Airdrie replacing some off-peak transit routes with on-demand service

Airdrie, Alta., is preparing to redeploy its on-demand transit service after leaving the model behind three years ago.

A fresh look at the city’s transit system suggests a hybrid approach with fixed bus routes during peak times and on-demand service at other times would serve more of Airdrie’s citizens and could attract new customers, according to transit officials. 

Work is underway to transform Airdrie’s transit system and launch the new Hello To Go on-demand service. 

“We went through an exercise to review our local transit network earlier this year.… We were overserving the community with a fixed-route network that was underutilized, so not enough riders based on the amount of service that was being provided,” transit team leader Chris MacIsaac said. “So we looked at other options.” 

Since the city just north of Calgary launched its on-demand service in 2017, technology has improved enough to give it a second try, MacIsaac says. 

Serving a population of over 70,000 residents, Airdrie’s transit system is mainly used by students headed to school in the morning and coming home after school lets out. Outside of bell times, the ridership drops off dramatically, MacIsaac says. 

During off-peak hours, buses carry only a handful of passengers until the service finishes up for the day at 9 p.m. 

“A fixed-route service was not going to attract new riders, and it wasn’t meeting the needs of the current ridership,” MacIsaac said. 

By moving off-peak service to an on-demand model, MacIsaac says they can achieve four goals: 

  • Offer transit services on Sundays.
  • Attract new customers who may not have used the service before.
  • Give Airdrie riders with accessibility needs more service overall.
  • Improve customer experience with guaranteed arrival times.  

The change will also cut 2,300 service hours annually, saving the city $140,000. Airdrie will now spend most of its annual service hours to run its on-demand service.

MacIsaac says changing the service model can be done within Airdrie Transit’s existing budget. 

On-demand’s benefits, pitfalls subject of research

Transit Analytics Lab postdoctoral fellow Willem Klumpenhouwer has researched on-demand transit. 

He says the idea of on-demand transit isn’t new — there have been dial-a-ride services in many communities for decades.

But apps used to operate these modern-day services add a whole new dimension with little research behind them. 

“How do you now figure out when is the appropriate time to use, you know, a fixed-route service or a flexible on-demand service like this?” he said. “And there’s not any clear guidelines. It’s a little bit of a Wild West going on.” 

Some cities, like Calgary, have used on-demand services as a stepping stone. They deploy these smaller shuttles to communities that don’t have the population to sustain a bus route and deliver customers to transit hubs, where they can connect with an already built transit system. 

And then some communities use on-demand services to take customers door to door — without any other formal transit network to speak of. 

“Every door is a potential stop that it’s getting a route to service efficiently,” Klumpenhouwer said. “All those different origins and destinations are tricky. And the busier it gets, the more sort of all of these different origins and destinations pop up and the longer the travel times get.” 

In those cases, Klumpenhouwer says it makes sense to level up the service to a bus route instead. 

Calgary’s on-demand transit sends users to a virtual bus stop within 400 metres of their location. (Helen Pike/CBC)

For Airdrie, MacIsaac sees this on-demand service as an opportunity to better understand the service’s customer base. 

“We’ll have an opportunity to analyze more data and have a better understanding of who our customers are and how they utilize public transit so we can make better decisions on investment opportunities in the future,” MacIsaac said. 

MacIsaac says the city’s next steps will be communicating to its customer base what changes to expect before launching the service this summer. 

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