HSR ridership went down last year, as Hamilton continued to buck a strong national trend of increased use of transit. In recent years HSR growth has consistently underperformed comparative Ontario bus systems and failed to reach a level of ridership even three–quarters of that achieved in the 1980s.
Provincially–compiled reports show HSR numbers rose less than 3.5 percent between 2006 and 2011. During the same years, transit systems in Ottawa, Mississauga, York Region and St Catharines registered 13–18 percent increases, even though the latter city actually saw a decline in population. London went up 20.4 percent in the same period, while bus ridership in Durham climbed 41 percent and Brampton jumped nearly 70 percent [see table on the CATCH website].
National transit average usage rose 22 percent from 2006 to 2010 and was still expanding strongly in the first six months of last year at an average annual increase of 3.2 percent. The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) commissioned a country–wide survey that showed “94 per cent of Canadians say it is important or very important for their community to have access to public transit”, including 91 per cent of people who don’t use transit.
“Year after year we observe the same upward trend, with transit ridership growing significantly faster than population,” notes CUTA president Michael Roschlau.
The stagnation in Hamilton allowed both St Catharines and Mississauga to climb past it in rides per person. In 2011, the HSR stood at just over 41 rides per capita, up less than one over 2005 while Mississauga hit 44 and St Catharines climbed from less than 35 to over 42 in the same period, and London shot up from 51 to 61. Ottawa sits at 103 rides per person.
Last year’s results from Hamilton offer no sign that things are improving.
“The ridership is slightly down over previous years so we weren’t able to build in any additional revenues,” transit support services manager Nancy Purser told councillors at a recent general issues committee meeting, suggesting that a fare hike should be considered.
It’s not the first time that ridership has shrunk. That happened in each of 2007, 2008 and 2009 before climbing about 600,000 a year in 2010 and 2011. Purser didn’t provide exact numbers for 2012, but HSR reported just under 21.9 million rides in 2011 [see table on the CATCH website].
In the late 1980s, HSR carried over 29 million passengers a year and had about 50 percent more buses on the road than today, but changes to provincial subsidies along with deep cuts by council decimated transit spending to such an extent that spending in 2006 was actually less than 1995 without accounting for inflation.
There has been continuing council reluctance to expand HSR services, although that kind of investment has translated into large ridership gains in other cities. A 2008 proposal to shift $3 million in federal gas tax monies to HSR operations took three years to be finally accepted by a majority of council, and then only after federal rules forced the city to split those monies into two categories. The remaining $28 million a year remains dedicated to Hamilton’s roads budget.
The $3 million allowed some service expansion, but some of it was also eaten up by new low–ridership routes launched in the name of economic development such as an express bus to the airport, a special service to the new Walmart on Centennial Parkway, and most recently a half–million new route to Maple Leaf’s bread and wiener factories south of Rymal Road. These have proceeded despite resident demands for improvements in other parts of the city. V