Cost of Living

Missing the bus (schedule): how the pandemic is boosting on-demand transit

From Oshawa to Calgary, more than 15 Canadian municipalities are turning to on-demand apps to drive their public transportation systems, with route optimization software is now helping deliver some form of customized pick-up and drop-off transit service.

Is public transportation you access via an app here to stay?

Paul Buck, transit manager for Belleville, Ont., stands by one of the city's buses — which have been switched to an on-demand system rather than adhering to regular schedules. (James Dunne/CBC)

Going to work on weekends used to be a challenge for Ben Hazel.

But since the arrival of on-demand bus service in Belleville, Ont., Hazel no longer has to worry about wasting money on cab rides to get to his job at a food processing plant.

"It's been very beneficial because when buses shut down at a certain time, you can rely on on-demand to get you to work," he told CBC Radio's Cost of Living.

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"Before there was an on-demand, I had to be up [the industrial park] at roughly 6:00 in the morning on a Sunday, so I had to rely on a cab to get me to work. Going into my monthly pay, you know what I mean?" said Hazel.

Belleville now deploys municipal buses, like these ones pictured in late 2020, via on-demand apps. (James Dunne/CBC)

Belleville, about two hours east of Toronto, began experimenting with on-demand transit in 2018 to optimize its city bus routes. 

At the time, it was a bit of an outlier — one of only a handful of Canadian cities exploring on-demand technology for public transportation.

Not just Belleville demanding on-demand buses

The COVID-19 pandemic has now thrust the idea onto city hall and municipal agendas across the country.

From Oshawa, Ont., to Calgary, more than 15 Canadian municipalities are turning to route optimization software to deliver some form of customized pick-up and drop-off transit service.

Instead of waiting for a bus to arrive at a fixed stop and a fixed time, for example, on-demand passengers could schedule their rides ahead of time.

Some cities even offer door-to-door service, which means routes are calculated and adjusted on-demand to maximize fuel efficiency. 

"It's about data. Really understanding where people want to go, what time they need to get there," said Remi Desa, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Pantonium, one of at least three Canadian tech companies currently offering on-demand transit apps.

Remi Desa, founder and CEO of tech company Pantonium, says on-demand transit apps make it easier to understand where people want to take transit and when. (James Dunne/CBC)

"Traditionally this was all done through surveys where they'd have a small sample of this," explained Desa, who told Cost of Living on-demand apps can help municipalities and transit providers understand where and when people need to go in real time.

"We can make better decisions not just for the on-demand part of the service, but also the system overall, even the fixed route part," said Desa.

Other Canadian tech firms offering similar platforms in the market include Vancouver-based Spare and Waterloo, Ont.,-based RideCo.

On-demand a 'rocket-ship' success in Belleville

Like many small to medium-sized cities, Belleville had trouble matching supply with demand when it came to public transportation.

For years, it didn't even offer any evening transit service at all, and once launched a fixed bus route that proved too sporadic to make a difference for many riders.

To find a compromise, the city of 50,000 introduced a more flexible second option. It asked passengers to book their nighttime rides ahead of time using Belleville's rider portal or app.

We maxed out to the point where we couldn't accommodate any more passengers.- Paul Buck, transit manager, City of Belleville

Within months, ridership jumped by 300 per cent. The pilot project was so successful, the city expanded the on-demand model to cover three buses in addition to the two fixed-route buses. 

"Our ridership was just on a rocketship until we maxed out to the point where we couldn't accommodate any more passengers," said Paul Buck, transit manager for the City of Belleville. 

In the spring of 2020, when Ontario began locking down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Belleville switched its entire transit system to the on-demand model, across all hours of operation. 

A group of people wearing masks enter a SkyTrain.
While some commuters have continued to use public transit systems during the coronavirus pandemic, others avoided trips on shared vehicles such as Vancouver's Skytrain, pictured here. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"We lost 94 per cent of our ridership [due to the pandemic lockdown], but we still had essential workers who had to get to work [at] the food services, the hospitals, and other frontline workers," said Buck, who explained that transit officials realized they could offer on-demand service across the entire day to still accommodate those people and get them to work.

The city also used its rider app to set a limit of 10 passengers per bus, so users can more easily maintain physical distancing. According to Buck, the on-demand system allowed Belleville to expand service hours by only going where transit was needed, with a "laser" focus on service to complete it with fewer vehicles.

Seniors, low-income Canadians left behind?

While on-demand services can improve transit efficiency, especially in less dense areas such as suburban neighbourhoods and smaller cities, some advocates caution these apps could leave vulnerable populations behind.

"Most of these on-demand systems, the ones across Canada, assume that everyone is fairly familiar with the process of downloading an app, setting up the app in terms of their own address, knowing how to navigate it in terms of being able to connect up with the bus coming to their area," said Cheryl Teelucksingh, professor of sociology at Ryerson University.

Ryerson University professor Cheryl Teelucksingh cautions that on-demand transit apps can disadvantage some riders. (CBC)

"For older riders, immigrants, folks who don't have cellphones or who are looking to still use cash — they would be significantly disadvantaged," said Teelucksingh, whose research specialties include social inequality.

Passengers who are used to making multiple stops on their travels may also find the extra layers of planning and booking via a mobile app cumbersome.

Teelucksingh described the example of a mother going to pick up her children after school, followed by swimming lessons and then grocery shopping.

"It's really easy in the space of a day for somebody to be hopping on and off [the bus], and to have a little bit of unpredictability in terms of when they would be getting back on," she explained.

On-demand apps could also pressure parents to arm their children with smartphones earlier.

"A hotly debated issue is how young should kids be getting access to cellphones," said Teelucksingh.

"As we start to build some structures like this, that would allow a young person who's 10 or 11 to start taking public transit on their own, then the expectation that they would have their own cellphones would start to increase."

Future of public transportation

During the early days of pandemic lockdowns, transit ridership dropped by as much as 85 per cent in major cities such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

Passengers ride the subway with seats marked for social distancing in Toronto on April 18, 2020. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

As restrictions began to ease, demand for transit crept back up, though fewer bus stops or subway stations are as bustling now when compared to pre-COVID days.

Faced with budgetary constraints, which are exacerbated by the decline in tax revenues due to business closures and other challenges, city councils across Canada will eventually have to make some tough choices about capital projects such as future LRT lines and rapid transit systems, according to experts such as Josipa Petrunic.

The CEO and president of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium told Cost of Living that she thinks those decisions should not be informed entirely by experiences from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's a lot of us … who don't own cars, who don't want to own cars, who can't afford to own cars.- Josipa Petrunic, Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium

Petrunic, whose organization advocates for smart low-carbon transportation, said she believes transit ridership will come "roaring back" once the health crisis is over.

"Cities are where people come not just to work, but to create, to innovate, to live, to have a cultural life, to have families. That doesn't happen out in the middle of a field on your own, isolated," said Petrunic.

"The second reason is that there's a lot of us, including myself, who don't own cars, who don't want to own cars, who can't afford to own cars, who don't want to spend $60,000 on a parking lot in downtown Toronto for no reason."

Josipa Petrunic, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, expects people will start taking transit again after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

According to Petrunic, there are many ways to build the system back up, and better, once the "mass" is back in mass transit.

These include electrification, autonomous smart vehicles — and yes, on-demand optimization.

"Those things were already starting to take hold in transit before the pandemic. In some ways, the pandemic has actually motivated the movement towards the integration of those solutions much more rapidly than would have otherwise occurred," she said.

LISTEN | Paul Haavardsrud talks the future of transit with Josipa Petrunic

Her vision is shared by some of the tech companies involved in on-demand transit. 

"It's such a huge tool for government and policymakers to drive the behaviour they want," said app developer Pantonium's Remi Desa.

"If they want to help fight climate change, make more social equity, all these aspects which are happening in transit."

Written by Falice Chin, with files from James Dunne.

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