Okotoks harnesses on-demand transit technology to deliver grocery needs

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, like many municipalities, Okotoks, Alta., saw a drop in on-demand transit use.

But at local grocery stores, the need was bigger than ever, especially for online and delivery services.

David Gardner, transit specialist for the town of Okotoks, says the next step was pretty obvious.

“We discussed it internally and we felt that we had an opportunity to provide something a little bit new,” he said. “Since our current transit model is a curb-to-curb model, it seemed an automatic transfer to just deliver groceries instead of people.”

So, he said, that’s exactly what they have started doing.

Grocery stores are scrambling to keep shopping carts clean to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

The setup is pretty basic, and Gardner said because the transit system is on-demand and technology-based, it was easy to adapt it for this purpose.

The stores basically act as transit customers, paying a fare to the bus operator who then drives around town delivering the groceries. 

All of the leg work, so to speak, is done at the store where they take orders and process grocery payments.

“I’ve coined it grocery transit,” Gardner said. “When we arrive at the store in the morning, the store will hand over to us between six and eight orders. And we run those orders around town.”

He said the whole process takes an hour, and there is a vehicle dedicated to doing this eight hours a day. So far, he said they are averaging 25 to 30 deliveries a day.

Keeping people out of stores

“The majority of the audience that we are delivering to are seniors,” he said. “If we can keep around 200 people out of the grocery stores, people at home that need to be self-isolating, and people who don’t have a car, for example, then we think that’s a great addition to the other efforts going on in the town right now.”

It hasn’t affected the transit service, because they are able to look at the data coming in and adjust ride availability to match. Gardner said it is even keeping an extra driver on the job while demand is lower.

“Essentially, we monitor the passenger transit to make sure that we are not losing rides,” he explained. “Hopefully over the next few months to get through the rest of this process, we will start to see a few more failed ride searches. And we will gradually increase vehicle hours and vehicle supply.” 

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