Packed house protests proposed Heights shuttle changes

North Burnaby residents certainly gave TransLink officials much to think about.

About 120 people, including two busloads from Seton Villa seniors residence, attended the Dec. 12 open house on proposed changes to the C1 and C2 community shuttle service.

A petition of about 140 signatures from Seton Villa residents and others in the Heights neighbourhood is also on its way to TransLink protesting the changes.

"It was probably the most well attended of all our open houses," said Marisa Espinosa, TransLink's senior manager of service planning, of its consultations for proposed changes across the region. "They did a good job of mobilizing."

Area residents have raised concerns about reduced service making it difficult to carry heavy bags of groceries home or get to appointments. There were worries about seniors in the hilly Heights and Capitol Hill neighbourhoods losing their independence. Still others say they can't arrange their lives around an hourly schedule so wouldn't bother using the shuttle at all.

The proposal would see the C1 and C2 routes merged and extended to the Kensington shopping and recreation area. However, it would no longer travel on Hastings Street between Willingdon and Gilmore avenues, coverage in Capitol Hill would be reduced and the shuttle's frequency would drop from once every 30 minutes to every hour.

"We definitely heard people express their passion for the existing services as they are, and that's part of the process that we set out," said Espinosa. "We're doing some fact finding on what the potential impacts might be and they certainly let us know."

The proposed changes are part of TransLink's service optimization program which tries to do more with existing resources, reallocating them from low-ridership routes to those with higher demand.

While TransLink's rider counts show the C1 and C2 routes see average loads of two to three passengers per trip, some area residents noted that the shuttles are often full during rush hour periods.

Espinosa said they had another look at the numbers and on a per-trip basis, on both routes "even the maximum recorded loads don't go over 10 people per bus." The community shuttles have 24 seats.

However, she said TransLink heard "quite a bit" at the meeting that it's often standing-room only so they'll be having another look to try and reconcile that with their data.

Isabel Kolic, executive director of the Heights Merchants Association (HMA), said she saw a real cross-section of the community at the meeting, from seniors and businesspeople to teenagers on skateboards and Alpha secondary students who carry their instruments to and from school on the shuttle.

Some of those students said if they missed the shuttle and opted not to wait an hour for the next one, they would have to "walk 30 blocks in the rain, in the dark, in the wintertime," Kolic said.

She added that if the service becomes too inconvenient, many families might just get a second vehicle, which would go against TransLink's goals of increasing transit ridership.

Kolic said that the HMA's surveys have found most area residents shop for their groceries in the Heights.

When one woman told a TransLink official that the proposed new route would no longer stop at the Safeway in the Heights, the official said she could shop at the Safeway in Kensington, said Kolic.

The HMA's board president, who happened to be standing next to the woman at the time, "was furious," she said.

"I'm flabbergasted that a transportation professional, whose training and expertise is supposed to be centred on creating sustainable communities so that people do not have to travel more than they need to, would tell a resident to shop somewhere that's 25 minutes away from her house rather than making it possible for her to shop at services that are five minutes away from her house."

Kolic added that Heights merchants were already hit hard in the 1990s when the Ministry of Transportation took away street parking on Hastings to make way for high-occupancy-vehicle lanes during rush hour, the busiest time of the day.

Espinosa said the TransLink official's comments may have not come across as intended.

But "we heard very clearly" that those attending the open house prefer to shop in the Heights commercial district and to take the shuttle there, Espinosa said, and that seniors find it difficult to walk long distances and up steep hills as they would have to  if the shuttle service was changed.

She said the proposed changes were meant to address low ridership and reduce duplication, noting that other services also serve Hastings between Willingdon and Gilmore, such as the No. 135 bus.

"But again, we heard loud and clear from people they like that local loop going to Seton Villa or to other locations in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood direct to the Gilmore-Willingdon shopping area without having to transfer."

The addition of the Kensington commercial district to the route was in response to requests TransLink has received the last couple years, she said, but there were far more comments at the open house from people who prefer to shop in the Heights.

Now that they've heard what the community impact might be of its proposals, TransLink will do an assessment to decide whether to go ahead with the proposal, or what changes it might make.

In January, TransLink will provide the community with a summary of what it heard. Espinosa expected no decision to be made until sometime in late 2013.

"For something like this where we heard a lot of no-change comments, we definitely would need to really look at if this is the best proposal or not."

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