I was recently asked, “how many people walk out of their house everyday and the only option they have in their head, is to get into their car?” I thought about this for a while; so many of us walk out of our house on our way to work each morning and taking the bus, biking or even walking is not on our radar. Why?
Municipal transit systems have been heavily criticized in the past for failing to connect people in growing suburban developments, lacking efficiency in dense urban areas, or simply not having enough ridership to make a difference. Rachel Brown, a recent graduate working in the sustainable transportation sector, had some of these feelings growing up; “As soon as I had access to a car, transit wasn’t my main mode of transportation,” she said, “it took way longer, it was inconvenient for me to walk to a bus stop from my house. For me to get on a bus and go to my friend’s house took almost an hour, where I could get in a car and drive to my friend’s house in fifteen minutes.”
This is coupled with the fact that learning to use the bus can be intimidating for many people. There are still many mental and physical barriers that prevent people choosing transit- think of a young student who may not understand how to use the bus, or a newcomer to Canada not yet confident in their English. Without a simple, stress free transit system, many people may be deterred from giving transit a chance.
“Transportation can be crucial for linking communities to vital resources.” -Rachel Brown
Brown highlighted the positive effects a functional, appealing transit system can have on communities, “Transportation can be crucial for linking communities to vital resources, so as an example you could live in Scarborough or a community hub that you’re connected to culturally, spiritually, religiously- maybe you’re just going to school downtown- but having that ability to get to those resources is really important.” Brown added it’s about breaking down common behaviours and norms in society; “My first option should be taking the bus, or the train, or bicycle…It shouldn’t be automatically just driving in a car.”
So how do we move from a single car culture to a transit culture? For public transit to be more competitive with other modes of transportation, things need to change. Municipalities across Canada have acknowledged some of these problems and found solutions to improve transit within their communities.
Kingston’s Transit Orientation Project
Back in 2012, many high school students in the city of Kingston, Ontario opted out of riding public transit. While the buses were free, many students admitting the idea of going on the bus gave them fear and anxiety because they did not know how to use it.
Dan Hendry, with the Limestone District School Board, saw an opportunity to increase transit ridership in Kingston, while simultaneously providing students with the confidence and tools to use transit and gain the freedom of mobility. He developed the Transit Orientation Project, an education program designed to encourage teenagers to ride the city buses and provide them with independent mobility. At the time, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions from Kingston came from transportation3, and if more individuals took the bus, it would have a significant impact on city emissions.
“It’s this idea of normalizing the usage and understanding of how to use it,” Hendry explained. Hendry took students on the bus and taught them about anything from bus etiquette, to the social, economic, and environmental benefits that come with riding the bus. The students were taken to get their bus pass the same day. Hendry said students asked “about anything from stopping the bus, as funny as that sounds, but how do you get on the bus? Off the bus? When do you pull the trigger? Do you get off the front or the back? Can you put your bike on the rack? What about getting a transfer?”
The program was all about highlighting the freedom students would have using transit. With a bus pass, students were able to get to work, volunteer, and participate in after school activities. The bus passes were also used for field trips, experiential learning opportunities, and other activities which opened community resources to students.
The first program in 2012 began with grade nines. By 2015, students from grade nine to twelve had a transit pass. Hundreds of bus lessons later, and the program helped transit ridership in Kingston increase by 87%.
In Charlottetown, PEI, they had experienced a similar problem. The city noticed that newcomers and seniors were the primary demographic using transit. Inspired by the work in Kingston, they embarked on a similar teen transit ridership program.
As the Manager of Environment and Sustainability in Charlottetown, Ramona Doyle was involved in the project. Doyle mentioned educating the public on sustainability solutions like bus ridership serves two purposes; “One is trying to create a population that buys into the concept of sustainability and sees it as a community value because that will then come back to elected officials in terms of priority in the community….And two, just to create a population that really cares and understands the space we have is limited and precious and worthwhile preserving.”
Doyle and Hendry both noticed the positive impact the programs had on families in their community. They mentioned that in the months following the program, they saw students encouraging their parents and family members to use transit, teaching them what they had learned from the program.
“It’s all about ‘normalizing transit at a young age, for families as well, and making it more accessible…focussing not just on a bus but on freedom, [students] have just one more tool in their kit.” -Dan Hendry
While the pass may not be profitable while students are in high school, the teen transit program fosters future paying customers, and encourages these individuals to use the bus into adulthood and reduce the possibility of becoming automobile dependent in the future. “It’s all about ‘normalizing transit at a young age, for families as well, and making it more accessible, focussing not just on a bus but on freedom, [students] have just one more tool in their kit,” Hendry said, adding, “Transit has been stigmatized for a long time. And it’s not just underfunded but seen to be important… so I think if people see how to use it and understand it at a young age, they will have it as a tool for life”.
Word of the program success has spread beyond Charlottetown and Kingston. Cities across Canada including St. John’s Burlington, North Bay, Peterborough, and Belleville are currently hoping to, or in the process of, running similar programs.
Belleville ‘On-Demand’ Transit System
Every night, a handful of city buses in Belleville, Ontario would lap the same routes over and over, often driving around an empty bus. At night, demand was low, and the number of passengers dropped significantly. Hoping to maximize the ridership fares per revenue hour, the city moved to a fixed nighttime route which used less than a third of their normal fleet. It didn’t take long for residents to complain these buses were slow, and many individuals ended up having to travel far distances to reach a bus stop.
This was not sustainable.
In 2018, the city partnered with Pantonium Inc, a Toronto based company which uses algorithms and cloud-based technology to optimize transit fleets. They created a pilot project with Belleville which offered on-demand transit to the community during nighttime routes. Using the EverRun software platform created by Pantonium, passengers could use an app on their phone, call in, or even email to signal a city bus to pick them up at any bus stop of their choosing, then drop them off at any other stop in town. As more passengers used the system, drivers would receive updated routes in real-time which could cater to multiple passengers at once, maximizing efficiency.
Luke Mellor, the Marketing Director at Pantonium Inc, explained why the project was needed in Belleville; “The service has to cover the whole city and there is not a lot of demand, so they can’t afford to put a lot of vehicles out there. So, what you have is a very sparse network that takes forever to get around. We saw this nighttime, low-density bus service as a niche where on-demand bus service would work very well.”
“If you can get those people that don’t have cars and provide them a service that’s good for their mobility needs, then they won’t get cars. That’s at least the hope, you can prevent the mode-ship from going in reverse.” – Luke Mellor
Belleville was able to increase efficiency using far fewer buses to cover the same distances while providing the same level of service during low demand periods while avoiding wasted emissions and eliminating the need for bus transfers. The service was very adaptable, “It’s a little more flexible I think than a fixed route in managing demand,” Mellor said, “if you can get those people that don’t have cars and provide them a service that’s good for their mobility needs, then they won’t get cars. That’s at least the hope, you can prevent the mode-shift from going in reverse.” The program was so successful, Mellor mentioned when the program first started, they saw nighttime ridership increase by over 300%.
This program was unique as it opened the door for this technology to be replicated in suburban developments or sparse, low-density communities which may not have a solid transportation system in place. Mellor admitted that in terms of using cloud technology to optimize transit fleets, we are still behind the curve and there is a long way to go. Regardless, he is hopeful in how the EverRun software will grow, “Imagine if every city in Canada had 2-10 buses, 24 hours a day that could pick you up and drop you off at any bus stop in the city. That would be a service that would actually get people out of their cars. Especially for equity and justice, not everyone can afford a car, but everyone needs to get around a city.”
Read more Pantonium and the EverRun software at this Link.
More Than Transit
This is not just about transit, this is about fostering connected, healthy, sustainable communities.
Sustainability has become increasingly integrated into our decision making. Each community is different, and sustainable solutions that work for some may not work for all. But moving toward a more sustainable transit culture and away from a single-car culture has shown to better communities’ time and time again. This is not just about transit, this is about fostering connected, healthy, sustainable communities.
As Dan Hendry put it, “It’s not just about the bus, it’s about moving from point A to point B, this is jobs, volunteering, first dates, meeting friends…Transit can positively affect your life even if you don’t use it. Whether that be the grocery store clerk getting to work on time, whether that be reduced flows in traffic and congestion, whether that be the environmental benefit if people care about that, and with 7.8 billion people I think we should.”
Want more stories like this? This article is featured in our next issue, Getting There: The Ecosystem of Human Movement. Check out the next issue for more!