City Staff Floats Microtransit as Option for Hanlon Business Park Route

The City of Guelph is floating the possibility of using “microtransit” options to fund a new transit route that would service the Hanlon Creek Business Park. Council approved the new route last fall, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of it’s implementation, and if it does ever start now, City staff are suggesting a user system that looks more like ride hailing than a traditional bus route.

A staff report to council posted on Friday suggested that “microtransit” would be a cost-effective way of offering new service on the proposed #19 Hanlon Creek Business Park route. “Microtransit” is a kind of on-demand method of providing transit service where you book a ride on an app or website like a ride-share provider such as Uber or Lyft. In this case, a Guelph Transit vehicle will pick you up and drop you off anywhere along the previously established HCBP route at either a virtual stop, or a regular signed transit stop.

“As the City of Guelph navigates the future, microtransit will become more mainstream, especially in some areas that do not need dedicated fixed route service,” the report prepared by manager of transit operations Jason Simmons reads. “This benefits transit riders as it provides flexibility to allow them to manage their own transportation when needed.”

The staff report recommends using the company RideCo, which the City currently employs for mobility transit service. In August, council approved the use of RideCo indefinitely to provide on-demand mobility service after a successful pilot that was recommended in the Guelph Transit Service Review.

Along with flexibility, efficiency, and increasing Transit service to under-serviced areas, the City is also touting the financial benefit to using microtransit for the #19 route. The report pegs the cost of using RideCo and making the service on-demand for this route at $219,210, which is about $700,000 less than what it would cost to run a conventional transit route as approved last year by city council.

But there has been some controversy with the microtransit model. A letter sent to Mayor John Tory by Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney in August advised the City of Toronto that the second phase of the transfer payment agreement to cover the TTC’s operating losses from COVID-19 would be contingent, in part, on “Review[ing] the lowest performing bus routes and consider whether they may be better serviced by microtransit.”

Some quarters took Mulroney’s letter as a political move to undermine transit services in the middle of the pandemic. “Your government is using the pandemic as a means to further an agenda of transit service reduction and privatization,” said UNIFOR Ontario regional director Naureen Rizvi in a letter. “The reduction of routes and use of app-based ride-sharing services would result in a loss of good transit jobs and erode employment security for drivers, further harming workers and their families in a time of layoffs, high unemployment and economic uncertainty.”

Politics aside, there’s also some disagreement about just how effective microtransit options are. Pantonium, a Toronto-based company that specializes in developing software that optimizes transit routes, makes the point that microtransit works in only very particular circumstances, and attempts to move to mircrotransit in some places has actually seen a decrease in ridership.

“As ridership rises, microtransit would require more and more vehicles to service demand and thereby erode any previous efficiencies,” said Gurjap Birring of Pantonium. “If ridership recovers to sufficient levels, fixed route buses will deliver better productivity and municipalities will wisely switch back. Of all the levels of ridership that a fixed route doesn’t service efficiently, microtransit is only productive on the lower end.”

There’s presently no plan to introduce the microtransit option to council consideration, but it could be part of council’s deliberations for the 2021 multiyear budget. The budget and supporting documents will be released on the City’s website on Thursday.

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