Pi­lot project ditches bus routes for ride hail­ing

Calgary Herald - - FINANCIAL POST - JAMES McLEOD

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.

PETER J. THOMP­SON/FILES

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.

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