Since late last year, a number of cities — big and small, east and west — have launched on-demand public transit pilots. Despite COVID-19’s impact on overall ridership, early reviews are encouraging
Public transit ridership may be down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the growth of municipal on-demand transit services this year is undoubtedly on the rise. In fact, municipal and business leaders alike cite the efficiency and adaptability of on-demand transit as a reason why its adoption makes sense more now than ever.
Among the service providers making major headway is Pantonium Inc., a Toronto-based on-demand transit software developer founded in 2011. Since March, municipalities that have established pilots of Pantonium’s system include Stratford and Chatham-Kent in Ontario, St. Albert, Alta., as well as Regina and Saskatoon.
Pantonium provides transit agencies with technology that continually optimizes bus routes based on the moment-to-moment demand of customers, who can use a mobile app to request a ride across a given service area. Buses run on their system are deployed only in response to this direct customer demand, rather than continuously across a fixed route.
Growing digital infrastructure
“Traditionally when people look at public transit they look at putting in high-cost big infrastructure projects which are physical,” says Remi Desa, CEO of Pantonium. “By adding some digital infrastructure, you can make the services run much more effectively.”
Pantonium’s first major municipal project arose in 2018, when it was contracted by the city of Belleville to run an on-demand evening bus service. The program proved hugely successful, increasing evening ridership by 300 per cent and decreasing per-bus mileage by 30 per cent while covering the city’s service area with a mere five buses, down from the previous 13.
As public transit demand dropped in Belleville due to COVID, the city was also able to pivot its entire bus service to be on-demand until usage had risen enough for fixed-route to be financially feasible again.
While Pantonium’s newest clients haven’t experienced the same dramatic ridership increase — due to COVID — they have so far largely embraced on-demand. Regina transit director Brad Bells recently commented that their limited pilot “has the potential to grow to areas of the city or maybe the entire city.”
Higher efficiency, lower emissions
In addition to the cities working with Pantonium, a handful of municipalities in western Canada, including Calgary, are adopting on-demand systems run by Pacific Western Transport, which spoke with Electric Autonomy earlier this year regarding their expanding on-demand business.
Last year, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also established an on-demand pilot project in partnership with Via Transportation, a U.S.-based company with international operations.
The primary factor attracting so many municipalities to on-demand, according to Desa, is the sizeable increase in efficiency that accompanies it, which makes operation less expensive for municipalities and more convenient for riders.
“To provide transit service generally in Canada, you’re looking at about $100 per bus per service hour. That cost adds up quite a bit… if you’re in a city and you want to provide evening service on a fixed route without many riders.” says Desa. “On-demand allows you to do more with less and provide a better service.”
New solutions for a new time
In addition to the financial savings, reducing the number of buses on the roads and drawing more passengers away from personal vehicles means significant reductions in transportation-sourced greenhouse-gas emissions, which still make up a quarter of Canada’s overall emissions.
“We’re actually starting to see a lot more openness to people looking at different methods. Public transit at the end of the day is for the public good. If we can give [cities] a tool that can allow them to provide a convenient manner to get around then maybe they can start having the tools so that they can set policies around that.”
The innate adaptability of on-demand systems has also made the management of physical distancing on public vehicles relatively simple, given the ease of setting a limit on the amount of passengers a bus can carry.
“For social distancing, they could set a maximum of 10 people in the vehicle at a time and our system would automatically adjust so if there were 10 people you wouldn’t be able to get on that bus. It would find another bus for you,” says Desa.
Perhaps due to the disrupted nature of life in general this year, he says that willingness to look towards new mobility solutions is on the rise, and that he sees combinations of fixed-route and on-demand services as the future of public transit.