Can on-demand buses provide pandemic-proof transit in Ontario?

Cities across the province are looking at bus-hailing services — and the government is encouraging them. But not everyone is on board
By Josh Sherman - Published on Aug 21, 2020
In August, North Bay approved signing a contract with Via Mobility to roll out an on-demand bus service. (Courtesy of the City of North Bay)

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This fall, or by New Year’s at the latest, Chris Mayne wants North Bay transit riders to be able to use their smartphones to hail buses during off-peak hours. “Here’s a proposal that might help provide service and, potentially — when it’s in place and running smoothly — might even find some savings,” says Mayne, a city councillor and chair of North Bay’s operations and infrastructure committee.

Earlier this month, council approved signing a $71,000 contract with New York firm Via to roll out an on-demand bus service that would operate during evenings and weekends (when ridership tends to be lower) on as many as four of North Bay’s seven bus routes. If the pilot project is successful, the service could be expanded to run on weekdays.

Commuters would use an app (or call a driver or the terminal) to book a trip from one bus stop to another. Rather than operate on a fixed schedule, bus service would depend on these bookings. “It’s one change that a lot of people need to get used to,” says Mayne, who believes a public-awareness campaign may be necessary to promote the project.

As municipalities face lower ridership numbers and budget shortfalls because of COVID-19, some transit experts foresee on-demand public transit gaining traction across Ontario. “I think that it does shift the needle towards making on-demand transit attractive in certain places that maybe before the dive in travel would’ve thought the demand was high enough to really warrant fixed routes,” says Steven Farber, an associate professor of human geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Luke Mellor, marketing director for Pantonium, a Toronto-based company that has developed bus-hailing software for transit systems across North America — including Belleville’s — has seen increased interest in on-demand service since the pandemic struck in March: “Where it used to make sense to run a fixed route in most places, now it doesn’t — and, of course, their budgets are getting cut.”

In Belleville, population 50,000, bus ridership plunged in March to 170 daily trips, down from a pre-pandemic average of about 4,000. The city expanded its on-demand service, which was already available between 9 p.m. and midnight, to operate 19 hours a day. “It made it a lot easier for us to navigate the pandemic and still provide service,” says Paul Buck, the city’s transit-operations manager.

Belleville Transit was able to cover its normal service area using just 11 buses instead of 27, he adds, noting that the system made physical distancing easier: “We can set the passenger load via the on-demand service, so that bus would not accept any more than, at the time, 15 bookings on the vehicle.”

On June 1, the city returned to nightly on-demand service, which relies on algorithms to ensure that stops are spaced out appropriately. Transit operators are informed of the stop sequence via bus-mounted tablet. “You don’t want somebody to be trapped on a bus forever, banging around the city,” Mellor says, “but you also don’t want to force the system to pick up somebody and then immediately drop them off at their stop — because that’s a very fast ride for them, but it makes a very inefficient system.”

Mayne hopes the North Bay pilot will help his city secure pandemic-relief transit funding under the joint provincial-federal Safe Restart Agreement. In an August 12 letter from Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney to Toronto mayor John Tory, the province outlines funding-eligibility rules, which require municipalities to “review the lowest performing bus routes and consider whether they may be better serviced by microtransit.” (According to a ministry statement provided to TVO.org, “Microtransit refers to small scale, flexible transportation services to provide rides that are often ordered on-demand with a mobile app or website with dynamically-generated, rather than fixed, routes.”)

Asked whether a system like North Bay’s would qualify, the ministry stated that “all proposals are subject to further discussions and engagement with municipalities as we explore a range of options to make transit systems more sustainable in Ontario.”

Farber, who co-authored a recent report on Belleville’s pilot, saw “quite a lot of benefits” in the local on-demand service but says “that doesn’t mean that it’ll work everywhere” and that additional research is required on such systems before they’re adopted more widely. Farber worries that private-public partnerships could lead to worse service if regular transit funding doesn’t return when post-pandemic ridership recovers. “Once demand is back, that just leaves us with an eroded transit system where we actually need transit,” he says. (The Ministry of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.)

Hamish Campbell, manager of Canadian operations for Via, which helped Sault Ste. Marie's transit system launch on-demand bus service last year, agrees that it’s not a solution for every bus route. “The thing that’s going to be interesting in North Bay is, as part of our service design, we’re looking at opportunities to blend fixed-route and on-demand together, and I think that is the future of on-demand.”

With North Bay on the road to providing on-demand service, Mayne wonders how it’ll be received: “There are some great little YouTube videos out there — specifically in Europe, where communities have tried this — and it works.

“When I saw one of the videos, my concern was that it was going to be so popular, so much fun, ridership would increase as people just start going out booking buses because it’s fun to book the bus,” Mayne says. “We’ll see how that goes.”

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