BLOG: Demand-Responsive Transit Solutions

Published February 9, 2023.

Isolated communities and outlying suburban zones share one thing in common with larger urban areas – they need effective and convenient modes of transportation. Transit systems of all sizes, especially rural ones, have struggled to design efficient fixed-schedule service. Systems are facing budgetary pressures and looking for better ways to increase public transit ridership. How do we provide better, more efficient transit for communities experiencing fluctuating ridership demand? The solution requires demand-responsive transit. This does not diminish the need for frequent fixed-route service but suggests that taking advantage of on-demand transit (ODT) or a hybrid approach that incorporates flexible fixed-route services, can help systems induce ridership.

Modern on-demand transit provides a responsive and adaptable solution for those living in remote, rural communities across Canada. In many cases, ODT has expanded service to a larger area than its conventional, purely fixed-route, predecessor. On-demand rural transit is a nimble alternative for those otherwise dependent on single occupancy vehicles. All Canadians want the ability to go where they want, when they want. Responsive on-demand service aims to provide mobility solutions over a larger geographical region, at a lower cost, with more direct service. The goal is to attract riders and increase operating efficiency. For public transit to take off in rural regions, it must provide affordable, frequent, reliable, direct trips that reduce stress and wait times.

On-demand transit holds incredible potential for sparsely populated communities, especially suburban areas that have traditionally provided fixed-route service. Saint John Transit elected to do away with several fixed-routes in favour of an on-demand service referred to as the “FLEX West Zone”. Riders can now schedule a bus pick-up within the zone. This resulted in an immediate surge in ridership demand due to the extended schedule and more direct routing. Previously, fixed-route service would run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the new 6:30 a.m. weekday start was a major convenience for riders. Demand-responsive transit helps induce demand while minimizing wasted resources (i.e., staff, fleet size, bus size, etc.). Ridership demands are changing, but one factor remains constant – riders want to ride according to their personal schedule.

On-demand services like the Grey Transit Route (GTR) in Grey County, Ontario, has improved the quality of life for many rural residents who previously had limited access to public transportation. The GTR service allows residents to request rides through a mobile app or call centre. The program provides transportation to essential services such as medical appointments, grocery shopping, and employment centre. Another similar project is the “RIDE WELL” pilot project in Wellington County, funded by the Government of Ontario to assess ODT’s impact on regional inter-city mobility.

On-demand transit has taken off in British Columbia. The program successfully provides essential transit alternatives for those living in remote and underserved communities. BC Transit alone transports 58 million passengers every year in 130 communities across the province (outside of Greater Vancouver).  The switch from conventional to ODT helps promote and boost ridership in more remote areas like the Kootenays. ODT will continue to play an increasingly vital role in connecting BC’s remote communities.

Even mid-sized cities, like Saskatoon and Quebec City, have improved their customer experience though a hybrid approach. The “Saskatoon Transit OnDemand” app allows customers to book their trip in real-time, which helps improve the quality and range of integrated mobility for the region. Similarly, in Quebec City, the Réseau de transport de la Capitale (RTC) now uses the ODT service “Flexibus” to serve a larger region. The Flexibus program has increased proximity, flexibility, and frequency of transit. Access to affordable transit matters for suburban Canadians who all too often rely on their cars. Saskatoon and Quebec City exemplify how mid-sized cities, faced with increased budgetary pressures, have found efficient ways of providing a better service. Both cities have integrated modern mobile trip planning/routing technologies that help allocate resources over a larger area, in real-time.

Demand-responsive transit services are taking off in small and medium communities, and even larger suburban areas across Canada. Demand-responsive transit also helps transit systems boost ridership while allocating resources more efficiently. ODT and hybrid approaches provide more immediate responses to fluctuating demand while increasing access and range for riders. If we collectively want to improve mobility, including in remote, rural communities, then demand-responsive transit must play a role.

If you would like to learn more about on-demand transit pilot programs check out the link to CUTA’s on-demand transit toolkit (linked here).