By: Graham Lane
With an overtaxed citizenry and an infrastructure deficit (roads, water services, etc.) in the billions,
Winnipeg’s City council should set aside its massively-expensive Bus Rapid Transit plans and consider where
the world is going, not where it is now. A mind-blowing expensive BRT is not the answer.
The challenge of public transportation is to minimize travel time and cost while maximizing comfort and
convenience. Traditional passenger services produce varying degrees of success – taxis, buses, subways and
dedicated transit corridors. The thinking going into these elderly systems is very low tech and slow to
Enter now the next generation transportation services, particularly smartphone-enabled ride-hailing services
like Uber and Lyft. They demonstrate the power of understanding consumer needs and matching them to a
flexible pool of resources. Technology is so powerful, discovering new needs while creating services such as
UberPool and Lyft Line, matching multiple parties to a single ride, using current roads more effectively with
convenience and flexibility.
We remain in an environment of emerging technology that is and will transform entire industries. Lagging far
behind North America, African nations faced building telephone landlines for mass communications, an
effort expected to take decades to build only to produce a costly obsolete system benefiting comparatively
few. Instead, cellphones now provide Africa’s massive population access to communication without landline
costs and endless political uncertainty and red tape. This simple example shows the benefits of a new
technology, an opportunity exploited completely bypassing old technology.
How does this example relate to public transportation?
The rise of big data, mobile apps, and services like Uber are but a signal of things to come. Cities that
recognize this and act to leap-frog over old technology (like subways, transit corridors, and standard taxi
services) will position their economies for long-term future competitive advantages. Winnipeg should avoid
borrowing to dump vast sums into the dying solutions of yesterday, foreclosing better options to come.
Helsinki, Finland, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have politicians who looked to the future and moved
to exploit it. Washington launched a service called Bridj, it focuses on those lacking sufficient public
transportation options. It responds to user demand via an app, intelligently allowing the transporting of
groups of individuals to varying destinations. San Francisco’s transportation innovation is Chariot, which
gathers popular route data directly from users and proposes changed routes to achieve maximum
effectiveness according to individual personal needs. Helsinki augmented its old public transit with a minibus
system that operates a lot like Uber. Apps are used to input desired routes, and the system plans out the
most efficient, cost effective and speediest route.
These are but three very diverse examples of cities experimenting with rapidly emerging transport
technology. My point here isn’t to advocate copying directly any of the examples, but to urge City council
not to double-down on an old and prohibitory expensive transport system. Best to look around, imagine, and
take the time needed to decide what is right for the future of Winnipeg. BRT costs way too much to serve
way too few.
Winnipeg’s City council should be leading us into the future, not tying us down in the past
– Graham Lane is Chair of Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca), pursuing sound public policy.