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The future of public transit is personal

Driving transit into the future with autonomous scheduling for buses and real-time optimization based on passenger demand.

Man looking at cell phone

We’ve all been there. You need to get to a destination but according to the transit schedule, it will take three different bus routes, one of which only run hourly, and you still need to walk about 10 minutes because the last stop is just outside the coverage area. This frustration is not uncommon among passengers and a big reason that some opt for rideshare apps or cars instead. Toronto’s transit system attributes a $74 million loss to Uber and Lyft in 2019 alone. The pandemic hasn’t helped as ridership dropped from 63 million passengers across Canada in September 2020 to 49 million in May 2021.

Of course, operators and city planners aren’t actually at fault. Transit aims to maximize their value by servicing popular spots, main roads and traditional 9-5 rush hours. The problem is, as populations continue to increase and working hours vary, this approach is no longer sufficient. This leaves municipal leaders in a predicament – they must expand their offering without raising fares while also contending with shrinking city budgets and overworked staff.   

Can an on-demand approach transform public transit?

To tackle the on-going issue, operators need a simple and cost-effective solution that fits within the limits of city regulations. Afterall, municipalities do not often have large budgets with which to test out new technology. Pantonium is one provider taking on the task. Using digital software, the provider dynamically directs buses according to passenger requests for pickup and drop-offs, giving riders a more personal experience. An algorithm automatically routes the entire fleet based on real-time demand, creating an efficient path for each rider.

Does it really work? The solution in action

Though the concept is appealing, making changes to municipal transit has never been easy or quick. One of Toronto’s bus routes, the 93 Woodbridge, ran the same fixed itinerary for 50 years with few major alterations. Still, a combination of customer expectations, revenue loss and sustainability concerns are causing municipalities across the country to reconsider transit–and act now.

Belleville, Ontario is one such city. The lakeside locale boasts a population over 50,000 but late-night bus routes often ran empty down city streets, wasting fuel and causing unnecessary wear and tear on the vehicles. In fact, the routes were found to serve only about 43 passengers nightly. By 2018, the city decided to test out the Pantonium software–a first in Canada. Nearly four years later the city continues to reap the benefits with a 300% increase in ridership and a 30% reduction in vehicle mileage along with a significantly larger service area.

More passengers, larger service areas and…less cost?

At first glance it seems practically impossible for a city to increase their coverage area, lower wait times, accommodate more passengers but somehow operate fewer buses. Yet significant sums are spent sticking to fixed routes, regardless of turnout. During the pandemic, ridership in Ottawa fell by 80%, costing the city $1 million every week. Because of their complex scheduling system, any proposed changes take months, making a swift pivot impossible.

Using automation however, has led to cost-savings and a better rider experience in multiple cities across Canada. Stratford managed to save $300,000 on fuel during their first year using the software while Saskatoon now offers an average 7-minute wait time for a bus, no matter which of the 1,477 stops the passenger visits.

On-demand transit: The new normal?

Because transit numbers plummeted nearly country-wide during the pandemic, many cities are eager for funding, which some levels of government are providing–with conditions. The Ontario and federal governments committed over $2 billion to help municipal transit recover from COVID-19 losses, but must incorporate new initiatives for easier passenger access, including exploring on-demand microtransit. Tecumseh and Leamington recently announced their own on-demand pilot, with most funding provided by both levels of government. Other Canadian municipalities should consider taking this future-looking approach for their transit, before even more passengers leave buses in the past.

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