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Friday, March 8, 2013

Is your bus driver stoned?

Metro Transit's new PR campaign probably doesn't have the answer.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge bus.jpg
Metro Transit has this week kicked off a PR campaign to convince people to ride the bus. It may be something of an uphill battle, as even mayor Mike Savage hasn’t used a bus since he’s been elected, says Savage's spokesperson, Shaune MacKinlay. Savage has taken the ferry across the harbour to attend meetings at the city's Alderney Landing offices, but that doesn't count: the campaign is called "Do it on the bus," after all, not "Fly with the ferries."

But some Metro Transit employees appear to be embracing the idea of doing it on the bus with gusto. The Coast has learned of two worrying incidents involving Metro Transit employees misusing intoxicants.

The first occurred last fall. On Wednesday, October 24, at 11pm a RCMP officer came across an empty, but idling, Metro Transit bus at Highway 7 and Lake Major Road. The RCMP had stepped up patrols in the Lake Major area in response to unknown people pelting passing buses with rocks, and since this wasn’t a normal stop for the bus, the officer investigated. At that point, the bus driver came out of the woods, and the officer “noticed the odour of marijuana,” says Scott MacRae, a spokesperson for the RCMP’s Halifax division. The officer “didn’t believe” the bus driver was impaired, and the driver was not arrested or charged. The officer did, however, notify Metro Transit of the incident. The driver’s name has not been released.

The second incident occurred on Saturday, January 26. At 1:45pm, Halifax police received a call from a citizen saying there was a vehicle driving erratically at Burnside Drive and Akerley Boulevard. The citizen followed the vehicle to 200 Isley Avenue, which is the Burnside Transit Garage. Police arrived, and at 2:15 arrested a man for impaired driving and for having a blood alcohol level in excess of the legal limit. Charged is 48-year-old Steven MacPhee of Westphal. He is to appear in Dartmouth court on March 12. Constable Dianne Woodworth, speaking for the Halifax Regional Police Department, says Metro Transit assisted in identifying MacPhee. MacPhee is a service supervisor. When arrested, he had been driving his own vehicle, but sources tell The Coast MacPhee was about to start his shift, and would’ve been expected to drive one of Metro Transit’s SUVs to perform his supervisorial duties.

Neither incident appeared in either the RCMP’s or the Halifax Regional Police Department’s media releases.

Metro Transit spokesperson Tiffany Chase says both MacPhee and the unnamed driver have been suspended pending the results of internal investigations.

“Safety of the public is our foremost concern,” says Chase.

Metro Transit employees are subject to the terms of HRM’s Substance Abuse Policy, adds Chase.

Metro Transit does not routinely test drivers for drugs or alcohol.

Metro Transit has about 800 employees. Arguably, two incidents doesn’t constitute a trend or indicate systematic problems. But on the other hand, so long as both the police departments and Metro Transit don’t publicize such incidents, we can have no real understanding at how widespread substance misuse in the transit agency is.

#DoItOnTheBus

The PR campaign's “Do it on the bus” tagline has been the subject of much ridicule on Twitter, and thoroughly panned by Coast readers.The campaign started Monday and will run for 12 weeks.

“‘Do it on the bus’ is a purposely cheeky, multi-media and multilevel engagement campaign to improve the relationship and eventually ridership between Halifax residents and their transit system,” reads a program description Chase sent to The Coast. “A strong headline is essential to cut through the clutter of thousands of messages the average person sees every day and also to generate some buzz.”

The PR campaign has a budget of $191,000. Acart Communications, an Ottawa firm, is to be paid $50,000 in professional fees. Acart was the successful bidder on a Request for Quotations offered by the city last October. The balance of the campaign budget, $141,000 is to be spent on media buys, and at local advertising and video production firms. Advertising includes print (including in The Coast), radio and television, and on transit buses and at the ferry terminals.

Metro Transit intends to evaluate the campaign against two objectives. First, “to shift towards a more positive public view of transit by promoting recent service improvements and alter the momentum towards public transit being seen as a great option to get around,” reads the program description. This will be evaluated through telephone surveys. The pre-campaign survey, held from January 14 through January 23, contacted 476 households throughout HRM and “was used to inform the campaign message and highlighted customer benefits. The post-campaign survey will measure the reach and impact of the campaign on the target audience, as well as existing transit users.”

The second objective is to increase ridership after the PR campaign is over. Specifically, “to increase transit ridership by one to two percent in the six month period following the campaign,” that is, from June through November.

To measure this, Metro Transit will compare transit revenue from this coming June through November to the same period in past years. Recent revenue for those months has been:

2010/11—$15,346,877
2011/12—$15,673,873
 2012/13 (following the transit strike)—$15,371,555
By this measurement, a one percent increase would be $153,716 in total revenue, while a two percent increase would be $307,431, over and above the 2012/13 figures. (All figures are provided by Chase.)

There are problems with the evaluation logic, however. First, the post-PR campaign revenue evaluation period comes after an expected fare increase of 11 percent, from $2.25 to $2.50. Metro Transit has asked for that fare increase in its upcoming budget, and if council approves in April, the increase would become effective a few months later, before the PR campaign evaluation period starts. So even if ridership goes down, as is typically the case after a fare increase, total revenue will likely increase beyond the two percent evaluation criteria.

"That's true," says Chase. "We'll have to take that into account." But how the several moving balls—decreases in ridership due to the fare increase, but supposed increases in ridership due to the PR campaign, coupled with increases in revenue from the fare increase—could be explicated is nowhere explained, and certainly not in any document written before the PR campaign tender was awarded.

Second, the increase in revenue is being measured against last year’s post-transit strike period, when revenues were already down 1.9 percent from the year before. Even if transit ridership merely came back to the pre-strike level, the PR campaign will be judged a success.

Third, to Metro Transit’s and city council’s credit, the bus system has seen significant expansion in recent years, with the addition of new routes and increased frequency on existing routes, as well as larger buses that can accommodate more riders per trip. This expanded service is reflected in increased fare collection, as witnessed from a 2.1 percent increase in revenue from 2010/11 to 2011/12. How is it possible to attribute an increase in revenue later this year to the PR campaign as opposed to the natural growth in revenue brought about through expanded service?

“We can’t entirely indicate that the campaign is responsible,” agrees Chase, adding however that the PR campaign is part of an overall council directive to increase ridership.

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