Can an app solve southwestern Ontario’s transit woes?

ANALYSIS: Part bus service, part taxi service, part ride-hailing app, Wroute is offering residents of the Kitchener-Guelph-Hamilton triangle another transit option. But critics say car-based transportation isn’t the answer
By Sean Marshall - Published on February 25, 2019
a Wroute app vehicle
A Wroute vehicle at the passenger pickup area at Guelph Central Station, in downtown Guelph. (Sean Marshall)

Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo are just 25 kilometres apart — a half-hour drive. But if you’re trying to travel between the two cities outside work hours, the trip can be a challenge. The GO train schedule is designed for commuters to and from Toronto; the last eastbound train of the day leaves Kitchener at 7:10 a.m.; the first eastbound train from Guelph to Kitchener leaves at 5:11 p.m. That leaves the bus, but there are no direct routes between the two cities, so passengers have to transfer at a carpool lot in Aberfoyle. The GO train takes just 24 minutes, but a one-way bus trip takes an hour and a half.

It’s even more difficult to get between Guelph and Hamilton. The 45-minute drive takes two and a half hours on GO Transit, and you have to transfer in Mississauga.

But residents of the Kitchener-Guelph-Hamilton triangle now have another regional travel option, courtesy of a private entrepreneur. In September 2018, Jason Hammond, former president of local car-sharing firm Community CarShare, launched Wroute (pronounced “root”) — which functions as a cross between a bus service, a taxi service, and a ride-hailing app. Initially offering service between Guelph and Kitchener, it expanded to Burlington in January 2018. What remains to be seen is whether this will be a viable solution to the transit woes that have plagued the region for decades.

In 1967, the government of Ontario embarked on a two-year experiment to see whether commuter rail would be viable in the Greater Toronto Area. CN had just built a new railyard in Vaughan and was moving its freight trains out of downtown Toronto. The new commuter train service, GO Transit, took advantage of the newly freed-up track. In the following years, GO Transit opened five additional lines, extended trains to Oshawa, Barrie, and Niagara Falls, and built an integrated bus network to feed and supplement those train lines.

But for all its success, GO Transit has maintained a radial system that feeds commuters into Union Station, leaving many gaps left in its expanding radial network. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kitchener-Guelph-Hamilton triangle, home to more than 1.2 million residents and six major universities and colleges.

According to Kitchener resident and transit historian James Bow, transit access between Kitchener and Toronto has greatly improved over the last few years. There are now five weekday GO trains; buses connect to midday service at Bramalea Station and run to Square One in Mississauga and the TTC subway in Vaughan. “GO is cheaper than parking and less stressful than driving.” However, Bow fears that increases in service to Toronto “are masking the degradation of other parts of the intercity transit network.”

Brian Doucet, a Kitchener resident and Canada Research Chair in cities planning at the University of Waterloo, says that, despite its growing population and economy, Kitchener-Waterloo almost entirely lacks transit connections to other cities in Southern Ontario. Although there have been recent investments — the ION LRT line, for example, will be opening later this year — the area remains heavily dependent on the automobile. (A new highway is now under construction between Guelph and Kitchener.)

Wroute’s fleet of Tesla Model X electric SUVs, operated by licensed taxi drivers, can carry up to six passengers and is equipped with bicycle racks. Like a bus, Wroute operates on a fixed schedule, and, as with Uber or Lyft, fares must be purchased online or through a mobile app. Wroute offers 32 weekday trips between Fairview Park Mall, in the south end of Kitchener, and downtown Guelph, and 14 daily trips to Aldershot GO Station and Mapleview Mall, in Burlington. Intermediate stops include the University of Guelph and Waterloo Region International Airport.

Hammond’s goal is to connect transit hubs such as Fairway (the southern terminal of the new ION LRT line) and Aldershot, as well as places without any other scheduled service, such as the airport. Hammond isn’t interested in competing with local transit, which he sees as an essential public service. “Where local transit can provide for a trip, we do our best to leave it to them,” he says. If GO Transit were to begin filling the gap Wroute is currently filling, he would see that as “something for us to celebrate.”

While Wroute may be a viable option for the occasional traveller, fares may be too high for a regular commuter. It’ll cost you $20 for a single ride between Guelph and Kitchener, and $28 for one between Guelph and Aldershot. (In comparison, the GO Transit cash fare from Kitchener to Guelph is $8.70; to Union Station, it’s $17.70.)

According to Doucet, Wroute isn’t the best answer for the region. He calls it "an interesting venture,” but says it isn’t a “viable public-transit option.” He describes Wroute as “an auto-based solution” to a problem that instead requires buses and trains that can move large numbers of people quickly, reliably, frequently and, most important, affordably.

All-day, two-way GO rail service, long promised by successive governments — including the current Progressive Conservatives’ — may one day provide quick, reliable, and inexpensive transit between Kitchener and Guelph. And introducing direct GO bus service to Hamilton would provide part of the necessary network in southcentral Ontario. In the meantime, Wroute is working to fill a crucial gap.

Sean Marshall is a Toronto-based geographer and writer with an interest in public transportation, pedestrian safety, and local politics.

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