What happens when ride sharing meets public transit?

Late-night commuters in Belleville now have a new transit option: their very own bus on demand. We go there to find out how it works
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on October 17, 2018
late night bus in Belleville
For the next several months, Belleville Transit will be testing out its Bus on Demand service on Route 11. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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BELLEVILLE — Belleville’s new Bus on Demand service should be perfect for 25-year-old Suyash Soni. If it works as promised, it could shave 20 to 30 minutes off his commute home from work.

The service, which Belleville Transit is testing out on Route 11 — a late-night bus geared toward shift workers like Soni, who works in a call centre — is perhaps best described as Uber for public transportation. Customers place a call or use a web application to choose a stop, book a preferred pickup time, and indicate what stop they’d like to be dropped off at. The bus then takes them to their destination in the shortest possible time. Proprietary software constantly adjusts the bus’s course to accommodate incoming requests and to ensure that the driver follows the optimal path.

In theory, everyone wins: freed from the rigidity of its standard route, Belleville’s night bus should be able to deliver passengers to their destinations more quickly.

The one-year pilot project, which the city says is the first of its kind in North America (and possibly the world), could be a game-changer for small cities that struggle to provide convenient but cost-effective transportation options. Belleville, with 16 buses on 11 routes serving a population of about 50,000, is one such city: on the late night bus route, for instance, just two buses travel a 22-kilometre, 88-stop loop that takes about 55 minutes to complete — a system that is both fuel- and time-inefficient.

Jeremy Eves, a representative for Pantonium, the Toronto-based company that developed the Bus on Demand software, says that because the bus is used only when there is demand for it (the driver takes the bus back to the terminal if there are no ride requests), the city should see a reduction in operating costs.

Transit manager Paul Buck also expects Bus on Demand to bring costs down. “We do anticipate significantly less mileage, less fuel use, less wear and tear on the buses,” he says.

And, he adds, the convenience of buses-by-request may boost ridership. “We anticipate that, even though we’re driving less, we’re going to be moving more people. More people will want to use this service.”

Buck says he’s encouraged that 335 people have registered to use the new system since it launched September 17 and notes that he’s been fielding calls from curious transit planners from as far away as India and New Zealand.

But there have been a few bumps in the road.

When Soni tried to use the service last Wednesday night, he was left stranded. “I booked the bus, but it did not show up,” he says. He was not the only passenger who got stood up that night. According to Belleville Transit and Pantonium, the driver wasn’t yet totally familiar with the software, so there were several no-shows. (The transit agency issued an apology the following day.)

“Given this is a pilot, we understand there will be some hiccups along the way. The experience last night is a great learning opportunity for us,” Eves says. “You can conceptualize it all you want — you can test and re-test the software — but until it’s up and running, you can’t fully understand how it’s going to work in practice.”

The next evening, Soni booked a ride for 11:08 p.m. and got picked up at 11:15 — better than not getting picked up at all. The problem came with the drop-off.

“Hey — excuse me,” he said. “Why did we just pass my stop?”

“I’m sorry,” the driver replied. “I’m just doing what the app tells me. We’re getting there.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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