PWT on demand transit program. Image Town of Okotoks
Image: Town of Okotoks

Pacific Western Transportation’s user-driven scheduling enables crucial passenger-load adaptability, while reducing congestion and overhead for transit authorities

Most Canadian commuters have likely at some point wished they were in charge of determining public transit schedules. Perhaps while stuck behind multiple empty buses at rush hour, for instance.  

Avoiding such inefficiencies by granting that wish is exactly what Pacific Western Transportation’s on-demand transit systems — currently operating in four Alberta communities — are designed to do.

“We’ve seen instant adoption and numbers that surpassed the estimates”

Dan Finley, VP Corporate Services, Pacific Western Transportation

On-demand service means that vehicle routes and timing are determined by passenger demand, rather than set in advance by a transit scheduler. For users, public transit is as simple as downloading an app and requesting a ride to a specific stop at a certain time. Buses are then routed and deployed based on the location and number of customers in need of a ride.

As such, optimal vehicle usage is ensured; only the precise amount of buses needed to suit the number of riders who request a ride are deployed, according to Dan Finley, vice president of corporate services at Pacific Western.

Instant adoption

While other Canadian municipalities, including Belleville, Ont., have implemented on-demand transit solutions for certain off-peak bus routes, Pacific Western’s are the first full-time, on-peak on-demand systems of their kind in Canada.

According to Finley, consumer response to the on-demand services, which can be booked weeks, days or minutes in advance, has been huge.

“What we’ve seen as a result of that is instant adoption, and in all cases numbers that surpassed what the estimates were to kick off,” says Finley.

How the on-demand transit service works Infographic source Okotoks Transit
How the on-demand transit service works. Infographic: Okotoks Transit

A primary aim of on-demand transit is to serve those living in areas in which local transit hubs are accessible only by car. Aside from making transit more convenient, these “first mile-last mile” solutions effectively decrease the number of single-occupancy vehicles used daily by commuters.

Fewer vehicles means less traffic and shorter travel times, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and pollution — at prices comparable to conventional transit, according to Pacific Western.

Added choice

Two of the communities being served, Cochrane and Okotoks, have less than 30,000 residents each, and had no public transit at all before the introduction of the on-demand systems in 2019.

Cochrane’s COLT system was established last year with four 21-seat buses and 152 unique stops, with a plan to double that number of buses and add more stops in 2020. In its first day of operation alone, 180 riders took 80 trips on the service.

The choice for these communities to establish on-demand systems from the start “has greatly reduced their operating expense and provided much better coverage versus a standard fixed-route system,” according to Finley.

Finley also noted that aside from the concrete benefits, on-demand services foster a sense of community that is lost when customers travel alone.  

Adaptable in crisis

Another major benefit of on-demand transit service is its inherent load adaptability, which during times of crisis such as the current outbreak of COVID-19 could potentially prove lifesaving.

Public transit systems have seen a major decline in usage due to COVID-19 and resultant social distancing efforts. Recent data released by Google shows that mobility trends for transit stations in Canada saw a 66 per cent drop in passengers between mid-February and the end of March.

The maximum passenger load for a certain size of bus is simply lowered and more vehicles deployed, allowing passengers to sit at a safe distance apart.

For essential workers who must use public transit to get to and from their jobs, as well as transit employees themselves, fear regarding potential transmission of disease on transit vehicles is an everyday reality.

Pacific Western’s on-demand technology, however, makes adjusting the parameters of travel easy. The maximum passenger load for a certain size of bus is simply lowered and more vehicles deployed, allowing passengers to sit at a safe distance apart.

Cochrane’s COLT system has reduced its maximum passenger capacity to six, for example. Okotoks Transit has also dedicated one of its vehicles to assist in grocery delivery while social distancing measures are in effect.

Having a deployment model based on consumer demand also makes it easy to adjust to rapid changes in ridership levels for other reasons, such as sudden emergencies or inclement weather.

Plans to expand

Calgary Transit 12 passenger on-demand
Calgary Transit on-demand
12 passenger vehicle. Image: Calgary Transit

In addition to those in Cochrane and Okotoks, Pacific Western’s on-demand systems are deployed in a one-year pilot project in Calgary and a single-vehicle system servicing Acheson Industrial Park, located outside of Edmonton.

The on-demand software for three of the systems is provided by RideCo, a Canadian company that helped implement similar services in American cities such as San Antonio and Los Angeles. For those unable to use the smartphone app created for each of the systems, online and telephone ride bookings are also available.

“We’ve proven that these work in these first mile and last mile scenarios”

Dan Finley, VP Corporate Services, Pacific Western Transportation

Finley says his company is currently planning to expand its on-demand business next fall with the implementation of a fleet of 50 on-demand vehicles in Edmonton. That timeline, of course, will be subject to re-evaluation as the pandemic unfolds.

“We’ve proven that these work in these first mile and last mile scenarios, so [the next step is] the adoption of that into these major transportation networks,” he says.

Canadian group formed to solve first and last kilometre commuting with autonomous shuttles