mr Nicholas has to reach, and the condition of some of our province’s secondary roads, it’s an appropriate choice.

Also remarkable: where most government fleets seem to make a fuss about exclusively using “domestic” brands that are perceived to be “Buying Canadian”, it’s noteworthy that a Japanese brand was allowed the bid. It makes perfect sense: Toyota, after all, employs just as many Canadians in their Ontario plants as the other auto makers – they’re the only manufacturer to build a new plant in Canada in the past twenty years – and, they didn’t ask for a bailout like GM and Chrysler during the industry crash a few years back.

The registration plate is itself quite nicely set: a die-stamped crown, in the usual standard provincial red. Like other government vehicles, it has a black “Permanent” sticker in place of the usual coloured annual registration vignette. The plate still has the old Graham Liberal-era cerebral “Be… In This Place / Être… ici on le peut” motto, and the Microsoft clip art cloud and swoosh frill, but otherwise it’s a very clean design.

Overall, a much more well-executed ride than next door, who Honourably rides an impractical gas-guzzling Lincoln Continental, marked with a blunt die-stamped Nova Scotia plate

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though still less impressive than Saskatchewan’s detailed crown, set on an elegant, restrained simple all-white background. No fancy graphics or colours to detract from the vice-regal presence (though the rest of us hoi-polloi would be classier too without kitchy clip art and corny backgrounds on our plates – you don’t see the rest of the world trying to pull the same American-style affectations)

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It begs the question: how would you run the plate on a police traffic stop? “Can you run a registration check on New Brunswick marker… uh, crown?” I guess it’s a moot point: Crown immunity would probably render any possible highway act violation by His Honour – heaven forfend the thought – a non-event in any case.

Spicy pork and crab spring onion rolls at Morning Calm

Unfortunately the Morning Calm restaurant in Oromocto no longer offers a lunch time buffet, but you can still order from the menu to satisfy your noon-hour craving for Korean or Japanese food.

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Spicy pork is mixed with strips of cabbage and dusted with sesame seeds, and is just the right amount of spice without being overbearing. Crab spring onion rolls, served with the same spicy sauce, is a light and fresh ideal complement to the main dish. Everything comes in classy presentation-worthy packs instead of the standard take-away styrofoam, but it doesn’t hold the heat well so you’ll definitely want to rush back and get at it straight away.

There’s no specific lunch-time menu, so serving sizes may be somewhat larger than you might expect for a midday meal; it’s also worth calling in your order in advance if you’re in a hurry to get back to work.

Morning Calm – 282 Restigouche Rd, Oromocto – 506 446 6800

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