Privatize Calgary Transit

I was recently out in the United Kingdom on vacation. If you know my travel habits, you know I rarely stay in one place for long — I like to move around. (Yes, this often fuels or is fueled by my mild obsession with trains.) It means that I often pay close attention to public transit, and how it operates.

While we were in York, a thought suddenly hit me. I’m sure I’d seen this elsewhere, but it hadn’t really registered. The buses weren’t run by York Transit, or Transit Yorkshire, or anything directly related to the city/region government. The buses were privatized through FirstGroup PLC.

And suddenly I thought: Why couldn’t Calgary do the same?

Let’s do a quick comparison, though. (To be fair.)

Population1,019,942 (2007)191,800 (2005 est/2006 Urban)
Area726.5 sq km271.94 sq km
Routes160 bus routes
2 C-Train lines
19 bus routes
Schools400+ public/Catholic
5+ colleges
1 university
55+ public schools
2 colleges
2 universities (one is medical)
Avg. Age35.7 (2006)39+ (2006, w/ info from York’s website)
Tourists/year~5 million~4 million
One way fare*2.501.10 – 2.80 (depends on distance)
Day pass6.753.50
Weekly passN/A14.00 (price effective June)
Monthly pass75.0047.00 (price effective June)
Student pass50.50 (ages 6-14)
Post-secondary part of tuition, cost unknown
99.00 /term 269.00 /academic year
Senior fare35.00 /yearFree (after 9am)
* I’m not taking exchange rates into account, since CDN$1 in Canada has about the same buying power of £1 in the UK.

Now, to prevent myself getting into a really deep hole, let me preface the next part of my argument with the following:

It should be also pointed out that while York is a much smaller city with smaller problems, Hong Kong has multiple competing privatized systems. Those tend to work very well.

Alright, all that said…

The cost of running a transportation system — including public transit — is rarely straight-forward. Equipment (airplanes, trains, buses, ferries, taxis, support vehicles ad nauseum) and its upkeep, facilities (stations, maintenance buildings), ticketing and billing, training, administrative support, and so forth adds up. It ain’t cheap. And in most cases, run by the wrong institutions — governments.

Everyone likes to point out that governments are wasteful. They’re bureaucratic, slow to adapt (and often do not receive pressure to adapt), and as a result become very insulative such that those who can make the decisions never really get feedback from the users (e.g. passengers) to make a significant difference.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to quote some particularly stellar examples:

Given, these are mostly airlines, and the ones that have tended to make headlines in one way or another. All of them suffer from the same problem — governments can’t run businesses. CN Rail, as a near-perfect example, has been a very profitable company since it went private. (Given, it’s safety record has been abysmal in the last few years. That’s another post.)

Calgary Transit is on a much smaller scale — it has but one city to contend with. But the administration of Calgary Transit bubbles up to the same person responsible for roads. That, my friends, is a conflict of interest. (Or at least, conflicting priorities.) You can imagine that he gets more people yelling at him about the state of the roads than he does about bus schedules.

So move Calgary Transit away from the City. Tender out the operation to another company. Sell off the assets (think of the taxes the city might earn from this), and let them negotiate with the city for things like bus lanes, dedicated spaces, etc. Remove the employment from the City and put it under private ownership, where it would hopefully be dealt with in a more business-like manner than the current “whenever” approach that there seems to be now.

Yes, there are a thousand reasons this might not work. There are also a thousand reasons that it might. And frankly, I’m not convinced that the City of Calgary is putting in the effort to run a public transportation network properly or efficiently — and I’m not the only one who thinks that, either.

So who could run this? How about FirstGroup America? Yep, they’re already here. Laidlaw buses? That’s them. They also own one of the largest bus lines in North America — Greyhound. So it’s not like they don’t have any knowledge and/or experience. But wait, it gets better! Under their FirstTransit moniker, they run routes all over the 50 States. That’s street cred, in my book.

With the constant rise (and likely to keep rising) of oil prices, it will become more prohibitive to drive personal automobiles. We need effective public transit in Calgary now, and we need it effective before we have a meltdown (and I don’t think we’re far off).

Privatize. Before it’s too late.