Did you know that Guelph Transit revamped its entire route structure on January 1st? I have been hearing tidbits about the pain that this redesign has caused, and the Mercury chronicles the changes with articles   , editorials and oh! the opinions!      
Here in Waterloo region, we should pay attention. Grand River Transit will face the need to revamp part or all of its network over the next decade. With twice the ridership as GT and active expansion in routes and ridership expected, GRT needs to move away its current hub-and-spoke design, and towards a decentralized, grid-based system.
Reboot the System
There are two big strategies to cutting out existing bus routes. Guelph has demonstrated one: go cold turkey and simply shift buses around, and damn the consequences.
A second strategy is to starve existing routes by first providing more attractive service. This is one of the ideas behind the GRT express bus plan: a roughly grid-like network of limited-stop buses, with LRT along the corridor of heaviest demand, which will run regularly, at decent frequency, and provide quicker cross-town travel. These will draw riders away from some of the lower-frequency neighbourhood wanderers we have accumulated over so many years, allow those resources to eventually be shifted.
Still, Guelph reveals a problem that we will also face: in a community that is underserved by transit, any attempt to rationalize routes will cause pain. The reason for this is that existing transit users have trip needs that already cluster along our existing routes. Those who have simple trip needs that could be easily served by a grid network may not use transit simply because the current network doesn't provide.
So in shifting towards a more efficient, intuitive network that can draw greater ridership, there will be pain for existing users. GRT Route 8 [pdf] is an interesting example to look at. This is an impenetrable double-loop passing through the downtown terminal, and even after almost 20 years, I still need to refer to the route map-- or more recently, blindly rely on Google Maps' directions-- to have any idea if it will get me where I need to go. It has bizarre mid-loop terminations at certain times of the day, leaving confused riders stranded.
And yet, it serves certain corridors where nothing else does (Weber St. in Waterloo, and the Belmont Village corridor, to name a couple) and happens to provide direct trip options for both of these areas to the University of Waterloo and Laurier. So despite its incredible unintuitive opaqueness, it's fairly popular among existing transit users. Even with better bus service (12) along Westmount, and new University Avenue express in 2013, fixing a route like the 8 is daunting because it will leave dense areas along Weber and the entire Belmont Village area unserved.
Horse precedes Cart
Making this kind of network alteration palatable to transit users will require that they are presented with useful options first. To do that, we must provide more service, overlaying the new routes on top of the old, before we can reallocate the old routes' resources.
More service will require more funding, and the expectation that fare-box recover will lag as a result of higher subsidies. In fact, any reasonable transit growth strategy will probably see low fare-box recovery rates until new ridership catches up to the very system improvements that attract them!
So if existing transit users' needs are the "rock", regional council's recent decision to aim for 50% fare-box recovery presents a "hard place". And our transit planners are stuck between them.
I know I've harped on this senseless, counterproductive decision before, but it smacks of politics winning out over the region's needs. The region still says it wants to triple the transit share of an ever growing number of trips within two decades.
But after making a series of high-profile moves to improve transit, council decided to smack transit around a little as if they were scared to show too much favouritism to one particular child. To "keep it in its place".
It will only hold us all back.