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Kingston Transit – A path to success for small and mid-sized cities

Over the past seven years, Kingston Transit has seen significant improvements in its public transit services. Between 2011 and 2017, revenue service hours increased from 160,255 to 238,688 annually and ridership increased by 72% to a record 6.1 million passenger trips.  Catalyzing the growth in service was an express route introduced in 2013, which became so successful that three new express routes were introduced over the next five years.

Kingston Transit owes its success to increased investment in transit services, which includes:

  • generating an image around its signature services;
  • improving its core network with coverage, frequencies, and reliabilities;
  • engaging private sector partners to increase understanding of the benefits of transit;
  • managing complementary land uses, particularly parking availability and pricing; and
  • fostering an organization culture of customer service excellence.

Many of the changes made in Kingston may be considered as “best practices” which may have similar impacts in other mid-sized cities.

Rebranding signature services

Kingston Transit’s most distinctive signature service is the Express Service, which transports riders from the west- and east-ends of Kingston to key destinations.

Express buses have an all-blue livery, distinguishing the fleet as signature service, and a universally-recognizable “X” logo. This design follows best practices by using a high degree of contrast, which ensures readability at a distance and while buses are in motion. The logo also connotes movement and speed, emphasizing better value than the automobile in terms of lower costs, increased efficiency, reduced congestion, and benefits to the environment.

Improving coverage, frequency, and reliability

The Express Service also brought major improvement to Kingston’s core transit network. In the redesigned structure, the Express Routes act as the “backbone” of the network, connecting people to major employers and destinations. With longer spacings between stops, the directness of Express Service makes transit faster and more attractive for riders.

The first Express Route set a new direction and culture change for what transit could do for the community. Kingston Transit transitioned away from the “pulse” system, where all buses arrived and departed at the same time at low frequencies. This system generated unreliable service, particularly for riders who made transfers between routes. Now, the Express buses have service headways of at most 8 minutes during weekday peak periods. The success of the Express Service created a launching pad for additional improvements, and over five years, Kingston Transit had cut the peak service frequency in half.

Engaging with private sector partners

Kingston has partnered with new and existing developments to convert surplus parking into Park-and-Ride lots. These lots include bike racks at each site, providing convenient, multimodal access to transit for cyclists.

Kingston Transit has also worked with employers and institutions to offer lower-cost transit passes. Of particular note, Kingston Transit launched a high school transit pass pilot program in 2012, which increased ridership by more than 500,000 trips over four years. This program provided students with exposure to transit, with the expectation that many will continue as regular riders after graduation.

Managing complementary land uses

In 2013, an integrated transit-parking pricing structure was created to promote transit and discourage automobile. The changes included new weekly and monthly commuter passes that provide unlimited rides on weekdays, higher discounts in the Employer Pass program based on the number of participating employees, and new day and event passes for visitors to the City.

In the long term, Kingston aims to finalize an urban parking strategy to support downtown vibrancy and promote transit, and to use parking to support transportation demand management.

Fostering customer-focused organizational culture

Kingston Transit also made internal culture changes to emphasize customer service. They held Customer Appreciation Days and improved responsiveness to customer needs and complaints. They also introduced a new hiring practice for frontline bus operators, where G-class drivers who demonstrated customer service skills could be offered training to obtain a bus driver’s licence.

Conclusion

Kingston Transit’s vision is to create a system that is attractive to all potential users. There are three key parts to achieving this goal:

First, the transit system must be effective in meeting peoples’ needs as an alternative to the car. Kingston Transit is faster and more reliable than before, routed to major destinations, and on track to making further improvements, including adding Express routes, increasing the service frequency, and expanding the hours of operation.

Second, transit must be marketed effectively to riders. This involves branding and outreach initiatives, such as the employer and student pass programs, to familiarize potential riders with the service. Additionally, fostering a customer-focused organizational culture will improve the overall experience for riders.

Third, the externalities of driving must be priced appropriately. Parking strategies should manage pricing and availability, while pedestrian and cyclist connections should be supported, such as bike racks on buses and at transit stations.

Small and mid-sized cities throughout Canada could take similar steps to improve their respective transit systems. Effective public transit will be essential for connecting people, and building healthy, inclusive, and sustainable communities.

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