How to fix transit? Bring it closer to the people

How to fix transit? Bring it closer to the people

Networks built for downtown commuters are struggling to adapt to shifting work patterns. Several startups think on-demand services could be part of the answer.

You’d be forgiven if, from behind the wheel of a car, the pandemic seems like a distant memory. While just over half of pedestrians have returned to downtown Toronto, traffic jams have bounced all the way back to their pre-COVID levels. Construction projects, sewer and water main repairs, and degrading roads are worsening commute times in what’s already North America’s third-most-congested city — we wasted 118 hours in traffic last year. But public transit isn’t exactly making a case for itself as the smart alternative: TTC delays are longer, fares are higher and 20 percent of routes are cutting back service. A spate of violence earlier this year contributed to safety concerns and declining ridership. It can be hard to coax yourself onto the subway line.

People generally take transit for two reasons, says Shoshanna Saxe, a University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in sustainable infrastructure — either it’s the only way to get where they’re going, or it’s the best way to get there. “But when you cut service and raise fares, it puts pressures on both groups of people.” Low-income riders, already contending with inflation and rising costs of living, “might decide to just not take the trip — skip whatever appointment they were going to — or else they might need to cut other things out of their life,” Saxe says. Riders who can afford to do so will join drivers on the road instead. Either way, the effects are dire. “Ridership declines, the system loses money, more cuts are made, ridership declines further, and you put the system into a death spiral. And once you’re in it, it’s hard to get out.”

When cities have more cars and less transit, the consequences can be devastating for everything from air quality and the climate to economic access and the inequality gap. So how can public transportation be improved? “Big cities, just by virtue of having a lot of inertia and a lot of existing systems, tend to take smaller steps,” says Prem Gururajan, the founder of RideCo, a Waterloo-based company that develops on-demand transit software solutions.

Sometimes, enormous projects can pay off. Although the U.K.’s new Elizabeth Line, roughly 100 kilometres of underground subway tunnels cutting through central London, arrived four years late and at least £4 billion over budget, it’s been hugely successful, with one in six of all rail trips in the U.K. now taking place on the line. But often, small, targeted tweaks — building on what exists already, and providing better service — can make an immediate difference. Says Gururajan, “there’s a big opportunity here for cities to rethink how they move riders.”


Think cash

The TTC points out that it is the least-subsidized system in North America, and according to a report it released just before the pandemic, 97 percent of the agency’s non-subsidy funding comes from passenger fares. That can’t cut it. As Andy Byford, the former head of Transport for London, New York City Transit and the TTC, maintained in a recent op-ed: “The days of overreliance on fares are gone.” Instead, “a more sustainable, more imaginative solution needs to be found, and it should include a mix of funding sources.”

Where can the money come from? After analyzing ridership for 25 North American transit agencies over 14 years, McGill researchers proposed “congestion and parking pricing, public-private partnerships and land value capture” as potential revenue sources. “Toronto didn’t invest in ourselves in the good times,” Saxe says. “We used a decade of growth to cut taxes, instead of investing in keeping up our level of transit service, renewing the physical infrastructure, paying the people who run our system well and treating them with respect.”

There’s a tendency, she adds, to look at declining transit use and say, well, ridership is hovering at 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, that’s the new reality and service needs to be adjusted accordingly. “But what’s currently happening is a reaction to the infrastructure. If we change the infrastructure, it will change the reaction,” Saxe says. “Infrastructure is destiny. We have to think about the future we want and then actually invest in it.”


Think green

When it comes to investing in public transit operations, McGill’s 14-year ridership analysis emphasized “the importance of bus services to support high levels of ridership.” Although they don’t tend to garner the same attention as crosstown light rail and subway extensions, buses are vital to those massive projects’ return on investment. “A huge percentage of ridership comes from people interchanging from buses onto the subway system,” Saxe says. “Public transportation is a network, and the value of each piece goes up the bigger the network is.” The benefits of bus routes aren’t just measurable in cash: a 2022 Australian study found that more routes in disadvantaged Melbourne neighbourhoods not only provided a bigger return on taxpayer investment than larger suburban rail loops, they also helped raise employment, lower crime, and promote better health and social inclusion.

Plenty of cities are getting on board with electrified bus fleets. In Oslo, as part of its plan to become an emissions-free city by 2030, the government has invested 500 million kroner ($65 million) to replace the remaining diesel-fuelled buses and transform its public transit into a fully electric system by the end of this year. A U.S.$104-million federal grant is helping the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority transition to zero-emission bus service, while Bogota — which has already spent U.S.$130 million on nearly 600 kilometres of protected bike lanes — plans to wrap up 2023 with the world’s biggest fleet of electric buses outside of China. Toronto rolled out its first diesel-electric hybrid buses back in 2008, and the TTC has since purchased 60 all-electric buses as part of its commitment to be fully emissions-free by 2040.

But how those buses get around matters, too. As Saxe notes, “any bus with 50 people inside sitting in traffic is a very inefficient use of space and time.” She points to bus rapid transit — buses running frequently and reliably in dedicated lanes — as a valuable solution. “The city had five bus rapid transit lines on the books for years,” she says. “As traffic has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, those are lines that are really important to serve a population who really need it.”


Think small

Even before the pandemic hit and reshuffled where many Torontonians work and live, public transit struggled to serve the parts of the city with medium- or low-population density. “Then COVID exacerbated the challenges of running a fixed-route, fixed-schedule system,” RideCo’s Gururajan says. “You have buses driving around empty, and buses failing to keep up with changing patterns of movement. So, in those first few miles to and last few miles from a transit hub, there’s a big access gap.”

RideCo has worked with transit authorities in cities like L.A., Calgary, San Antonio and Cobourg, Ont., to create a nimbler on-demand network. Passengers use the app to book a ride — whether it’s for the following day or in the next few minutes — and RideCo’s software creates a dynamic route for the vehicle to pick them up. In one suburban Calgary neighbourhood, where it took on average at least 30 minutes to walk to the nearest bus stop, just two on-demand shuttles have been sufficient to transport 150 passengers a day. Now, people walk no more than four minutes to a pop-up stop and wait fewer than 15 minutes for a bus to arrive.

“Students use it to get to and from schools, commuters use it to get to a transit hub, and it has improved access for the whole community,” Gururajan says. “Once you improve the connectivity of the city, you’re opening up opportunities for a lot of people.”


And think targeted

From his perch at Hop In, the micro-transit company he founded with two friends, Boyd Reid has also seen how connectivity translates to opportunity. During the pandemic, Hop In started working with Maple Lodge Farms, a Brampton food processing plant contending with high turnover, in part due to the paltry public transit options for their night workers. “We looked at where workers were located and the transportation resources available to them, and developed shuttle routes so we can get them to and from work,” Reid says. Those shuttles, which service between 70 and 90 riders a day, have also allowed Maple Lodge to hire from municipalities more than 50 kilometres away. “By addressing transit gaps that provided a barrier to the work site, it means more people can get a job there, can get to work safely and can save time on their commute,” Reid adds.

Saxe stresses that many of the tools and ideas we need to move riders around are already in place. “We don’t need to reinvent public transit, but we do need to reinvest in it,” she says. “That’s how public transit can be the fastest, cheapest and most climate-friendly option for people to get where they’re going.” It definitely sounds like the better way.

Image source: iStock