As the early-morning crush of buses loop through the Place Riel terminal, sleepy-eyed transit riders face their first test of the day — crossing the road.
The bustle of thousands of pedestrians darting between 80 to 100 buses per hour makes the University of Saskatchewan’s transit hub a deadly accident waiting to happen.
In January, a woman was placed on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance after she was struck in the lane directly in front of Place Riel’s main entrance. Saskatoon Transit said it was the second time someone has been hit by a bus in the area since the hub opened in 2006.
City and university officials have met to discuss safer and more effective options, but a practical short-term fix remains out of sight.
“This is something we talk about with Saskatoon Transit every year, it is certainly a safety hazard,” said Reid Nystuen, U of S students’ union vice-president of operations and finance.
Nystuen has spent a significant portion of his stint in office meeting with U of S Facilities Management Division and Saskatoon Transit, pushing for better public transportation options for students.
He said both parties are fully aware of the issues that plague the university’s bus mall, but improving the infrastructure ranks low on Saskatoon Transit’s list of priorities.
“Quite frankly, it wasn’t designed to hold the traffic it holds now,” Nystuen said. “And in part, that’s due to the U-Pass.”
The USSU’s universal bus pass, or U-Pass, was implemented in 2008 when undergraduate students voted 80 per cent in favour of making the program permanent. Since then, student ridership has jumped by one million total trips per year, according to data from Saskatoon Transit.
“It’s also interesting to note that the U-Pass makes up about one-quarter of all of the city’s bus riders, and it only runs for eight months of the year,” Nystuen said.
University facilities management declined to comment when asked if there has been progress made in their talks with the city.
Let’s rethink this: a class project
For a group of U of S urban design majors, going to class this semester has been like going to work for a professional consulting firm. Students have been assigned the task of designing a theoretical world-class transportation facility for the university to use for the next 150 years.
For two months, classmates have researched and mulled over potential models with the help of local architects and city planners, and they are now prepared to unveil their unofficial design to the public with an exhibition in Upper Place Riel from March 26 to March 30. Financial, physical and political limits were not considered.
Henry Lau, an architect with a fine arts degree from the U of S, who now works for the City of Saskatoon after years in the private sector, was brought in to develop and teach the course.
“We wanted to choose [a project] that is dear to the students’ hearts, and something they would have emotional attachment to. They use that facility — or lack thereof — everyday, and safety has been a reasonable concern,” Lau said.
What the students have suggested is a multimillion-dollar complex called Varsity Station that spans College Drive and connects the campus proper with College Quarter and the Stadium Parkade. The design includes transforming Cumberland Avenue into a pedestrian greenway, and building a heated, indoor facility with a 24-hour coffee shop, restaurant, bike lockers, escalators and showers.
Throughout the process, the class tracked their progress with a website, and the final showcase includes a design film.
Lau said he taught the students how to use professional design software like AutoCad, Google SketchUp, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere.
“They will have those skills now, the ones who have stepped up and wanted to learn. And they will become very important to them in the workplace,” he said. “I really wanted to put some reality in this class.”
Chad Reynolds, a fourth-year regional and urban planning student, said it has been refreshing to actually put some of the techniques he has learnt over the years into practice.
“I know maybe our restraints aren’t realistic because we are working with a 150-year timeline and money is not an issue, but the final result is actually really exciting.”
Charles Olfert is a partner at AODBT, a local architecture firm, and was invited to join in on the design. He says the collaboration of disciplines involved in this project is invaluable to students.
“This is what you should be doing in school,” he said. “This is exactly how it works in the real world.”
In the long term: Rapid Bus Transit
The City of Saskatoon has shelved its outdated plan to bring light rail to Saskatoon, and instead will be making a shift towards bus rapid transit, according to an announcement made March 15.
Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a high-frequency public transportation system where buses stream along main corridors — like 8th Street, College Drive and 22nd Street — in five to 10 minute intervals. Feeder routes deliver passengers to BRT lines, and the system is said to rival the speed and convenience of light rail.
BRT will get students to completely rethink how they get to and from the university once it is built, beginning in 2015, said Alan Wallace, the city’s manager of planning and development.
Fixed along the BRT lines will be a network of hubs where the public will be encouraged to park and ride, grab a coffee or pick up groceries while using the system, he said.
“It’s not a wide stretch of the imagination to assume that maybe [Place Riel] would become one these major transit hubs,” Wallace said.
At this time, though, the U of S Facilities Management Division said they are still unsure how BRT will change the face of the university’s current bus mall.
Bob Patrick, chair of the regional and urban planning program at the U of S, says there needs to be a massive overhaul of the transit hub before the city flirts with the idea of BRT.
Patrick relocated to Saskatoon four years ago from the University of Guelph and said he is “appalled” by the current design of the hub. Compared to other universities in Canada, he said, “our transit interchange is a total joke.”
“It actually couldn’t have been built any worse,” he said.
He warned both the city and the university that the current layout needs to be re-evaluated before somebody is badly injured. It is frightening to stand and watch as students are forced to “dodge” moving buses, he said.
“Our entire lives we are taught traffic safety, and then you come to university and it all goes out the window,” he said. “It pisses me off.”
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf