Uber for buses? How some Canadian cities are using technology to tackle transit troubles

Tired of waiting in the cold at a bus stop? Check out what one small city in eastern Ontario is doing. Belleville Transit allows passengers to order a public transit pickup — the same way they would if hailing a car through apps like Uber or Lyft.

Belleville, Ont., is turning to bus-hailing software for its late-night route

Belleville's late-night bus leaves the garage for the start of its route. The eastern Ontario city believes its new pilot project is the first on-demand public transit bus service in North America. (Derek Hooper/CBC News)

A small city in eastern Ontario is running an experiment that could one day have a big impact on public transit operators across North America.

Belleville Transit has launched a new service allowing customers to summon a bus to their nearest bus stop — and the ride won't take the scenic route to their destination.

"This is a brand new system that has not been used by any other transit service in North America," says Paul Buck, Belleville's manager of transit operations.

The city of 50,000 is moving its late-night bus route to this ride hailing model. It plans to test the concept for a year, and if the "Uber for buses" idea works, it will also be integrated into Belleville's daytime service.

The project puts the city at the centre of a wave of technology-driven change in public transit.

Transit manager Paul Buck says Belleville's on-demand bus service is the 'solution that we've always been looking for.' (Derek Hooper/CBC News)

Using Belleville's new website, riders schedule a ride, indicating whether their pickup or drop-off time is more important. The software processes that data — constantly updating itself to optimize all scheduled rides — and maps the best route to get all riders to their destinations as quickly as possible.

The site also sends riders confirmation notices by email, "to let you know that it's a done deal," says Buck, and simultaneously sends the pickup information to the bus driver via a tablet.

Eventually, the creators hope to offer the service as a downloadable iOS and Android mobile app.

Buck — a public transit veteran who keeps a Lego model of an old-fashioned double-decker London bus on his desk — says he loves the site so far.

He said he finds that some public transit ideas are dated, especially his city's traditional late-night route — a loop that takes about an hour to complete.

"If you can walk home faster than the bus can get you there, it's pretty discouraging to have to ride that length of time," Buck said. "Especially if you've just finished a long shift at work, you're tired, you just want to go home — and now you've got an hour bus ride throughout the city where people may or may not get on."

Bye-bye bus routes?

Belleville's app was developed by Pantonium, a tech company in Toronto that focuses on transportation problems and helping move people more efficiently in an "on demand" world.

According to Pantonium CEO Remi Desa, it was a long road to find a public transit system willing to try abandoning the idea of a fixed route.

"Public transit is fairly risk averse," said Desa. "And it hasn't really changed much in the last 40 or 50 years from a technology standpoint."

The Belleville Transit site was developed by Toronto-based tech company Pantonium. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

The key to getting rid of standardized bus routes is a software can handle many vehicles and destinations at the same time, said Desa — a scenario he calls "one of the most complicated problems in math."

At the core of Pantonium's bus-hailing app is a "route optimization engine," which processes data in real time, pulling together the location of the bus, traffic conditions, destinations and user requests, Desa said.

The software was initially developed to help companies in the U.S. transport people in low-income communities to essential medical and social service appointments. But it soon became clear the idea could also be applied to help transit operators better handle demand and increase efficiency in low-density areas.​

Desa describes the Belleville project as "a massive opportunity" — and he says he's not just thinking about future sales to public transit systems the world. "Our vision is … having that model for private companies as well," he said.

Pantonium CEO Remi Desa calls the Belleville pilot a 'massive opportunity' for his company, to show that this technology can work for the world's public transit systems. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

What makes Belleville's bus-hailing program unique is that the entire system — booking, scheduling and navigation — is automated. But other communities have also embraced the hailing-a-ride approach.   

Southwest Transit covers several suburbs outside Minneapolis, and has been providing an on-demand service to customers since 2015. However its operation software, from a company called Ridecell, is supplemented by staff who take some reservations and input them into the system.

And Austin, Texas did a yearlong experiment it called Pickup, in partnership with a company called Via, which allowed riders to summon smaller buses to pick them up from low-density areas and shuttle them to main routes and stations.

Via has also partnered with another city in the Lone Star state to offer a ride-sharing van service: Arlington has no bus service and relies on Via's ride-sharing vans within a fixed zone.

Not every ride-sharing effort has worked out. An independent, Boston-based company called Bridj launched urban ride-sharing operations with vans in three cities over three years, but ultimately went under in 2017. (The business was later purchased by an Australian operator, which launched service in Sydney late last year.) 

And here in Canada, Innisfil, Ont., located just north of Toronto, gave up on buses altogether more than a year ago in favour of subsidizing Uber rides for residents between specific locations in the community.

Big change for Belleville riders

Belleville's late-bus service runs from 9:30 p.m. to midnight on weekdays, and starts earlier on weekends. As the city eases into the bus-hailing pilot project, one bus is currently dedicated to customers who book a ride through the site, while another drives the conventional route around the city.

"We don't want anyone to get left behind while users learn about the app," said Buck.

A transition period will run six weeks; after that both buses will be "full app," as Buck puts it.

The bus-hailing pilot will last a year. After its initial two weeks, the site has more than 200 subscribers. Currently, riders still use a bus pass or deposit money in the fare box, but the city is planning to add a payment feature.

Some passengers who've tried the new service say it's making a difference.

Belleville Transit passenger Samantha Williams, shown here speaking with CBC's Aaron Saltzman, says she's liked her early experience will the new ride-hailing service. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

"I just booked it and said, 'I want the bus at 10 o'clock,'" said Samantha Williams. "And it just said OK."

Williams said she's found that when her destination is nearby, the bus ends up taking her directly there.

"I like it; it's good," she said.

Shane Shier has used the service while on his way to work — but said he isn't fully on board with the idea just yet.

"It's cool, but we'll have to wait and see," he said. "I hope it works — I'm really hoping it works — and we get picked up early. That'd be great."

Future changes coming

The new service could radically change how the entire bus system works in Belleville, said Buck, who thinks it will both attract passengers and reduce costs.

He also predicts it will be good for the planet and his staff. "It's less wear and tear on the vehicles, it's less fuel that's used, and it's less stress on the driver," he said.

Should the site prove successful, the long-term plan for Belleville is to keep its large buses on a fixed route in its central, high-traffic area, while feeding that route using the bus-hailing service by bringing passengers in from low-density zones.

Buck thinks that feeder model could also be a great help to seniors and people with mobility issues.

"This is the solution that we've always been looking for for years," he said. "But the technology wasn't there."

About the Author

James Dunne

Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the business unit at CBC News. He has a decade of experience in business programming including on the shows Venture and Fortune Hunters. An award winning video journalist, he's also worked on special projects and as the late lineup editor for the World at Six on CBC Radio 1.