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Rebuilding trust in public transit

Hamish Campbell, Country Manager, Via Canada

COVID-19 has had a harsh and immediate effect on public transit, cratering ridership in many cities by between 50-90%. Most agencies have responded with service cuts, while trying to maintain reasonable levels of coverage for essential workers.

As cities begin to ease restrictions, the conversation is shifting to what the future of transit will look like, both in the short and longer term. Recent findings show that, people overwhelmingly don’t feel comfortable going back to the office, nor do they trust riding transit. Meanwhile, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended that people drive alone and avoid shared mobility options.

The Canadian transit industry has worked tirelessly to improve service and grow ridership, but we’re potentially facing a new reality: transit ridership, and particularly peak-period ridership, may be much lower for a long time. Health concerns and the possibility of a second wave aside, Canadian companies such as Shopify have declared work-from-home will be the norm rather than the exception. Both the National Post and Globe and Mail recently ran frontpage headlines declaring, “The office is over” and “The year the office died.” A paradigm shift for transit service delivery may be upon us.

Our challenge as an industry is how to respond and adjust to the new normal of lower ridership and higher operating costs, while collectively rebuilding trust in transit.

At Via, we believe that leveraging technology to do real-time optimization and proactive capacity management will be key to our future success, and that every city – large and small – should be exploring two immediate solutions:

  1. Converting underperforming fixed-routes and transit deserts to “on-demand” zones:  On-demand-- or Demand-Responsive Transit (DRT)-- technology can generate operational and cost efficiencies, provide customers with more personalized service, and expand coverage.
  2. Automating capacity management on long-distance or more popular fixed routes: Implementing “pre-booking” technology on fixed routes can prevent overcrowding, mitigate erosion of public confidence, and offer customers a user-friendly reservation system to create a more personalized version of traditional public transit.

No two cities are the same, so what these solutions might look like for your city will vary. The following are a few real examples of how a few innovative agencies are leveraging technology to optimize and improve service delivery.

Replacing an entire fixed route network with on-demand

Converting an entire transit network to on-demand is one option. This is what Sault Ste. Marie has done for the past nine months. Every Sunday evening in “the Soo,” the entire transit network goes on-demand using their existing fleet of 40-foot buses and unionized drivers. Each bus is dynamically routed based on real-time passenger demand. Wait times for riders have gone from a 60-minute headway to just 13 minutes on average, and customers can track their ride in real-time. Meanwhile, the city was able to reduce the number of buses needed, resulting in cost savings.

Co-mingling fixed route and on-demand

There are a variety of ways on-demand can strengthen a fixed route network. Operating fixed routes within an on-demand zone is one option; or, keeping a core grid of fixed routes and filling the gaps in the grid or in transit deserts with on-demand is another. Both are important when it makes sense to retain higher ridership fixed-route lines. This summer, another community in Ontario will launch an on-demand service with Via where one of the city’s eight routes will stay fixed, while the rest of the network goes on-demand. This one route carries 33% of their overall ridership and connects key trip generators, so leaving it fixed makes sense. Via's technology is sufficiently sophisticated to handle this scenario, knowing when and how to direct riders to the scheduled fixed route service if that is their best option or serve them with an on-demand ride if that makes more sense – from both the rider experience and system efficiency standpoints – based on the origin and destination.

Offering booking for fixed routes

Beyond on-demand, as restrictions ease and ridership begins to increase, agencies are either allowing crowding or running “closed door” due to physical distancing requirements. Some are adding more service and “shadow” buses when they can, and this works to a point, but there may be a lag in the response resulting in additional wait times and a lack of predictability for riders. Customers and drivers need to have confidence that they can get a safe ride.

Via is in discussions with several agencies to provide a solution where riders will have to book a ride on fixed route lines. The benefits of “digitizing” fixed routes include providing real-time visibility for riders, increasing consumer confidence, mitigating the need for drivers to enforce capacity constraints, and gaining real-time data and insights to best match capacity and daily vehicle supply, improving cost efficiency.

The future

Nobody can predict the future, but we need to start thinking about what the “new normal” means for our service delivery models. Ridership may be lower for years to come and customers are asking themselves whether their ride will be safe and uncrowded. Drivers are concerned about their health and face a new responsibility – capacity management. Meanwhile, agencies are staring down budget crises and are looking for ways to best optimize remaining resources.

It’s time to rebuild our transit systems in a way that reflects our new reality; embracing technology is a key part of the solution.


Hamish Campbell is the Country Manager at Via, world’s leading partner in reimagining public mobility. To learn more about how Via can help your team, request a demo, or email Hamish@ridewithvia.com.

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