The first day of the semester, I got up at 6:15 a.m. to bike to the Roddick Gates by 7:30 a.m., in order to take the 7:45 a.m. bus out to Macdonald Campus. To my surprise (since I had never taken it early in the morning before), many students were already there, waiting in line. I didn’t make it on. I did, however, get on the 8:30 a.m. bus, which left five minutes early because it filled up so quickly, and only ended up about ten minutes late to my 9 a.m. class. I found myself wondering if there was anyone on the bus who was supposed to be there for 8:30 a.m., or if they would have just given up when they missed the earlier one. I wondered what it would be like to wait for the bus in the winter, especially if I had to wake up even earlier and wait that much longer to catch one that would get me to class on time.
Although, McGill’s two campuses – downtown and Macdonald – are crucial in defining the university experience for students who inhabit it, there is a noticeable division between the two spaces. This does not only refer to the spatial separation of around 36 kilometres, but also refers to the difficulty students and organizations from the campuses have interacting with each other. This is why, when defining student space at McGill, we often forget to include both campuses and all the value found in them. The Macdonald shuttle could be a way to bridge this gap, to bring knowledge, resources, and people from both locations closer together.
The Macdonald Campus shuttle operates Monday to Friday, and during the regular academic year runs buses roughly every 45 minutes in both directions, with the first buses leaving around 7 a.m. and the last ones leaving no later than 6:15 p.m. In the summer (following exams in April, until the end of August) it runs only twice a day in each direction. In order to ride the shuttle, students must receive a sticker from either Service Point or Laird Hall to put on their McGill ID, and to get that sticker one must be registered in a class out at Mac. Faculty and staff can purchase bus tickets for $2 a ride through an online request form, and visitors taking the bus may do so provided they have a faculty or staff member fill out a request form on their behalf. Each bus holds 48 students, and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
Not that many McGill students actually ride the bus. According to Academic and Administrative Services at Macdonald Campus, which records the number of students who ride it per day, there were between 500 and 550 per day who rode it in the first week of November. As such, it’s not something that is talked about very much among most students on the downtown campus. For the students who do use it, however, it can be as much a part of their experience at McGill as classes, and in many cases involves the same time commitment. Because of this, students have a variety of opinions about how the shuttle buses function, and how well it suits their needs.
This semester I have classes at Macdonald Campus four days a week, at varying times in the day. Before this year, I had only taken one course there, which was in the middle of the day, when the shuttle typically has fewer passengers, and thus there is not the same necessity to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early in order to actually get a spot. Last year, when I was SSMU VP External, we spoke to the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS) executive members about the shuttle service as a recurring issue for them, realizing it is a complex situation involving a number of factors, none of which are easily resolved.
I spoke to a number of students who ride the shuttle regularly to try and get a sense of their experiences and whether they had thoughts about problems and possible improvements. Most riders I spoke with appreciate the service that the shuttle provides. Even though many had thoughts about what could make it more effective, there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for its existence. Tracey Proverbs wrote, in an email response to my questions, “I love the shuttle because it gives me a chance to pause in the day.
That being said, the people I spoke with also raised some recurring issues. Almost everyone I talked to agreed that at least one more shuttle in the morning and in the evening would be useful. Kristen Perry, who rides the bus twice a day, five days a week, made the point that “it’s not like we don’t have enough resources [in terms of bus capacity], it’s just that they’re not distributed the right way.” She also noted that the ridership tends to be higher at the beginning and end of the semester, and that around exam period in particular she feels like she needs to plan ahead to arrive especially early in order to catch a bus that will get her there on time.
Another concern had to do with how much the buses actually stick to their schedule, particularly in the evening. Because there is a large number of students taking the bus toward the end of the day, they will sometimes fill up and leave earlier than the official scheduled times. This can mean that the bus that is scheduled to leave at 5:30 p.m. actually leaves around 5:10 p.m. There is no sign or other way of indicating this, which means that students who show up after it has left may end up waiting much longer for the last bus at 6:15 p.m. When this happens, students have no way of knowing that they’ll be waiting that long for the next bus unless someone has watched the earlier one leave and can pass the message along.
Schedules and Driver Contracts
A list of Frequently Asked Questions about the shuttle bus is posted on the outside wall of the Centennial Centre at Macdonald Campus, right next to the bus stop itself. Many of the questions have to do with the level of service, and whether or not there could be more buses running at peak periods in the day. The answer, according to this sheet, is “no,” due to budgetary constraints and the necessity of following a fixed schedule. Furthermore, it points out that the bus drivers are entitled to breaks, such as one for lunch, which is why the same driver who drops students off at one campus does not necessarily pick up students from there and drive directly back to the other campus. The shuttle bus drivers aren’t McGill employees. Rather, they work for the bus company and are hired on contract. Their contracts specified an amount of time for a break after a certain amount of driving, as well as the usual expectations for breaks such as one for lunch.
STM Service Competition
Another factor that further complicates things is that the shuttle is not allowed to compete with the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) public transit system in any way. Because the shuttle bus is used for academic purposes (i.e., students being able to get to class), it is able to operate as it does. However, it cannot expand outside of its current hours because that would imply that students are using it in order to go to or from activities other than classes or labs.
According to an anonymous source, McGill had approached the STM at one point about partnering with them to run another bus between downtown and Macdonald Campus, but were told that McGill would have to be responsible for paying the full cost of the bus itself, an estimated $100,000. Concordia University runs a bus between their downtown and Loyola campuses in partnership with the STM, but part of the reason that is a feasible option is that their ridership is much higher, since their student population is distributed more evenly between the two campuses, unlike at McGill where the vast majority of students are on the downtown campus.
MacDonalds Campus Community
Evan Henry, who served as the 2012-13 MCSS Senate representative, spent quite a bit of time dealing with the issue during his term. Another barrier he ran into was that some of the administration at Macdonald Campus are resistant to the idea of having a bus later in the evening because they felt that it would turn Mac into more of a commuter campus and disrupt the community that exists there. Henry did not really agree with this feeling, and stated out that having a more accessible form of transportation might do the opposite by making it easier for students who live downtown and take classes at Mac to stay later and participate in campus extracurricular activities.
Possible Solutions and Alternatives
Several of the students I talked to have been involved at one point or another in proposing solutions or alternatives to the issues with the shuttle bus. For example, Perry told me that earlier this semester, she and a friend had discussed the idea of having students fill out a form on Minerva indicating when they are most likely to ride the shuttle, in order to modify the schedule to reflect the times of highest use. She and her friend brought the idea to the Academic and Administrative Services office at Macdonald Campus, and even offered to create the form themselves, but were told that the shuttle schedule would not change even if the form was created. I spoke with Jaaved Singh, the current President of the MCSS, who, like his predecessors, has been looking at the issue of student transportation between the campuses. He told me that MCSS has been encouraging students to use carpooling to and from Macdonald campus, particularly later in the evening when the shuttle is no longer running. The MCSS is in the process of developing a carpooling tool to add to its website, in order to facilitate easier communication. I also mentioned to him the possibility of having some kind of system to indicate when the next bus would be leaving, in the event of buses leaving earlier than scheduled. He told me that there had been a system of leaving notes on the bulletin board near the bus stop, but that the notes weren’t necessarily updated every day, so there could be confusion about whether a note was current or not. He did say that MCSS could look into installing something a bit more user-friendly, such as a chalkboard.
In general, it would seem that the consensus on the shuttle bus is that it’s good, it serves an important purpose, but it’s not perfect and making it better with the current state of affairs isn’t easy. Small issues, such as communication about bus departures, can hopefully be solved relatively easily. However, the combination of financial austerity at McGill, driver contracts, and restrictions against competition with the STM have left the major issue of scheduling in a way that serves more students at a standstill. These issues threaten the viability of the shuttle system, and in a sense, a failure of the shuttle would result in diminished possibilities for students of both campuses to communicate.
One thing that struck me over the course of this research is that it is an issue that students are willing and eager to engage with. Administrators at McGill frequently call on students to provide input and help find solutions to problems. This is an issue in which it seems that there is no shortage of students willing to be involved but it would seem that there is one too many barriers to actually being able to put that involvement into use. If we are to be a united campus and an inviting space, we should strive to address the separation between campuses – and the shuttle is the best way to start doing so.