High gas prices helping fuel N.S. rural transit ridership increase

·4 min read
Mike Cassidy is the owner of Maritime Bus, an interprovincial bus service that connects rural parts of the Maritimes. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)
Mike Cassidy is the owner of Maritime Bus, an interprovincial bus service that connects rural parts of the Maritimes. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)

Ridership across Nova Scotia's rural transit systems is starting to rebound two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — and some in the sector say record-high gas prices are playing a part in the growth.

Since March 2, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board has enacted its interrupter mechanism 15 times, allowing the board to adjust the price of gas to account for significant spikes, up or down, in petroleum prices.

Since then, minimum prices for regular unleaded, self-service fuel in the Halifax area have risen by more than 50 cents per litre. As of June 6, prices sit at a minimum price of $2.08 a litre, as the cost at the pump continues to break records.

This kind of unprecedented spike in gas prices is connected to increased ridership of one of Atlantic Canada's regional bus systems, said Maritime Bus owner Mike Cassidy. The private company receives some government funding from the Maritime provinces.

Cassidy said since the start of 2022, the transportation service has recovered 70 per cent of the ridership it saw in 2019 when the service transported a record-breaking 191,000 travellers.

"I've always asked myself this question, … where is that magic price per litre of gasoline where people are willing to consider making a behavioural change?" he said.

"The biggest problem in public transit when you want to convert new users, it's always behavioural change. We can talk about climate change, but one motivating factor can certainly be the price of gasoline and we are seeing that now."

Requests for more service

Similar concerns have been held by some riders of the Kings Transit system — which serves riders in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley — particularly those who use the bus to travel far distances, according to general manager Michael Getchell.

He said ridership numbers are rebounding, and have reached 80 per cent of peak 2019 numbers. The transit system expects to reach its full ridership rates by the beginning of next year.

"It definitely looks like people have jumped back in and started using the system again," said Getchell.

"We're having recommendations from the public to go back to one-hour service because right now we're running a two-hour service and our buses during the rush hour periods, morning and p.m., are pretty much full, so we are seeing a good rebound."

The increase in readership is something Cassidy said he's seen before with fluctuations in gas prices. This time, however, he thinks more people may be more willing to make the switch to public transit.

"Gasoline spikes, ridership goes up, gasoline price drops, ridership drops, but I think we're at the point now where people are saying, 'We're doing this for the right reason,'" Cassidy said. "If we take the time and we decide to make the transition to public transit, I feel it will become part of our lifestyle."

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050

Ahsan Habib, a transportation professor at Dalhousie University, said in a recent interview that the gas price hike has created a "higher need" for accommodating residents in the province with transit options that do more than just get people around town.

"This is a good time to invest in transit," Habib said. "We have a very ambitious climate target at this point; net-zero [emissions] by 2050. I do not see any other options other than improving transit."

Transit Cape Breton spokesperson Christina Lamey said the municipality's public transit system is also on the rebound after taking a hit during the pandemic. Ridership growth for Transit Cape Breton may be attached to rising gas prices as well, Lamey said, but the area has also recently welcomed around 1,000 new students to Cape Breton University.

She added the transit system has also been fielding questions from residents who are curious about how buses may be able to replace their usual commuting methods.

"Gas prices are definitely making people have a second look at transit in terms of weighing the benefits of it but ultimately, the main increase in ridership recently is most likely an increase in the number of students arriving at CBU for the semester. That would definitely be playing a role in transit numbers right now," she said.

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