On-demand transit is changing how some Calgary-area commuters get around

Calgary and two nearby communities launched on-demand services last year, each in different ways. And all are finding this manner of serving customers is a promising way to introduce transit service, or fill in gaps in an established network.

App-based service brings transit to your door, or close enough

In Calgary, on-demand transit users book rides using a cellphone app. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Calgary and two nearby communities launched on-demand services last year, each in different ways. And all are finding this manner of serving customers is a promising way to introduce transit service, or fill in gaps in an established network.

Both Cochrane and Okotoks considered fixed-route services but ultimately invested in the modern alternative: on-demand service. 

Cochrane started its service, known as COLT (Cochrane On-demand Local Transit), in October. It still has traditional bus stops to help people gather in place. But, says Devin LaFleche, who led its implementation, those stops are flexible, just like the service. So with data the stops have been fine-tuned. 

And so far use is surpassing expectations.

"In our first three months, we did over 12,000 passengers," LaFleche said. "We were aiming to be on track for 35,000 riders by the end of the year, but we're already seeing around 50,000."

Stepping stone to permanent routes

LaFleche said it's so successful already, the town is looking at select permanent routes that would connect to regional services like Southland's On-It Regional Transit.

COLT isn't just an app-based service. It also has a phone-in option, which was offered to ensure seniors and others who might not have smartphones can use the service. But LaFleche said most use their app to book.

With a new transit service there comes a wealth of data and information about riders and how they are using the service. LaFleche is most excited about what they call the "rider by choice" user. 

"[These are] people who own a car, or families with, let's say, two cars, who are actually looking at downsizing to one," he said. "And youth has been a huge one. Cochrane is quite spread out. So it's great for them to be able to get to the rec centre, to friends' houses. We're seeing a lot of them use it for their after-school jobs."

Okotoks goes right to your door

Okotoks launched its service in December. It's a curb-to-curb service, meaning it will take you from your door to your destination.

"It provides a very high level of service, which we wanted to try and do for the residents of the town," Okotoks transit specialist David Gardner said. "Many seniors, for example, would not be able to use the services [that] require them to walk several hundred metres."

But that level of service, Gardner said, comes with its challenges — especially as more people begin using on-demand transit.

It's like we've come out of the woodwork, they had no idea that we had this need, right? So that's been very, you know, freeing for a lot of us.- Laurie Rae Rezanoff

"We have taken on a big project by offering this level of service, and certainly It will be challenging as time goes forward," Gardner said.

Laurie Rae Rezanoff uses the service in Okotoks. She has a car but prefers to be a pedestrian, except in the windy cold winters.

"It's like we've come out of the woodwork and had no idea that we had this need, right?" Rezanoff said. "So that's been very, you know, freeing for a lot of us because then we have more mobility now that we didn't have before."

She said one of the biggest benefits she's seen from taking an on-demand service, though, is the sense of community.

Calgary's on-demand transit sends users to a virtual bus stop within 400 metres of their location. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"I don't have to deal with parking and I don't have to deal with other drivers," Rezanoff said. "And it's so much more pleasant. Because the bus has other people on there, you learn to see who else is in your community … there's more of a sense of community there."

Ryerson University engineering professor Bilal Farooq says on-demand turns traditional transit service on its ear. Fixed routes come with a frequency, and then users adjust to those frequencies. 

"It's a complete, you know, complete paradigm shift," Farooq said. "The smartphone enables us to provide location-based services, and [on-demand transit] is one of those services." 

Calgary Transit testing on-demand

Calgary's service is a pilot project in Carrington and Livingston — two new communities on the city's northern edge without regular transit service. 

Different than the services in Okotoks and Cochrane, users in the city have to walk to a virtual bus stop created within 400 metres of their locations.

Nikhil Lobo is the manager of transit planning for Calgary Transit. He says the service is completing between 125 and 150 rides a day. So far, in the six months that on-demand has been operating, 14 per cent of the ridership comes from new transit users.

"We've definitely seen growth since its inception," Lobo said. "When school came back in September, we saw quite a bit of growth."

Because it's a flexible model, he said, transit can adjust to more demand easily, like changing up the fleet from six-seater minivans to nine- and 12-seater vans. 

The pilot is a one-year study. Lobo said Calgary Transit is analyzing ridership growth, how much the service costs to deliver and the cost per trip — along with customer satisfaction metrics. 

But in Calgary, Lobo said, it could have many different applications outside of communities without transit. That includes a late-night on-demand service for hours when demand dwindles but citizens still need to get around. 

"You know, can it work and be a more efficient service in that way?" Lobo said. "So really looking at the entire spectrum."

Not all smooth sailing

All three services have experienced bumps in the road.

One of the big ones is ride cancellations. In Okotoks, there were more than 1,000 ride cancellations in the first eight weeks of service — 50 per cent within an hour of the planned ride.

Of course, that last-minute cancellation does mess with the system. 

But all three service providers said it just takes a little bit of education, and, in some cases, consequences such as suspensions or fines, to get riders to understand.

"It was just, really, people wanted to make sure that they had a seat," Lobo said. "So sometimes they would book multiple seats in their vehicle as opposed to just one."