OC Transpo's 'phone ringing off the hook' with microtransit pitches

·3 min read
Ottawa's transit boss John Manconi says microtransit might make sense in certain circumstances, such as getting riders the final leg from the transit network to their destination. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa's transit boss John Manconi says microtransit might make sense in certain circumstances, such as getting riders the final leg from the transit network to their destination. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)

OC Transpo says companies have been lining up to pitch on-demand transit options to the city, ever since the Ontario government required that municipalities study such "microtransit" ideas as a condition for getting COVID-19 relief funding.

"The phone is ringing off the hook since the announcement that the province made," said John Manconi, the City of Ottawa's transportation general manager.

Manconi told transit commissioners Wednesday that managers have met with six Canadian or international companies already and a seventh is booked. Some are taxi companies offering to carry passengers, while others have software they say could work with OC Transpo's buses.

OC Transpo had already been looking into the idea, but now that the Ontario transportation minister is requiring that microtransit be evaluated as a way to cut costs or boost service, Ottawa officials will report back to the transit commission with their findings by end of year.

On-demand transit is on a list of 10 projects OC Transpo will tackle in 2021. The list includes installing protective shields for bus drivers and upgrading simulators to train rail operators on the new Stadler trains that will travel the expanded Trillium Line.

Ottawa could use microtransit for 'last mile'

Coun. Carol Anne Meehan has been a big champion of microtransit of late, because she has been concerned about buses travelling fixed routes carrying very few passengers and losing the city money during the pandemic.

She had pointed to Belleville, Ont., which uses on-demand bus service.

That city would not be a good comparator because it has a tiny fraction of Ottawa's 190 bus routes and fleet of nearly a thousand buses, Manconi said.

The idea is not new, he added, reminding commissioners Ottawa once had a "dial a bus." Tele Transpo served several areas that couldn't sustain fixed routes back in the 1970s.

Manconi, seen here in 2019, says companies are calling OC Transpo offering on-demand services ever since the province told cities to explore microtransit.
Manconi, seen here in 2019, says companies are calling OC Transpo offering on-demand services ever since the province told cities to explore microtransit.(CBC)

"You've grown beyond that," Manconi told commissioners.

That's not to say microtransit can't work in Ottawa at certain times of day and in certain parts of the city, Manconi said.

A better comparison would be Denver, Colo., which uses smaller buses booked in as few as 10 minutes to help riders cover what's often called the "first and last mile" to and from a park-and-ride or transit station, he explained.

Unions in Ontario have been troubled by the province's push for microtransit, and Manconi was also careful to underscore it would not be a substitute for traditional transit.

"This is not about outsourcing OC Transpo," said Manconi.

Meehan presents company with pilot

During the commission meeting, Meehan said she had been speaking with one company that wants to test an app, using OC Transpo buses and operators in a suburb, but transit managers haven't taken their calls.

She called on the city to explore a pilot project with any company, because the technology exists.

"It's the perfect time to do it, to recreate our transit system. Add to it, complement it."

Manconi, however, said the 10 projects for 2021, during a pandemic, leave staff with "zero capacity" to take on others.

Meanwhile, he cautioned that companies want the city's data, and often suggest they could start up quickly, but staff couldn't "arbitrarily just pick a route.

"Let's be candid. The private sector wants to be in this space. The mobility space is a trillion-dollar industry around the world. You've got to be very careful. What is the mandate of public transit? It's not to make money."