This past October, Grand River Transit staff proposed service changes for 2024 with recommendations to reduce evening service on the Ion light rail in favour of a slightly more frequent daytime schedule that would complicate departure times.

“When I first heard about the preliminary Grand River Transit budget where the off-peak hours would be cut from every 15 minutes to 30 minutes, I was shocked,” says Rodney Chan, a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Planning.

“There is a lot of demand during off-peak hours,” he states. “Students coming home late from class, workers who have late shifts and those who rely solely on public and active transportation would be disproportionately affected by these changes.”

Recognizing an opportunity for something to be done, Chan began to post on social media to raise awareness about the issue. He also reached out to his network, including Damian Mikhail, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Mathematics and president of the UW NDP club, and Sam Goncalves-Horton, a first-year planning student and a representative for the Planning Students Association. They, too, had learned about the service cuts from X (formerly Twitter) and were looking to act.

Together they launched a campaign urging regional council and staff to maintain the current 15-minute schedule for off-peak hours. They organized a variety of ways for the community to share their voice, including a petition that saw over 800 signatories, a letter campaign to councillors, and a delegation to speak at the council’s budget meeting on November 29.

“A lot of what was being done was behind the scenes. Our club helped organize with other clubs on campus, like the UW Young Liberals and UW Climate Justice Ecosystem, to spread the word and get more people acting however big or small,” Mikhail says. “We invited Councillor Colleen James to attend our pre-delegation meeting and she was instrumental in helping us prepare what we were going to present to council and teaching us how to be good delegates.”

Instagram post of a zoom meeting with students and Councilor Colleen James.

While encouraging people to participate can often be difficult, the organizers were surprised by the support for their campaign and the final turnout at the budget meeting. More than a dozen students attended and presented their experiences and recommendations to council. For many of them, it was their first time taking an advocacy role.

“I wanted to say something, I wanted to make a change, but I had absolutely no clue how to go about it until I started getting involved and attended the pre-delegation meeting,” Goncalves-Horton says. “I think a lot of students feel the same way or they’re worried about academics and falling behind, but I genuinely think that through stuff like this is where I have learned the most and it’s just as important as course content.”

After hearing from the public, Waterloo Region council members unanimously approved the recommendation to maintain the 15-minute evening service on the Ion light rail — a resounding win for the students and supporters.

“It’s so important to reach out to new people and groups that you haven’t interacted with previously,” Mikhail says. “This experience showed me the power of working together and I’m excited for the UW NDP’s potential to organize students in the future around other transportation issues as well as critical topics like short term rentals and parking minimums.”

Motivated by the success of their advocacy work, Chan and others have since been inspired to try to resurrect the currently dormant Tri-Cities Transport Action Group (TriTAG) to organize around future transit, cycling and pedestrian issues such as supporting bus lanes, more service on the Ion and the reconstruction of University Avenue in 2026.

Meanwhile, the Planning Students Association has also been playing a greater role in local advocacy and aiding these types of efforts.

“The second you put in that little bit of effort to show up, you meet people and momentum builds around changing your community,” Goncalves-Horton says. “It can be really fun.” 

Special thanks to Dr. Brian Doucet in the School of Planning for sharing the photograph of the Ion at night.