Update: There will be an official launch of the on-demand transit system Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the community centre.
Ellen Williams is looking forward to trying out the new on-demand public transit system, part of a Niagara Region Transit pilot program which will launch in Niagara-on-the-Lake Monday.
Williams says she often used the former fixed-route shuttle system, which was cancelled in April, and she misses it.
Her trips were mostly to Virgil for groceries or maybe a massage, but occasionally she would take it to Niagara College, where the schedule was conveniently timed to connect with the GO Bus, which she would take to Burlington. From there she would catch the GO Train to Toronto to visit with family, and she has missed doing that as well.
But when COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the shuttle bus, “I wasn’t going out that often anyway,” she adds.
Widowed eight years ago, Williams, 75, doesn’t drive, and says having a public transit system gives her independence.
“It was a real deciding factor in whether I could stay here, whether I could do this without a car. I hear people say you can’t live in NOTL without a car, but I’m invested in this community. I love it very much. I want to stay, and I want to feel like I can do it on my own,” she says.
The on-demand system “will be a replacement for the local bus system we’ve lost.”
Having public transit could mean the difference between staying in the town she loves, or having to move, she says.
She occasionally gets rides with friends, “but I don’t want people to go out of their way for me.”
She’s used a taxi service or Uber in recent months, but they are costly, with trips from her Paffard Street home to Virgil costing from $16 to $20.
At $3 for a one-way trip, the new service “would be much less prohibitive cost-wise.”
Robert Salewytsch, program manager for regional transit services, says there will be two vans coming to NOTL initially, to cover the Old Town, Virgil, Glendale, and what is considered the Niagara Stone Road corridor.
The NRT OnDemand pilot project began operating in west Niagara in August, with Via Mobility, an international company, contracted to provide a ride-sharing service in Grimsby, Lincoln, Pelham, Wainfleet and West Lincoln, he says, but they also have a component that provides travel across municipalities, which NOTL has chosen not to include.
Town council made the decision to come on-board in late August, asking the Region to amend its contract to include NOTL. Instead, Salewytsch explains, there is a second contract for a year-long pilot project with just NOTL.
Although there was some discussion and an option offered to NOTL to pay for four vehicles to cover St. Davids and Queenston, council decided to revisit the scope of the project as part of the 2021 budget deliberations, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
The pilot program is a regional project, with little input from the municipality, she added.
“All we do is pay for it,” with a cost of $200,000 for the service, which covers pretty much the same route as the shuttle service did, but without a fixed schedule.
The biggest advantage, Disero says, is that it will come close to the door, and users won’t have to walk far to get it or stand outside for a long time to wait for it.
She’s heard from other municipalities that it is being well-used, and there has been good feedback from users.
If NOTL wants to keep a transit service, ridership will be important, she says — that’s what the Region will be looking at to make it a permanent part of a regional system.
When the service starts next week, one of the vans that will operate in NOTL will be wheelchair-accessible, and the other will have a bike rack, Salewytsch says.
The goal of NRT OnDemand is to provide residents with an efficient system that is also affordable, and although NOTL did not choose the option to include transportation to locations in other municipalities, it does allow residents to connect with regional buses at the outlet mall, with a free transfer.
Niagara College is within the boundary for the service so residents will still have the same connectivity to GO Transit, says Salewytsch.
The maps that are available are not detailed enough for riders to really see the boundaries, he says. “Once the NOTL section goes live in the app, it will allow riders to very specifically see the service area.”
There is a mobile app for the on-demand service, but it is also available by phone, at 289-302-2172 for riders without access to a smartphone, says Salewytsch. Passengers will be offered a pickup and drop-off location, within 100 metres of their door, he says, and within the hour. Once they have booked their ride, it is matched with other passengers going in the same direction who can share the van.
In winter months, and on rural roads without sidewalks, the service will ensure safe pickup, he says, likely going to the door or close to it.
The service will run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Saturday. The goal is for a maximum one-hour wait time and a maximum 20-minute detour time to accommodate other passengers.
The contract with the Town includes a provision to extend the pilot for another 12 months, at which time, if the Region and Town are interested in continuing to provide an on-demand service, an RFP would be issued for a longer-term delivery partner.
Coun. Gary Zalepa says he’s pleased to have NOTL join the pilot project.
The Region is now considering a regional transit system, replacing the other three services in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland, and integrating it as a single fare system to be managed and delivered by the Region.
The on-demand service, Zalepa says, “would be part and parcel of that system.”
It would have economic benefits and provide better service, he says.
The next step is to go to the municipalities and seek a triple majority to allow the region to move forward on a detailed business plan, sometime in the new year.