Next stop, the future: On-demand public transit comes to Saint John

Riders on the west side of Saint John are the first to use the city's Flex service.  (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Riders on the west side of Saint John are the first to use the city's Flex service. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

A new type of public transit rolled into Saint John this week.

Some westside residents now have the ability to request a bus through an app or over the phone.

The new flex service started Monday, replacing Routes 13 (Milford) and 14 (Churchill), which operated on limited hours because of low ridership.

The two routes will continue to run until the end of this week but after Jan. 14, Flex will be the only service available in the area.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

The smaller, all-electric buses used for the Flex service don't operate on a fixed route or schedule, according to Saint John Transit, they operate "within a zone," and riders can travel from stop-to-stop within that.

On a fixed schedule, the earliest bus for riders in what is now the Flex zone would come around 11:00 a.m. and service would end around 5:00 p.m, according to Nick Cameron, chair of the Saint John transit commission.

Using the on-demand service, residents can book a bus as early as 6:30 a.m. and until 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, while service runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

For commuters like Rebekah Brayton, that's a big change.

"When I would get done work, I would not usually be able to make the last connection for the 13 or the 14 to go home, and now I can because I have a larger window for it," Brayton said.

"So I think it's really great. The extended service is awesome."

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For Lottie Davis, the app is not something she's comfortable using.

"The main thing that I'm worried about — myself, I'm not used to computers and stuff like that, and the seniors around here … a lot of seniors don't know how to use computers," she said.

Lottie and other riders, however, can also call 506-652-Flex (3539) to access the service.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

When booking a ride on the app, riders have a few options for scheduling a time: leave now, leave at, and arrive by. Riders can also schedule trips days in advance. Then a small electric bus will pick them up and take them to the requested stop.

Riders can use the service anywhere in the Flex zone, which covers much of the west side, north of the Saint John Throughway, including neighbourhoods such as Milford, Randolph, Greendale, Quinton Heights and Island View Heights.

Why Flex?

According to Cameron, improving service in low-ridership areas is the driving factor behind offering on-demand transit.

"You wouldn't implement an on-demand service, strictly for cost savings," he said. "It's more to be able to offer a more flexible type of service and a broader operation of hours."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

He said running buses on a fixed schedule in low ridership areas ends up making service worse.

"When you send a 40-foot bus, it might only be picking up a couple of people," Cameron said. "And it's not quite enough revenue to carry that service sustainably.

"So over time, what you see happening is the schedule gets cut."

City of Saint John
City of Saint John

The cost of running a diesel bus is $11 per hour, according to Michael Hugenholtz, the city's commissioner of transportation and public works, while a fully charged electric bus costs $10 per eight-hour charge, Hugenholtz said in a statement.

The contract to provide on-demand services through an app was $82,000 a year, which covers future Flex services, Hugenholtz said.

Cameron said the Flex service was inspired by similar services provided by several municipalities in southern Ontario, which members of Saint John Transit toured.

The service will be expanded to other neighbourhoods at a later date, but with precision.

Flex service is "definitely not a silver bullet, it's a good tool for the right area," Cameron said.

Cameron said the service will be deployed next in the northern portion of Millidgeville and then the city will look at implementing a Flex zone in east Saint John.