Kingston Council approves pilot project for ‘On Demand’ transit

Photo by Logan Cadue/Kingstonist.

Rural Kingston residents may finally get the improved access to transit they have been clamouring for.

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2024, Kingston City Council received a report from Brad Joyce, Commissioner of Infrastructure, Transportation & Emergency Services, exploring options for Kingston’s transit system. The report takes a deep dive into transit priorities based on the City’s Strategic Plan, evaluates current services, and proposes improvements to accessibility, frequency, availability, and reliability of services. 

Council then voted to direct staff to develop an “On Demand” transit service delivery pilot project directed to low-demand, low-density, and rural areas, with consideration for implementation costs to be included in future operating and capital budgets, and to refine the concept of the “Downtown Circulator” and implement the route as a pilot in fall 2024. Council also approved up to $1,000,000 from Provincial Gas Tax funds to support the 2025 operations of the Westbrook pilot and the Downtown Circulator pilot, and to develop the On Demand service delivery options. 

The council also directed staff to engage residents and stakeholders on a new Kingston Transit Service Strategy based on the following service principles: Accessible, Frequent, Available, and Reliable. All findings are to be delivered to Council by the end of 2025.

Lakeside Councillor Wendy Stephen addressed the current transit staffing level issues previously discussed in Council, first saying, “I was really excited to see this report; anything transit-related gets me all jazzed up. I was wondering if staff, though, could address the staffing issue… This report highlights a few new routes coming in September… There’s a concern that there’s a trade-off: that by adding these new routes, we’re reassigning staff, and then we’re going to be losing other services. Could staff talk about that, please?”

Ian Semple, Director of Transportation & Transit at the City of Kingston was on hand to respond: “I’m happy to report that we’re making headway on [staffing levels]. We have… tripled our training capacity at Kingston Transit and are moving many new bus operators through a training program. So the service levels that you see talked about in the report, particularly for those levels that appear in September, those are based on our projection for the staffing that would be available for that. It’s not related to a trade-off on other service levels.”

Next, Pittsburgh Councillor Ryan Boehme asked Semple to comment on “low-density and rural areas … as part of this motion. I know there’s been a lot of work and consultation done with areas around us… It doesn’t really jump out fully here.” He asked the Director of Transportation to give “a little bit more background: where that came from, [and] really what this motion means for rural and low-density areas, which has been spoken about for many years? It feels like this motion is finally getting to the customer.”

Semple responded that the new proposed pilot would likely make big improvements to transit in those areas. “The On Demand service delivery model provides us with a tool to be able to provide mobility options to residents and customers who live in traditionally lower-density areas or rural areas where the population base… may not necessarily justify… scheduled bus service.” He pointed out that advances in technology have made it possible to mimic the frequency and availability of scheduled service “that wasn’t necessarily available before.”

“Those technological advances can minimize wait times and provide several channels and mediums for customers to request a ride, be it fairly instantaneously or booking in advance. So the attractiveness here is that, in all those areas, [residents] will have access to service and mobility options that just weren’t feasible before… with the service delivery models that are in place today in Kingston,” said Semple.

Boehme observed, “It seems fair to say that, essentially, this is going to fill that gap in our sort of low-density areas where people have been wanting access to transit, requesting it for multiple years. But realistically, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we’re just never going to have density in some of those areas — per hectare, per person — to really justify extending the mainline transit there.”

The Council Strategic Plan directs staff to provide options for transit improvements, including but not limited to routes for Westbrook, Kingston Airport/Lemoine Point, and Amherstview. 

Options to extend service into Providence Care Hospital, provide enhanced service to VIA Rail, and modify service to target downtown access are also included for review. 

The route options presented in the report are based on the existing transit service delivery model, commonly referred to as “conventional transit,” which provides a fixed route, fixed schedule service. 

Where appropriate, the options include operating cost estimates representing the total annual service cost, including labour, fuel, insurance, and asset replacement. 

Council has previously approved the transit service pilot for Westbrook as part of the 2024 operating budget, and this is scheduled to begin in September 2024 based on the details included in the report. 

In addition to this pilot, staff recommended that modifications to Route 3, referred to as the “Downtown Circulator” in the report, be implemented as a pilot project in fall 2024 and continue through 2025. The report notes that this option provides direct access to Providence Care Hospital and expands service from the Kingston Centre to the downtown via the North King’s Town neighbourhood. 

Staff acknowledged in the report that the pilots are scheduled to start in the fall of 2024, and the data collected in 2024 will be limited and not ready in time for the 2025 operating budget development. Staff recommended that 2025 pilot costs be funded through the deferred Provincial Gas Tax funds to run appropriate pilots and collect meaningful data. 

As many of the route options would, at least initially, service low-demand and low-density areas, this report includes information on the alternative transit service model Semple talked about above, On Demand transit, that may be a more viable option than the conventional service that has been modelled. On Demand transit services offer flexible and cost-effective solutions for low-density areas that are increasingly used in many Ontario municipalities, according to the report.

Advances in communication and dispatch technology have made On Demand transit more viable. Users can request rides via applications or call centres with minimal wait times. This model complements existing transit networks and can transition to scheduled services as demand grows. In reviewing this service model, staff noted that it may provide the best approach for service to Glenburnie, Elginburg, and residential areas on Highway 2 east of Canadian Forces Base Kingston and Lemoine Point. 

Given this potential, staff are recommending the On Demand service model for Kingston as an alternative to conventional transit to provide a more customer-focused, competitive, and efficient option. 

In addition, while preparing for the population and employment growth envisioned in the upcoming Official and Integrated Mobility Plan, staff are recommending that the service strategy be developed based on the principles of accessibility, frequency, availability, and reliability and be delivered by fourth quarter (Q4) 2025. 

This study will include data and recommendations on the two pilot routes and the On Demand service model for Kingston. The report also notes that while this service strategy is under development, Kingston Transit will continue to enhance existing routes and service frequencies to meet changing needs, address ridership pressures, and enhance accessibility. 

The report states that changes planned for September 2024 include new early morning trips to serve VIA Rail departures, minimum 30-minute frequency during weekday peak periods on all routes, and higher service frequency on Princess Street, Gardiners Road, Bath Road, Bayridge Drive, and King Street/Front Road during the daytime period. 

These enhancements can be committed for September 2024, according to the report, as staffing within Kingston Transit is increasing with continued recruitment and expansion of operator training capacity.

The agenda from this meeting of Kingston City Council can be found on the City of Kingston’s council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in its entirety on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

Council meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month (except in July and August, when it meets once each month) at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at Kingston City Hall, 216 Ontario Street.

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