Pilot project ditches bus routes for ride hailing
TORONTO Next week, Belleville, Ont., will partner with Torontobased Pantonium to conduct an experiment in public transit, making the city’s bus service act more like a ride-hailing service.
Starting on Sept. 17, night bus service will no longer operate along defined routes; riders will use an app to request a pickup and drop-off point, and Pantonium’s intelligent routing software will direct drivers.
Paul Buck, transit manager for Belleville, said transit systems operate on a pre-digital way of thinking, and the city is hoping to modernize.
“Absolutely, it will change how we plan our services. The traditional method is: You design the route based on your population densities, and where people are and where you think they want to go,” he said.
“You drive around that route and you hope you pick people up.”
Belleville has a population of about 50,000, and Buck said the transit system did 996,000 rides last year — less than what the Toronto Transit Commission handles in a single day.
But for Pantonium, founded in 2010, it’s the first step into route optimization for a public transit system.
CEO Remi Desa said the startup has been growing without relying on venture capital funding by providing services to non-emergency medical transportation companies in the United States, transporting patients to appointments.
“We saw this as a really good test industry for us to find customers quickly, because we wanted to go into public transportation, but as you know, public transit is very risk-averse,” Desa said.
Desa said there’s a good business case for innovation in public transit though, because once you get out of high-density downtown areas, big diesel buses are inefficient because they spend most of their time circling with few passengers aboard.
“Even in Toronto with the TTC, there are lots of areas that are less dense, that having fixed-route transportation is not a very effective way,” he said.
“As soon as you go to areas like the suburbs, like Mississauga, there’s a reason you’ll usually see buses mostly empty, because it’s that mismatch.”
Transportation is particularly hot in the tech world right now, with lots of companies tackling ways to move people more effectively.
Uber and Lyft are challenging the classic taxi system, while Elon Musk’s “hyperloop” proposes to move people long distances at lower cost. Kitty Hawk, founded by Google co-founder Larry Page, is trying to make flying cars a reality, and electric scooter companies Lime and Bird are both venture capital darlings.
The unifying trend in transportation innovation is moving away from one-size-fits-all solutions — for example, everybody owning their own car — and toward using technology so that each trip uses the most efficient vehicle to minimize congestion and emissions.
The town of Innisfil, Ont., has gone all-out by subsidizing Uber rides as a replacement for a transit system. Desa said he thinks it’s an interesting experiment, but he said Uber prioritizes speed over efficiency, and most municipalities will want to take a different approach.
“Our view is more of, you want to control your own operation, you want to manage it, whether you do it with cars, with vans, with buses, that’s up to you,” he said. “But we give you the tools to do it on your own.”
In Belleville, Buck said the overwhelming majority of riders have a smartphone or a tablet, and people are pressuring the municipality to adopt modern technology. As a backstop, people can also book rides online or through a phone call.
He said that if the initial pilot project goes well, the city would like to rejig the system to be more flexible, and less reliant on 40-foot diesel buses driving in circles.
“(Eventually) this app will allow us to use smaller community-type service and pick people up, bring them out to our larger key service areas,” he said.
Pantonium CEO Remi Desa says there’s a good business case for innovation in public transit. His Toronto startup has devised an app that aims to make bus service more efficient.