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Are London Transit buses already too full to accommodate free passes for high school students?

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Leadership at London Transit cautions that the logistics need to be worked out before approving a free bus pass pilot project for high school students by this September.

“I don’t want to say it’s impossible,” London Transit G.M. Kelly Paleczny told CTV News. “I would say it is pretty tight based on other programs of this nature that we’ve rolled out.”

On Tuesday, council’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (SPPC) recommended city staff develop a draft agreement with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVSSB) and London Transit Commission (LTC) for a pilot project at Clarke Road Secondary School with Grade 9 students receiving free bus passes this September, and Grade 9 and Grade 10 students next September.

Paleczny said the company contracted by the LTC to operate the bus pass system will need to be consulted, plus a comprehensive analysis of bus capacity around the school.

“Of the routes serving Clark Road during peak times, which are [the school’s] morning bell and afternoon bell, [buses are] between 150 per cent and 200 per cent capacity,” she explained. “That’s what we would call a ‘crush load.’ There’s no more room to put people on this bus.”

Paleczny worries that current fare-paying bus riders could be crowded out by subsidized student riders.

London Transit declares a bus to be at 100 per cent capacity when all of its seats are filled by passengers.

Buses at 200 per cent capacity have all of their seats full, plus an equal number of passengers standing.

Deputy Mayor Shawn Lewis and Coun. Peter Cuddy brought forward the motion to SPPC earlier this week.

Lewis said an analysis of route capacity must consider both the time-of-day and the specific locations along the route where buses exceed capacity.

He believes many of the routes serving the Argyle area would have the ability to accommodate additional students.

“Many routes feed into Clarke Road Secondary School. We are talking about 227 students. They are not all going to be on the same route,” Lewis said.

CTV News obtained a copy of the TVDSB feasibility report that was mentioned multiple times during the committee meeting.

The two-and-a-half page document (plus a one-page appendix) considers the potential for student bus programs in London, St. Thomas, and Woodstock.

Lewis admitted it lacks details, but rather than slow the process, he asserted it’s a reason to move ahead with directing city staff to create a draft agreement.

“The whole point of directing our staff, LTC, and the school board to proceed is so that all of those details and how that is going to be operationalized can be worked out,” he said.

The deputy mayor also rejected the idea of delaying the process to allow council to hear directly from Paleczny at the next SPPC meeting in May.

“It is going to be a tight timeline,” he admitted. “But if it doesn't start in September, we will lose another year because we are not going to successfully launch this with Grade 9 students in December when their travel patterns are already set.”

Paleczny said if the Commission directs her to prepare a preliminary feasibility report, she can likely have it available for the LTC meeting at the end of May.

She added that London Transit's primary challenge at this time isn't boosting ridership numbers, its increasing routes, frequency, and reliability to better serve its existing passengers.

“We want to increase ridership, but in order to increase ridership, we need to increase our service levels because we can’t right now accommodate what we’ve already got,” she said.

Council will consider pursuing a draft agreement with the public school board and LTC at a meeting April 23.

A final decision about funding the pilot project would come later this summer.

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