Denis Fitzpatrick remembers when the first transit buses hit the streets of Selkirk in 2011 and the naysayers were already writing the new service’s obituary.
“Initially there were a lot of detractors saying that nobody would ever ride our buses,” the chair of the Selkirk Transit Authority (STA) recalled.
“There was a lot of, ‘oh, look at the buses, you’re driving around town and there’s no one in them’. But the statistics didn’t bear that out…by the end of the year we had outstripped our capacity in terms of the number of people that actually rode the bus. It went way beyond our expectations.”
Now, as the STA celebrates its 10th anniversary, the numbers keep impressing and Fitzpatrick has to keep reminding himself that it has, in fact, been 10 years since that first little bus rolled out to Stop 1.
“Ten years, I do find it hard to believe. We started off with very small buses…and they were not smooth riding by any stretch of the imagination,” he laughed.
Fully accessible fleet offers free rides in June
Transit now has two Vicinity buses that are fully accessible, have kneeling features for those with mobility issues as well as access ramps. The buses can accommodate 27-seated riders. A third bus is part of the fleet as a backup.
Charlene Dunning, Manager of Transportation Services for STA, agrees with Fitzpatrick and says it’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years and that 277,832 riders have hopped aboard a Selkirk bus in that time.
“Time has definitely flown, and I’m amazed at how the service has grown over the years, we’ve added buses, we’ve added the mobility service and we’ve gotten greener over the years,” Dunning said.
“Our staff, including our incredible drivers, are amazing and have such a close relationship with the riders – it’s a family here.”
To celebrate the happy occasion, the STA is offering free bus service for the month of June, which, not coincidentally, is the same way the service began back in 2011, with free service for the month of June.
Sponsors to thank for affordable fares
Fitzpatrick points out that the price to ride the bus has remained unchanged – it started at a toonie a ride, and to this day it still costs the same amount.
The service is funded by the city and through advertising and fares. Franks Pizza and Age Friendly sponsor youth passes and bring the cost down to $20 from $45 and Skinners and Age Friendly sponsor the senior passes, dropping that cost to $5, down from $20.
It was then councillor, now City of Selkirk CAO, Duane Nicol who championed transit in the city, beginning back in 2004.
“As I said at the grand opening, Selkirk Transit was more than just a critical service, it was a vision for the progressive, innovative, and environmentally responsible city we wanted to become. It is amazing to see it develop, grow and integrate and even shape our community,” Nicol said.
Community to thank for Transit’s success
Selkirk Transit’s existence, he said, is a result of a whole community effort.
“From the hundreds of citizens who participated in surveys, workshops, served on the taskforce and the council standing committee, to various councils who supported the idea, many people should feel proud of the work they did to make Selkirk Transit a reality. Including Greg Dewar, the former MLA, who worked hard to secure provincial funding support which was the final piece of the puzzle,” Nicol said.
In 2005 council created a task force to look into starting the service and on May 30, 2011 the first bus hit the streets. The first riders of Selkirk Transit were Arlene and Larry Nicol, Coun. Nicol’s parents.
“Unfortunately, I was out of town that day, but Mom and Dad were up and at bus stop one for 6am. They rode the full route and came home an hour later,” Nicol recalled.
At that time, the service was a two-bus fleet, capable of accommodating 22 riders on each. The route then was the same as it is now and picks up passengers on an hourly schedule.
“The route has always been the same but we did create additional pick up locations in 2013, in response to requests from riders,” Dunning said.
The 58 stops on the route are numbered according to their pick-up time after the hour, so stop number 15 means you’ll catch the bus at 15 minutes after the hour. Fitzpatrick said the challenge going forward, as the city grows, will be trying to keep the route on that one-hour schedule, but he thinks they’ll be able to do it.
“We’d like to try and keep it as close to that as possible, because it makes it so simple for people. If you’re walking around town and you see a bus stop and it’s number 10, well you know 10 minutes after the hour, there should be a bus,” he said.
Selkirk Coun. Doug Poirier, who sits on the STA board along with fellow councillor Kelly Cook, says 10 years is a real feather in Transit’s cap and he praised the management and staff of both the city’s Culture, Recreation and Green Transportation dept. and the STA for doing such an exceptional job.
The importance of a transit system to a city can’t be understated, Poirier said.
“The reason a transit system is so important is because anyone who wants to invest in our city, transit is one of the top five things they’re looking for. Investors in housing and industry want to know that their employees can get to work,” he said.
“Selkirk is expanding and the Selkirk of 20, 30, 50 years from now, our population could double. Starting up transit 10 years ago was visionary, and a lot of the credit has to go to Duane Nicol.”
Award winning service expands
In 2015 the STA added Selkirk Mobility and both services are award winning, with Selkirk Transit earning the Selkirk Biz Customer Service Award in 2018 and Mobility being recognized in 2017 by the Biz as New Business of the Year and snagging the Customer Service Award. Selkirk Mobility also makes use of a hybrid bus.
Fitzpatrick said Selkirk Transit has always prided itself on being a community partner, and has worked with other organizations to remove barriers to transportation. A pilot project with the Canadian Mental Health Association provided free passes to clients to encourage them to use transit to go to appointments or do shopping.
“A lot of them came back afterwards and continue to ride the bus,” he said.
They’ve partnered with Homes for the Holidays and offered a charter service and, in partnership with Boston Pizza offered Game Day buses that got Bomber and Jets fans to Winnipeg safely. Rides on Remembrance Day to the service are always free.
Fitzpatrick credited Dunning, Bonnie Turenne and Jaimie Kazuk, and all staff at STA and Selkirk Mobility, which now sits at 17, with making it such a huge success.
“They’re all good people, people, if I can say that, and the people that they hired to drive the buses are also really good people, people,” he said.
“We’re seeing really good feedback from our customers, that they love their bus drivers. They’re all nice. They’re kind. Especially the people that ride the bus consistently, on a daily basis, it’s almost like a little community where the people on the bus get to know each other and they all get to know the drivers.”
Safe, reliable transportation
Transit also kept operating throughout COVID, and though numbers were down, STA offered a safe service for those who needed it.
Fitzpatrick praised the City of Selkirk for being unwavering in its support of transit.
“The support that we’ve got from the city over the years have been tremendous,” he said.
“And the councillors that sit on the board are really good advocates for the transit system.”
Pouirer said transit aligns with the city’s Strategic Plan, which calls for the smooth operation of transportation systems and promotes environmental stewardship. By following the Strategic Plan, the city is becoming the envy of other municipalities, he said.
“That plan is the vision of Selkirk. It’s going to be interesting how things roll out over time,” he said.
Along with free fares for the month of June, riders will be given a free reusable shopping bag and STA facemask.