Saint John Transit has welcomed its first electric bus.
The fully electric, zero-emissions bus arrived in the city last week and is part of a fleet of vehicles the city has leased for a new on-demand bus service that is slated to begin in September.
It's all part of the transit commission's attempt to transform the service, Ian Fogan, the director of transit and fleet, told city council on Monday night.
He said Saint John Transit is trying to make riding the bus easier for users and less harmful to the environment, Fogan said in an interview with CBC.
Electric buses are tied in with the city's plan for on-demand bus service. Fogan said the transit commission hopes to launch the program in some areas of the city in September.
Fogan said they are targeting areas where ridership is low. He said it doesn't make encomic sense in those areas to have a bus arrive with the same frequency as on a busy route.
So instead of having a bus arrive every 60 or 90 minutes, it will only respond when someone requests a bus through an app or using a website.
Then, depending on who else is requesting service in the area at the same time, the system will calculate the bus's arrival time and let the rider know when the bus will arrive.
"If it's within the same zone, it could drop them off at another bus stop within the zone. If it's outside of the zone, it would take them to the nearest rapid route and they could get on the rapid route to transfer to another zone."
Fogan said it's still a bus-stop-to-bus-stop service, but it's more streamlined for everyone involved, and ultimately creates a better service for the user.
"They know exactly when the bus is going to arrive and pick them up and when it's going to deliver them," he said.
Fogan said the system hasn't been set up yet, but he anticipates that riders will be able to book their bus up to 48 hours in advance. Any longer than that and plans can change and buses can be left without a fare waiting at the stop at the prearranged time.
He said there are methods built into the system to identify chronic no-shows and then block them from using the service.
Other built-in features will benefit frequent users, including recurring trips that can be automatically populated — so daily trips at the same time, to and from the same locations, don't have to be entered every time.
Fogan said the software uses "dynamic routing," which creates a route based on the most efficient use of the bus.
It also allows users to tell the system where they want to go and when they have to be there and the computer will figure out when they have to be picked up in order to meet their timeline.
Part of 10-year plan to decarbonize
Fogan said the Saint John Transit Commission was already looking at electric buses as a way to "decarbonize" the fleet. As part of that process, the commission agreed to lease a 40-foot long bus for six months in order to see how the vehicle performs on some of Saint John's busiest routes and the often-hilly terrain.
But when the commission couldn't find smaller buses for its on-demand service, they looked at some of the options they had previously explored for decarbonization.
Initially, they were just looking for smaller versions of traditional buses for the on-demand service, but then started looking more closely at a European-based company that makes eight-metre-long buses that are fully electric.
Fogan said the commission has leased six of them for a year in order to test them in all four seasons and on the city's terrain.
"We just want to be able to put that to use in our own circumstances before making a firm commitment that this is the way we want to go. They're also new to us, so new to our maintenance department, new to our drivers, and new to our riders. So let's lease it. Let's try it out and see what the response is."
The first of them arrived in the city last week and will be paraded around the city throughout the summer to introduce people to the new technology.
Greener and cheaper to operate
Fogan said the electric buses "are much more efficient and they cost less to operate and to maintain."
He said the city is expecting savings by operating electric vehicles and with the on-demand system itself. He said other Canadian municipalities are reporting savings of 20 to 40 per cent by switching to on-demand — and those are operating with traditional carbon-based fuels.
"I haven't found anybody in Canada yet who's operating an on-demand system with an electric bus," said Fogan.
The electric buses are capable of running 300 km on a charge, which is well below the roughly 190-km-per-day maximum that the busiest of city buses are used to.
The buses are made by Karsan, a manufacturer based in Turkey.
Dieppe's on-demand pilot
Saint John isn't the first New Brunswick municipality to explore on-demand bus service.
The City of Dieppe launched a pilot program a year ago, and what was supposed to be a six-month trial has been extended to the end of 2022.
Luc Richard, Dieppe's deputy chief administrative officer, citizen services, said the pilot has been a success. He said it's allowed the city to expand and improve bus service, and the feedback from citizens has been positive.
The city began with a weekend-only test and eliminated three fixed routes, but eventually returned to fixed service and continued on-demand with the other two routes. On-demand worked so well that it was also extended to weekday evenings from 6:30 to 10 p.m.
"By not going with fixed routes, we were able to expand the service area … so that all of our citizens are able to access public transit," said Richard.
He said the pilot began with a regular-sized bus but it was quickly found to be too big for the purpose, and was swapped out in January for an 11-seater that is fully accessible.
Richard said the smaller vehicle allows them to manoeuvre better in smaller streets and neighbourhoods.
He said for most people, the service is more convenient and efficient. And early indications are that it will also save the municipality some money, although cost savings was not the main reason they wanted to try on demand, he said.
The two main goals were to improve service and increase ridership, and Richard said the pilot has accomplished both.
Other transit improvements
Electric buses are just one of the improvements in the works for Saint John Transit.
Fogan says they also want to improve pick-up times in some of their more popular routes. Because of the "strong demand" on those routes, the plan is to reduce the interval from 30 minutes to 20 between pickups — and even to 15 minutes in some places during peak hours.
They also want to introduce electronic payment options. Currently, riders without a pass can only pay by cash on the bus.