THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay Transit has pushed back plans to test a new on-demand service model on its 4 Neebing route.
The on-demand micro transit pilot project, initially expected to launch by the end of January, is now set for a launch sometime in the spring, pending approval by city council.
In a memo to city council explaining the delay, transit manager Brad Loroff cited ongoing work to prepare a software platform, as well as conduct additional outreach with Neebing residents.
The department will now return to council with a report by the end of April. If approved, Loroff expected the pilot could launch within six to eight weeks.
The pilot would see regularly scheduled bus service for 4 Neebing suspended, with residents along the route instead booking trips through a smartphone app, website, or over the phone when needed.
Riders could be picked up and dropped off anywhere within 400 metres of the current route. For longer trips, riders would need to transfer to another bus route.
The pilot would utilize smaller vehicles already in transit's fleet, such as 23-foot cut-away low floor buses or 12-foot community service vans.
If the pilot is successful, the city’s transit department has indicated it could consider implementing the on-demand model to replace other “low-performing” bus routes, or at low-demand times.
City councillor Cody Fraser, who represents the Neebing ward, said while he believes the on-demand model could have merit, he’s currently opposed to the pilot.
He cited concerns from constituents who see it as a lower level of service. He received more than 50 questions about the change ahead of a virtual ward meeting held Thursday evening, at which Thunder Bay Transit presented additional information and answered questions.
“There are members of my constituency who rely on the continuous transit route – it’s something they’re used to [that’s been going on] for a few decades now,” he said. “So any kind of change is certainly going to drum up some concerns.”
While many Neebing residents live outside of the city’s urban service area, they pay a special levy in order to receive services from the City of Thunder Bay, including public transit.
“I think us moving to this micro transit system is, in some ways, contrary to the original intent of that special levy,” Fraser said.
However, he acknowledged assurances from Thunder Bay Transit that the on-demand model could actually shorten travel times.
“If anything, it’s Transit’s position that it will make things more efficient, and you’ll be on the bus for less time than before,” he explained.
Transit manager Brad Loroff, who made the presentation to Neebing residents Thursday, said the area was ideally placed for an on-demand service pilot, an idea that’s been in the works for several years.
On-demand service can provide better coverage for low-density, outlying areas with underperforming bus routes, he explained. The 4 Neebing has consistently seen lower ridership levels than the city’s other routes, Loroff told Tbnewswatch.
Pre-pandemic, the route averaged around 7 boardings per hour, compared to a fleet average of 42. That number has fallen to around 4 since the arrival of COVID-19, which has slashed ridership numbers by around 50 per cent across the board.
Reviewing low-performing routes for potential micro transit solutions was a condition imposed on municipalities by the provincial government in order to qualify for some transit-specific pandemic relief funding.
However, Loroff said it was an option the agency had already been pursuing, regardless.
“We’ve been working and exploring an on-demand model like this for quite some time,” he said. “It’s something we’ve consulted with Neebing ward residents about in the past.”
Transit will continue with outreach to Neebing residents, such as a frequently asked questions mailer and another ward meeting appearance, Loroff suggested.