Riders brace for transit strike

People plan to drive, carpool and cycle as buses stop rolling

An Esquimalt resident and bus rider for 30 years

By the time the sun rises and businesses open for the day, downtown is awake with a rush of commuters clad in winter gear who disembark from buses along Douglas Street and scatter throughout the core.

B.C. Transit logs a weekday average of 95,000 trips within Greater Victoria and unless a sudden breakthrough is made in a broken down bargaining process between the Crown corporation and the union representing 650 of its employees, these are the people who will be left in the cold. The Canadian Auto Workers Union, local 333 is planning to keep the buses parked for 24-hours during a walkout this Tuesday (Jan. 22), a move that will be felt across the region, from Sooke to Sidney.

Annette Speirs strides towards the law firm where she works and happily slows her pace to speak up on behalf of her fellow Sidney commuters. She’ll drive herself to work on Tuesday in the event of a strike, but laments the inconvenience and uncertainty caused by the the current no-overtime job action. Not everyone in her group of eight who travel from Sidney to Victoria has the option to drive, she says.

“We all have to contact each other and make some kind of other arrangements,” Speirs says. “It’s a big hassle. The 70 route is really difficult because sometimes it’s standing room only. Not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next is very hard.”

Provincial government worker Charmaine Partington buses into work downtown every day from Colwood to save money on parking, avoid driving in rush hour traffic and do her part to preserve the environment. She catches the bus from the park and ride at West Shore Parks and Recreation, a normally convenient and easy way to get to work, Partington says. A regular rider since 2008, she’s lived through the stress of previous transit strikes, and despite her advance efforts, isn’t sure just how she’ll get to work that day. Partington has secured a carpool ride home at the end of the day but is still looking for a way in.

“I try to avoid driving at all costs, plus it’s going to be really busy. “It’s going to take a lot longer for everybody to get into work,” she says.

“I don’t like that it affects me, and some other people I’ve talked to said they think it should be an essential service. But I look at it as a convenience, an alternative.”

Not every early-morning traveller is en route to work. Reid Taylor travels downtown daily from Esquimalt to “enjoy the day and window shop.”

“(I) just come to wander around and see the sights,” Taylor says. “I’m a senior now.”

Previously unaware of upcoming strike action, he says it’s very frustrating, as he relies on transit heavily.

“I guess I’ll have to walk into town.”

Manjol Singh speaks for many students who use the service. The downtown resident stands on Fort Street at Douglas and waits for the No. 21– his ride to Camosun College’s Interurban campus in West Saanich. If a bus strike goes ahead, Singh will be reluctantly taking the day off.

“It affects me a lot, because the bus system is for students like me,” he says. “If there is a strike, then I have to miss college. If you’re having an exam or any important lectures, then it’s frustrating.”

Patrick Vert, a government employee who lives in Saanich, within walking distance of Uptown, has been able to catch any bus down Douglas Street throughout the limited job action – but he’s ready for the strike.

“I’ll probably end up having to haul out my bike, so it’s a good thing I’ve been hitting the gym,” Vert says, adding that there’s a divide among his colleagues who enjoy the bike commute and those who don’t.

Paula Grant and Melinda Minkley walk briskly southbound on Douglas Street, hot beverages in hand. Grant will get a ride in from Oak Bay or drive herself if need be on Tuesday, while her travel counterpart has considered the luxury most other morning commuters don’t have: she might walk the five kilometres from her Oak Bay home to downtown.

“We’re the lucky ones,” Grant says.

Perhaps the only truly lucky players in transportation are the taxi companies, likely to receive at least a few extra calls when buses halt.

Surinder Kang, operations manager at Yellow Cab has experienced a slow start to the year and welcomes any spike in business this Tuesday as a result of the strike, though he isn’t expecting, or preparing, for the massive influx of calls BlueBird Cabs’ expects to come their way.

“We’re excited,” says Shelley Evans, supervisor of dispatch for BlueBird. “We’re happy to get people’s business, but not necessarily in that way.”

Evans is treating Tuesday like a snow day, she says, with all possible staff scheduled and expectations high. She advises travellers to call early – especially for those on the outskirts.

Victoria Car Share might be garnering a little more attention due to the transit tumult. The co-op manages a fleet of 23 vehicles available for low-cost rental by some-500 members across Greater Victoria and has seen more new members join in January than any month to date since the co-op began in 1996, with 25 signing up in the first two weeks of the month.

Reasons behind the membership boost, explains Andrew MacDonald, executive director of  the co-op, might be due to new year’s resolutions to cut vehicle costs or the new storefront location on Fort Street, but likely have at least a little to do with the ongoing transit job action and threat of shutdown. Bookings for Tuesday are already above average, he says, though members generally don’t replace bus ridership with Car Share use.

“We make sure that our cars are close to bus routes because it’s a part of their transportation puzzle,” he says. “They’re biking; they’re bussing; they’re walking.”

Car Share staff are all transit riders, too, MacDonald says.

“Obviously a good transportation network is important to a city like Victoria.”

The last transit strike in 2001 lasted two weeks before it was resolved at the bargaining table. Previous to that, a strike in 1984 lasted three months before the province legislated an end to the dispute.

HandyDART and the Victoria to Cowichan commuter service will continue as scheduled on Jan. 22.

– with files from Daniel Palmer and Kyle Wells

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