As the city of Saskatoon reroutes its commuters to accommodate the closure of the University Bridge, an opportunity to increase public transit ridership and improve the present transit system has also arisen.
The nearly 100-year-old bridge is an iconic landmark in Saskatoon, a city known for its bridges. Initially constructed in 1916, the bridge has undergone various rehabilitation projects over the years. Despite the ongoing maintenance and the potential inconvenience for commuters, the city insists that the project cannot wait.
According to the City of Saskatoon website, “In 2013, an independent engineering assessment of the bridge identified that the deck is structurally insufficient and the concrete is susceptible to rapid failure and loss of strength due to freeze-thaw action. While there is no risk of danger, the assessment concluded that immediate repairs are required.”
The current rehabilitation began on May 3, closing off the bridge only a week after the end of the University of Saskatchewan’s 2014-15 academic year. The estimated timeline proposes project completion by Aug. 30, just in time to accommodate the increased traffic of students and staff heading back to university in the fall.
In the meantime, summer students and commuters alike are encouraged by the city to familiarize themselves with alternate routes and substitute forms of transportation such as walking, cycling and transit. The city has kept one lane open for emergency vehicles and public transit, claiming the transit schedules should not be noticeably interrupted by the bridge closure.
Kehan Fu, vice-president student affairs of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, anticipates that an increase in commuter dissatisfaction is inevitable.
“The university is a hub of the city so that creates a lot of congestion as it is; even with the bus routes there is obviously going to be delays,” Fu said.
Rachel Malena-Chan, a spokesperson for the 10 Days for Transit initiative, argues that Saskatoon commuters should not be discouraged but rather view the suggested alternative of taking transit as an opportunity.
“The whole time you are sitting on the bus you could be reading a book, you could be doing work. It’s not just an alternative commute, it’s reclaimed time in your life that you get to take back for yourself and do the things you want to do,” said Malena-Chan.
10 Days for Transit is a campaign that ran from April 14–24 in an effort to raise awareness about the importance of public transit to Saskatoon. The campaign was created by a coalition of groups advocating for a better transit system and overall experience of Saskatoon, including the Bus Riders of Saskatoon, The Partnership, Better Transit YXE and the USSU.
The Bus Riders of Saskatoon is a group of volunteer advocates for better public transit. The Partnership is a product of a city bylaw established in 1986 that promotes the experience of downtown Saskatoon and Better Transit YXE is a small start-up group focusing on transit in Saskatoon.
The coalition of organizers, along with several Saskatoon citizens, joined the campaign to encourage increased and new ridership over the course of the 10 days and asked the question, “What would it take to make Saskatoon a transit city?”
“Right now we are only at about four per cent of ridership and we know that as our city grows and we become a more sustainable city and economy, we are going to need transit to become a real option for a larger portion of our population,” said Malena-Chan.
Monica Gordon, a regular bus rider and psychology undergraduate at the U of S, believes that Saskatoon transit is not yet the system it needs to be to satisfy a consistent ridership.
“In the last two days, I’ve had several buses be 10 minutes late. The other frustrating thing is the hours they run. People want to run errands in the evening and on the weekend, but the buses only come once an hour at night and have reduced hours on Sundays. It isn’t a logical reduction, and it isn’t going to improve transit use,” said Gordon.
Although the delays may or may not be correlated with the University Bridge closure, Gordon insists that the service remains flawed.
“It feels like the transit exists because the city’s numbers are so large that they have to provide the service. Saskatoon is nowhere close to being an actual transit city,” said Gordon.
According to the City of Saskatoon’s website, the city has implemented an incentive agreement with the contractor, Horseshoe Hill Construction Inc., to encourage the timely completion of the bridge rehabilitation.
If the project extends past its anticipated completion date of Aug. 30, the contractor will incur a substantial fiscal charge paid to the city. If the renovation wraps up ahead of schedule, Horseshoe will receive a fiscal incentive from the city and the bridge will reopen earlier than planned.