Why Durham region is going the microtransit route during the pandemic

ANALYSIS: Most Greater Toronto transit agencies have responded to COVID-19 by suspending low-ridership routes and reducing service. But Durham Region Transit has a different recovery plan
By Sean Marshall - Published on Sep 28, 2020
As DRT strengthens its core bus network, 25 local bus routes have been suspended and replaced with urban On-Demand Transit zones. (Facebook)

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When the global COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada in mid-March, schools were closed and offices shuttered. Students and white-collar workers were largely forced to work from home, and public-health officials pleaded with people to stay home as much as possible. With so many Ontarians avoiding commutes and outings, public transit became a barometer of the sudden economic and societal changes taking place across the country.

Ridership numbers plunged, as did fare revenue. Toronto Transit Commission ridership dropped by 85 per cent the month after COVID-19 restrictions began in mid-March. In Brampton, which had experienced remarkable ridership growth in the last decade, transit usage dropped by 75 per cent in April 2020, as compared to April 2019. And Metrolinx reported a 97 per cent drop in monthly ridership in April 2020, as downtown Toronto office workers and post-secondary students — key GO Transit markets — stayed home.

Over the summer, as the weather improved and many non-essential businesses reopened, transit ridership began to recover. In Brampton, ridership doubled between April and July, though it’s still half what it was in 2019. As of mid-September, TTC buses had recovered half of their regular ridership. (GO Transit, however, currently sees less than 20 per cent of its regular load.)

While most Greater Toronto transit agencies have responded to the pandemic by suspending low-ridership and express routes and reducing service, Durham Region Transit is going a different route: its recovery plan involves microtransit.

Though DRT provided on-demand transit for some of its rural areas pre-pandemic, as of September 28, it expanded on-demand bus service to serve everybody living and working within its 2,525 square kilometres; 25 local bus routes — primarily in Ajax, Clarington, and Pickering — have been suspended and replaced with urban On-Demand Transit zones.

As part of an ongoing five-year strategy to build ridership and improve travel times, four of the region’s busiest corridors — Highway 2, between Scarborough and Oshawa; Simcoe Street in Oshawa; and Taunton and Rossland roads — will now see minimum 15-minute service during weekday daytime hours. A strengthened grid system, which makes up 90 per cent of DRT’s ridership, will provide minimum 30-minute service seven days a week on all major corridors throughout the urbanized part of Durham Region.

Customers travelling to and from on-demand areas can book their rides by phone or use two free smartphone apps: Transit, for trip planning, and DRT On-Demand, for requesting a pick-up. On-demand vehicles may be full-size buses or shared vans. Customers can transfer between on-demand services and other DRT routes or GO Transit at several locations in each zone. According to Christopher Norris, Durham Region Transit’s acting deputy general manager of operations, the DRT is “now able to provide scheduled service through greater availability, earlier starts and end to service, and frequency.” Customers need to reserve a ride 15 minutes in advance.

The service-delivery model, Norris says, “has permitted DRT to provide transit mobility into new residential and business areas before minimum density targets are met.” As ridership recovers, the DRT will reactivate selected local routes as required. 

(It’s worth noting that many of the suspended local bus routes replaced by ODT were designed to connect low-density subdivisions with GO Transit stations. With continued low GO ridership and limited employment in downtown Toronto, its parking lots and garages remain empty.)

DRT’s move comes a little over a month after Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said that transit agencies must consider replacing some low-ridership routes with privately operated microtransit services. Though the Ontario government announced a federal-provincial grant of $666 million for transit agencies hit by the pandemic, further provincial assistance may require alternative transit provision.

Microtransit is not a new idea: GO Transit operated a dial-a-bus service in suburban Toronto in the 1970s before demand allowed for fixed TTC bus routes; Bramalea had a similar solution before amalgamation with Brampton Transit. York Region operates on-demand services in low-ridership areas, while Belleville’s late-night bus operates on a flexible route, with pickups and drop-offs arranged through an app or a phone booking. Brant County, Niagara Region, and Wellington County also provide on-demand microtransit services contracted through private-sector operators.

In 2017, the Town of Innisfil, population 37,000, attracted international attention when it entered into a partnership with Uber to provide transit services. Transit riders would pay flat fares travelling to a few key destinations, such as the GO Station in nearby Barrie, or get a subsidized discount off the regular Uber charge for other travel within the town. As the decentralized population was concentrated in few small communities, the town government decided that such an arrangement would be less expensive and more convenient than a limited fixed-route system for its residents.

By 2019, the arrangement with Uber was costing the town $1.2 million, 25 per cent more than budgeted. In response, Innisfil raised the flat fare, reduced the per-trip discount to users, and capped the number of subsidized trips to 30 per month. A commuter using the service to get to and from Barrie South GO station would hit that cap at the end of third week. For the occasional traveller without access to a car, the Innisfil/Uber partnership would still be useful. But a regular rider might be better off buying a car instead.

While microtransit might work for rural and some suburban areas, Brian Doucet, Canada Research Chair in cities planning at the University of Waterloo, argues that “for a large city such as Toronto, and even many of its increasingly dense suburbs, microtransit is not a viable option. What is really needed is dedicated streams of public funding to properly fund the operation of local and regional transit.”

Doucet points out that the TTC has one of the highest farebox recovery rates in North America, "something that is not sustainable during a prolonged pandemic.” What’s necessary, he says, is continued direct investment: “Many studies also indicate that fast and frequent transit is the key to attracting and retaining riders. Many TTC routes suffer from overcrowding and delays being stuck in mixed traffic — investment in bus rapid transit, with high levels of service frequency, would be a far better and more equitable solution for larger urban areas.”

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