CBU students helping Cape Breton Transit return to record pre-pandemic level

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Growth in student enrolment at Cape Breton University has driven changes to Cape Breton Transit and will likely help ridership return to record pre-pandemic levels this year. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Growth in student enrolment at Cape Breton University has driven changes to Cape Breton Transit and will likely help ridership return to record pre-pandemic levels this year. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's transit system is facing some big charges on the horizon. Ridership is expected to reach or exceed peak levels this year and there's the possibility of electrifying the system at a later date.

Ridership hit a record level in 2019 with 1.2 million rides, but dropped below 200,000 the following year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transit manager Kathy Donovan said annual revenues approached $2 million in 2019 and the numbers are climbing again, thanks to strong student enrolment numbers at Cape Breton University.

"Our numbers went down a great deal, but we are on track to be back to where we were prior to COVID and with the numbers that CBU is anticipating for the fall semester, I think we will meet the $2 million or slightly exceed that," she told council on Tuesday.

Ridership in April and May of this year reached 4,300 a day, or 103,000 a month, Donovan said.

At that rate, Cape Breton Transit should reach 1.2 million rides again this year.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

There are 2,416 students currently enrolled at CBU, made up of 1,393 international students and 1,023 Canadian students, said Lenore Parsley, the university's director of strategic communications.

The student population is projected to be 5,700 in September, she said, with a roughly 60/40 split between international and domestic students.

The growth in international student enrolment has driven changes and improvements to the transit system, Donovan said.

Officials have bought more buses, added routes and extended operating hours and that has spurred an increase in local usage, as well.

"We've seen a big difference in our domestic ridership over the last few years," she said.

Cape Breton Transit has also been adding bus stops and shelters and plans to roll out an app later this year.

Meanwhile, it is starting two studies that could result in bigger changes.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

One that's just getting underway is a review of the system, including routes and fares, with an eye to switching from diesel to electric buses, said public works manager Ray Boudreau.

That one will help determine whether the municipality is providing proper service at a reasonable cost compared to other transit systems and provide a preliminary design for a new maintenance facility and transit hub.

It will also look at how transit systems are funded and may mean changes to CBRM's model, which relies on user fees along with an area tax rate applied only to properties that lie on bus routes.

The other study is expected to help CBRM figure out how to switch its fleet to electric vehicles.

Studies to be ready next year

Boudreau said with federal and provincial funding targeted at electrifying municipal transit and with the growth in ridership in CBRM, now is the time to consider moving to an electric fleet.

"That transition will play a fundamental role in transit service in Cape Breton in that we have an opportunity to both reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions, as well as improve transit service at the same time by taking advantage of some of this funding," he said.

Those studies are not expected to be completed until 2023.

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