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COLUMN: Wheels on the county bus prove for 'pleasant, cost-effective' road trip

Editor finds LINX Transit offers a great economical option for those without a vehicle or for car owners just wanting the freedom that comes from not driving

My journey begins at Georgian College in Midland.

This may seem like an odd place to start rather than at the town’s library, but such is the way the County of Simcoe honchos have designed the LINX Transit system.

As I board, the driver is extremely kind and courteous as she takes the time to explain the different fare options, including a tap-on, tap-off card.

“If you plan to ride the bus frequently, a transit fare card might be a good option,” she says and I agree, setting one up with $20 in prepaid funds.

While I am the lone rider for the entire journey to Orillia’s Lakehead University campus, this might not be out of the ordinary given that it is an off-peak time so anyone on their way to work or school has likely already arrived at their destination.

But as we pass the Midland OSPCA branch, I’m reminded of what seems like a decision without much forethought by transit planners to avoid Port McNicoll.

It seems like a pretty easy accommodation to make, and likely would have only added four or five minutes to the trip with the bus turning left off of Highway 12 onto Talbot Street, then right onto Triple Bay Road and back onto the highway.

But poor Port McNicoll can’t seem to catch a break.

They long ago lost many essentials that help keep a village vibrant, including their only school. And just last year, their major tourist attraction weighed anchor for the supposed brighter waters of Kingston.

Anyhow, back to the ride at hand.

We make two stops in Victoria Harbour, one in Waubaushene and make a detour into Coldwater. The seating arrangements remain the same with just the driver and me along for the journey.

From there, it’s a straight shot to Lakehead as we turn onto West Ridge Boulevard after entering the Sunshine City.

I decided to follow my backpacking days through foreign lands by visiting the school’s cafeteria for a repast.

As a poor student or frugal backpacker, one quickly realizes that universities and hospital cafeterias often offer good portions for good value and Lakehead is no exception to the rule.

And while universities still generally feature cafeterias, the same can’t be said for hospitals where cafeterias have often been replaced by boring and generic fast-food chains.

But again dear reader, I digress.

While waiting for the next Orillia to Barrie bus, I chat with a couple of Orillia students who say the decision to begin offering the service several years ago has been a godsend.

Riders also seem enthusiastic about the pleasant service and its overall cost-effectiveness.

“It’s a great option to get to school,” Orillia resident Jessica Kling says as she waits for an Orillia Transit bus after getting off the LINX bus that travels to Lakehead from Georgian College’s Barrie campus.

Fellow Georgian student Sarah Cunningham takes the bus four mornings a week from Orillia.

“I like it better than Orillia Transit,” she says. “The drivers are more responsive. And for $3.40 (each way), it’s a really good deal.”

All of the buses taken during my journey are impeccably clean and the drivers very polite, knowledgeable and kind. They’re also well-equipped with plenty of accessible seats for those travelling in wheelchairs or requiring some other type of assistance.

As well, if you want to ride your bike after arriving at your destination, the buses have racks at the front for bicycles.

Justice Bushey lives in Barrie, but attends Lakehead.

Bushey also happens to be blind and says she really appreciates that the stops are announced clearly by the drivers since she can’t read the onboard digital signage that updates regularly to show the next stop.

“I find it really accessible,” she says. “The drivers are really accommodating as well.”

The route from Lakehead Orillia to Barrie’s Georgian College makes several stops along the way, including Georgian’s Orillia campus, Royal Victoria Hospital and the Napoleon plant just outside of Barrie.

But while travellers get on and off at these stops, there’s one stop that just doesn’t make much sense.

The bus takes a long detour off Highway 11 to head to the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport. No one gets off and no one gets on at this airport that doesn’t offer regular commercial service anyway.

One suspects this is a fairly regular occurrence since most travelling by private jet likely don’t take public transportation to get there. If it’s for airport workers, perhaps, limit the bus visits to the beginning and/or end of shifts.

There are many other stops missing on the LINX network that would seem more logical than this one, including adding a stop in Port McNicoll or ending the Midland to Orillia route at Georgian’s Orillia campus rather than at Lakehead since the current system forces Penetanguishene and Midland residents to transfer buses to get to that particular college campus.

And now for some social commentary.

Of course, like almost everywhere else one goes these days, people are glued to their phones while aboard.

Having lived without a car for ages and/or been fortunate enough to live in cities with adequate public transit, I have taken a lot of public transportation over the years and always enjoyed reading a few chapters in a favourite book between stops. (I recommend A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole or pretty much anything by Kurt Vonnegut as the perfect riding companion).

But, I guess, when you’re riding along what could arguably be one of the ugliest stretches of highway in Ontario and possibly Canada, you can be forgiven for just keeping your eyes glued to the device.

While the odd farm is a nice respite, the highway remains a hodgepodge of derelict businesses and depressing storefronts.

But again and likely for the final time, I digress.

After this brief interlude, it’s time to get back to the subject at hand.

I opt to get off the Orillia to Barrie bus at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre since I want to see how many people use the service to get to and from appointments.

While no one gets off or on, but me, I imagine it’s well used, if only to avoid paying ever-rising hospital parking fees.

County of Simcoe transit manager Dennis Childs says that LINX Transit continued to experience consistent ridership growth and improvements in conventional and specialized (LINX Plus) transit services last year as it completed its fifth year operating.

“Conventional and specialized routes significantly increased ridership (23% and 33% respectively),” Childs says.

For Route 1 (Barrie to Penetanguishene), that meant a 39% increase from 2022 with 39,918 riders.

Route 3 (Barrie to Orillia) saw a jump of 80% from 2022 numbers with: 50,209 riders last year.

And for Route 6 (Midland to Orillia), ridership increased 39.4% with 22,404 riders in 2023.

“The social benefits of LINX Transit are evident in these numbers,” Childs tells MidlandToday, noting that increased ridership reduces traffic congestion and improves air quality and accessibility for county residents.

“Looking ahead, the county’s goal is to ensure everyone feels included and connected by providing safe, reliable, affordable and convenient public transit for residents, regardless of socioeconomic status or mobility limitations."

The driver on the final RVH to Midland/Penetanguishene section, says the LINX service has become an important resource for those without vehicles, especially with PMCL signing off as a local transportation option many years ago,

“This is a great service for people to get around,” says the driver, who declines to provide a name.

“It’s also a great company to work for and they really want to ensure they’re providing a good service. They’re also very good at making sure their buses are well maintained.”

While this particular bus takes riders to Georgian College’s Barrie campus along the city’s shopping malls, it also takes a mysterious detour around the streets of Midhurst where someone actually disembarks.

But as we pass through the final stops on the route in Elmvale, Waverley and Midland, I’m reminded how good a system this is from a price point of view.

There are ways it could be improved upon by slightly altering the routes, but it remains an economical option for those without a vehicle or for car owners who just want the freedom that comes from not driving.

And when one considers this entire day of riding the bus costs less than $20, it seems like a solid system that’s providing a much-needed service to residents.

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Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country‚Äôs most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago.
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