City councillor calls for bus-hailing tech as answer to low transit ridership

A city councillor is pushing for Ottawa to adopt a new transit model, one that works on-demand like a ride hailing service but for buses, as OC Transpo continues to see a fraction of its regular ridership throughout the pandemic.

OC Transpo has seen steep decline in riders since pandemic started, even fewer since January

Ottawa City Councillor Carol Anne Meehan says the city can no longer afford to pay for busses that are running empty. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

A city councillor is pushing for Ottawa to adopt a new transit model, one that works on-demand like an Uber, as OC Transpo continues to see low ridership throughout the pandemic.

Coun. Carol Anne Meehan said Ottawa's transit system is designed to bring people from the suburbs to the city's core, but as more people work from home the city is losing about $1 million a week running buses that no one is taking.

"We can't afford to continue bleeding money the way we are," she said.

According to OC Transpo, ridership has fluctuated throughout lockdowns and stay-at-home orders since the pandemic began. In March 2020, it dropped by 85 per cent. In January of this year, ridership was about 18 per cent of normal levels. It rose slightly to 21 per cent in February.

Meehan said she's confident people will return to the service "but nowhere near the numbers ... previous to the pandemic. It's going to take a long time." 

That's why she's pushing for Ottawa to follow in Belleville, Ont.'s footsteps. It was the first place in North America to launch an on-demand transit service for an overnight bus route.

Meehan said the service wouldn't replace OC Transpo entirely, but would run in conjunction with the buses on underused routes.

No bus routes, no bus schedule

Using Belleville's website, riders schedule a ride, indicating their pickup and drop-off time. 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 and simultaneously sends the pickup information to the bus driver via a tablet.

Paul Buck, Belleville’s transit manager, says the city's on-demand bus app has allowed the system to operate 'efficiently' throughout the pandemic. (Derek Hooper/CBC News)

According to Paul Buck, Belleville's transit manager, the average wait time for a bus is nine minutes, while the average trip takes about 12 minutes.

"The demand for on-demand transit was incredible. Within the first couple of weeks of service, we had over 200 registered users riding regularly," he said.

Ottawa 'exploring' its options

Like everywhere else, Belleville saw ridership drop since the pandemic, but Buck said the new system has allowed the city to continue operating more efficiently.

"We could cover that same amount of ground with eight buses and still meet all of our customer demand, still run our full hours of service."

In a statement to CBC, Pat Scrimgeour, Ottawa's director of transit customer systems and planning, wrote "we are currently exploring on-demand transit products, services and availability."

"This work is in a preliminary state and only exploratory at this stage and we have spoken with multiple vendors to gather information. At this time, no simulations are scheduled with any possible suppliers."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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