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“Make sure nobody is left behind”

Why transit is a key element in creating a fair and equitable society.

When Jennifer Pennell-Ajie set out to help fix Fort Erie, Ont.’s struggling bus system in 2019, she instantly found herself up against a number of formidable obstacles. At the time, the town’s transit network was in undeniable free fall — ridership was down, costs were up — and, though nobody could predict it, the pandemic would soon make the situation much worse. Even the local geography was an impediment. Unlike other municipalities with distinct city centres, Fort Erie is made up of multiple pockets of urban density connected by rural areas. Designing efficient, extensive transit for the town had always been tricky, and the low-income residents who needed it most — seniors, students, recent immigrants — suffered its inadequacies the most.

Prior to tackling the town’s transportation woes, Pennell-Ajie had spent a dozen years working in social services, helping teens in foster care and newcomers looking for jobs. She understood, keenly, that if Fort Erie’s transit was going to work, it needed to work for everybody. “We needed to rethink transit,” she says “and figure out how we service our community better.”

That rethink went in an unexpected direction. With Pennell-Ajie leading the effort, the Town of Fort Erie began researching alternatives to its existing bus system. By early 2021, the decision was made to replace the conventional, fixed-route approach with a dedicated fleet of on-demand minivans. Ten months later, Fort Erie residents could effectively enjoy door-to-door service — all on a smaller municipal budget and with a much smaller carbon footprint. According to a study done by the U.S.’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost per ride decreased by 29 percent, and GHG emissions per ride were cut by 63 percent. Ridership also boomed: In 2019, there were 40,000 rides logged on the bus network; by the end of 2023, that number had more than doubled.

This transit miracle was made possible by a Toronto firm called Pantonium. Founded in 2011 by engineer Remi Desa and technology entrepreneur Khun Yee Fung, Pantonium builds software that optimizes a community’s vehicle fleet to meet rider demand in real time. While the proprietary algorithm behind the software is complex, its principle is simple: Through the company’s app or via a regular telephone, riders schedule a trip, indicating their desired pickup and drop-off times. The software uses map data and calculates the routes in real time to find the most efficient route possible. On-demand transit isn’t exactly a taxi, limo or ride-hailing service; depending on location, some riders can be picked up at their own doors, but just as often, they will need to walk to a nearby stop or a central hub. Those hubs are considered stops and can also have fixed pick-up times so people are able to board buses even if they didn’t book in advance. Riders also still share vehicles with other passengers. But ultimately, for customers, it means more convenience. For transit operators, it means running a more cost-effective, efficient fleet — vehicles no longer run without passengers, wasting fuel and weathering wear-and-tear for no reason. For both parties, it means a more sustainable, lower-pollution transportation option.

For all of its limitations, mass transit still works well enough in most Canadian big cities. For smaller ones, however, it’s almost impossible to get anywhere on a public bus in a timely or straightforward way. Those municipalities, of course, have been designed for cars and trucks, operating on the assumption that anyone who can drive will drive. Poor transit systems (and inadequate public investment in those systems) only compound that car dependency. But if we’re going to cut carbon emissions, we need to encourage the expansion and greater use of public transit. One 2020 report found that single-occupancy vehicles account for 23 percent of all GHG emissions worldwide, so reducing the number of individual cars on the roads can make a big impact. The best, and most obvious, way to encourage that is to make transit better.

Pantonium’s first attempt to do this was in Belleville, Ont. in 2018. The city adopted the company’s technology, replacing its single late-night route with an on-demand service that covered the entire city, so that people could access any stop on one bus without having to transfer. The pilot was startlingly successful: Ridership increased by 300 per cent, with the same number of vehicles able to cover 70 percent more stops. Belleville expanded the program, commissioning more vehicles to handle the increased rider demand. As the service got busier, Pantonium worked with the city to create a flexible hybrid network. Other towns and cities followed suit, with the company’s transit platform now deployed in dozens of North American municipalities.

Pantonium’s founders have justifiably touted the environmental benefits and cost savings that result from implementing its system. But there has been less discussion about the role this tech can play in improving equity. Simply put, access to high-quality, affordable, safe transportation must be a priority for a fair and equitable society, says Ignacio Tiznado Aitken, a postdoctoral fellow and acting director of Mobilizing Justice, a research coalition at the University of Toronto that is working to address transportation inequities. “The main reason you provide transportation is that it allows people to participate in society,” he says. People need a way to get to their jobs, school, doctor’s appointments and other facilities. If residents can’t afford a private vehicle, or are unable to drive, they must rely on a public transit system to access those things.

Pantonium can help by creating a more nimble bus network, which can service a larger area. While the technology can be used in big cities to make up for service and geographic gaps in existing infrastructure, it’s proven most effective in smaller areas with low population density and little public transit. It can extend existing networks, which was the case in Belleville, or, as in Fort Erie, it may replace that network altogether. “For rural and suburban areas, or even small cities, this is probably the future,” Aitken says.

That may be true, but arriving at that future is taking longer than Aitken or Desa would like. Many cash-strapped municipalities are wary of adopting new technological solutions, and are dependent on federal or provincial grants to fund innovative projects. A major factor in effective procurement, however, is soliciting comprehensive input from residents. “When planning and designing new interventions like on-demand transit,” Aitken says, “it’s so important to consult equity-deserving groups and see what they really need.”

It also helps to have a forward-thinking champion like Pennell-Ajie. She argues that, in the past, transit reflected the whims of the transit provider and the demographic running it. “It catered to men,” she says. “It catered to corporations. It catered to typical commuter-type things. It didn’t cater to women and children, it didn’t cater to the immigrant population, it didn’t cater to the service industry.” This was most apparent to Pennell-Ajie when the pandemic struck — when transit was suddenly cut, frontline workers who were obligated to show up in person suffered the most.

It was precisely these groups for whom their new on-demand system was designed. Every minivan has a bike rack, and passengers can strap in a car seat if needed. Two of the fleet’s nine vehicles are wheelchair-accessible. And the Pantonium app or website can be used to schedule rides, but Pennell-Ajie knew that many riders might not be comfortable with the tech. To accommodate their needs, a dedicated phone number for booking was established. (There’s also a free phone for riders at Walmart, the most popular destination in town.)

When people used the new system, Pennell-Ajie was delighted. But she was even more thrilled to see which people were taking transit. Students who work summers at the local zoo can now get there much more easily. Other students can now select co-op placements that require them to travel further afield. There are more and more seniors on board. A foster mom who was previously stuck with ferrying her teenage children all over town to activities can now just put them on different buses. And, while the bulk of riders are still from low-income demographics, middle-class residents are increasingly using the service — families eager to drive less or take transit if they want to have a drink at dinner.

While Pennell-Ajie cautions that no technological solution is a “one-size-fits-all” fix, she’s convinced that transportation equity is the one framework that will help build better systems. “That’s how we need to think of transit moving forward in our world,” she says. “Make sure nobody is left behind.”

Pantonium is one of eight companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.

Photo illustration: Monica Guan; Photo: Unsplash

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