KINGSTON — Not long ago, empty buses were a common sight on Kingston’s main roads. But over the past five years, Kingston Transit has seen a huge increase in ridership, and the city now boasts the fastest-growing public-transit ridership figures in the country.
So what is Kingston’s secret? It’s simple: more frequent service, and express routes between key hubs.
In 2013, the city introduced its first express route, which connects the west end with popular destinations such as Queen’s University, Kingston General Hospital, and St. Lawrence College. The new service was supposed to be direct and frequent enough to compete with cars in terms of travel time. Kingston Transit now offers several express routes, all of which provide service every 15 minutes or less during rush hour. The plan is to increase frequency gradually and across the board — bus routes that used to show up every 10 minutes now arrive every seven and a half, and so on.
The plan has worked so well that the city has had to revise its ridership targets. A few years ago, Kingston announced a goal to surpass 6 million passenger trips by 2021. It hit that mark in 2017 — four years ahead of schedule. (In 2013, passengers took 3.4 million trips on Kingston Transit. In 2017, they took 6.2 million.)
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Kingston Transit’s net operating budget has increased modestly over that time, from $10.2 million in 2013 to $15.7 million for 2017. The bus fleet is gradually expanding to accommodate the new reality: Kingston Transit owned 48 vehicles in 2011; by 2021, it expects to own 88.
Inducing commuters to use transit simply by offering more service is not a new concept. As urban planner and transit analyst Christopher Yuen notes, if a city runs more buses, it typically gets more riders. Investing in better service, he says, results in a more “broadly useful” transit network compared to other modes of transportation. “There is simply more of it, so more people ride,” Yuen writes. “So transit is more deeply embedded in the culture and politics.”
Kingston city councillor Liz Schell, who supported the efforts to revitalize Kingston Transit, says the service was previously too slow and cumbersome to be useful to most commuters. “No one thought of transit as a convenient way to get around the city. You had to take it. It wasn’t something you wanted to take.”
At a public meeting in 2016, Jeff Casello, a public-transportation expert from the University of Waterloo who has advised Kingston and other cities, noted that “some of the schedules hadn’t been changed since about 1975.” That didn’t put Kingston Transit “in a position to be particularly successful,” he said.
Casello said the system was trying to serve too many people and locations in the city — and because that typically meant hourly service, it simply wasn’t convenient for most users.
Beyond schedule improvements, other initiatives have stimulated ridership in Kingston: the transit agency forged partnerships with the city’s major employers to raise awareness about its services. As well, every student high-schooler in Kingston rides free, their bus passes subsidized by local school boards.
Recently, other cities — including Guelph and Halifax — have sought the city’s advice on how to improve local public transit.
“Kingstonians should be absolutely proud. We are now recognized, nationally, as a best-practice transit organization, particularly among small- and medium-sized cities,” says Jeremy DaCosta, Kingston’s director of transit. “We get calls all the time asking, ‘How did you do it? What did you do?’”
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.