Adapting to COVID-19: How Belleville Responded with On-Demand Transit
April 30, 2020
Host: Luke Mellor, Marketing Director at Pantonium
Guest: Paul Buck, Transit Manager at Belleville Transit
Transit agencies are facing significant challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. Agencies are required to balance how to adapt to the new reality while continuing to provide sufficient transit service.
Paul Buck, Transit Manager for Belleville Transit, joined us to discuss how his agency is successfully utilizing on-demand transit to respond to the crisis.
- How Belleville Transit first integrated on-demand transit and how they were using it prior to COVID-19
- How the COVID-19 crisis affected Belleville and how the transit service was able to rapidly adapt to the new circumstances
- Why switching fixed route service to a completely on-demand service made perfect sense for Belleville
- What did Belleville Transit learn from the fully on-demand transit deployment?
- In a post-COVID world, what opportunities are there for on-demand service to improve and advance public transit?
Check out this article for a more in-depth look at Belleville’s switch to on-demand transit and how they mitigated the effects of COVID-19.
You can watch the webinar’s video replay, listen to the audio, and view the transcript below.
View the presentation slides here.
00:05 Luke Mellor: Just thank you, everybody, for coming. My name is Luke Mellor. I’m the Marketing Director for Pantonium. And with me today is Paul Buck, who is the Transit Manager for Belleville Transit in the city of Belleville in Ontario. And today we’re gonna talk about the last month and a half essentially of what Belleville has done to manage the COVID-19 crisis. They took a pretty unique approach to the emergency, and I think will be of interest to anybody who is interested in transit. And we’ll be able to, at least, learn from their experience, and then also discuss what’s going on in the future. So, just a few housekeeping items. We’re gonna hold a Q & A after the… At the end of the webinar, essentially, and so hold your questions then. But there is a Q & A box in Zoom that if you have a question during the talk, just feel free to shoot a question in there and we’ll go through them all at the end of it. And also, somebody from Pantonium is watching that, so they can maybe answer a question or two if it’s a simple one just via that chat.
01:22 LM: The agenda today is we’re gonna talk about about Belleville Transit before COVID-19, we’re gonna talk about their response and basically the timeline of their responses as basically March unfolded, and we’re gonna talk about why and how Belleville switched to on-demand transit during the crisis. Some of the operational results, ’cause basically they’ve been running on-demand with Pantonium for about a month now of fully… And discuss a few lessons we’ve learned from this deployment, and then talk about the future, and then of course the questions, Q & A. So, with that, Paul, I have a slide with just some stats about Belleville, but maybe you could give us an introduction to Belleville Transit, and maybe talk about the project that we’ve been working with you on since 2018, that initial on-demand service for the night bus route.
02:21 Paul Buck: Absolutely…
02:22 LM: Just to give some people some background before we get into what happened in March.
02:26 PB: Absolutely. We’ve had the Pantonium product now for about two years, and we were running our late night service on-demand. When we initially launched, we had two fixed route buses that used to run a large loop around the city of Belleville from nine o’clock at night until 12:30 AM to look after our employees that were getting to and from our Northeast Industrial Park area and to get them to work. But what we were finding is that we were only carrying about 35 or 40 passengers a night, and it just wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t… It just wasn’t practical, it wasn’t working efficiently. But when we launched the Pantonium on-demand product, our ridership responded immediately. We saw a 300% increase in ridership within the first month of operating the service. And we were operating same number of vehicles, same infrastructure, running about the same number of kilometers, often less, but carrying upwards of 300 or 400 passengers a night rather than the 35 or 40 that we were carrying before. In that service we’ve been operating until March 19th of this year, when we decided with the COVID-19 situation to flip to on-demand for our full service during the pandemic.
03:52 LM: Yeah. And so, let’s go into that initial stage. I think all the transit agencies that are on this call are probably going through the same kind of response and have been dealing with the same type of challenges in that March period. I think it was that second or third week of March where everything became real for everybody. And I know Belleville went through several steps in your response, so maybe you can walk us through that timeline of how you responded to the crisis.
04:32 PB: Yeah. Our ridership, it started to dwindle. About the second week of March we started to see our ridership start to slide a little bit. But it only took until around the 19th of March, I guess, or just before, when our ridership just completely dropped off. And then it only took about 48 hours to go from a half-decent regular daily ridership to almost non-existent. And we started to take a look at how we could provide the same level of sort of the same hours of service, but maybe decrease some of our cost in operating the service. So we started working with our Economic Development Manager at the City of Belleville and stayed in regular conversations with some of our Industrial Park employers that we knew were gonna be deemed as an essential service, ’cause they’re in the food service or something similar, to find out what their hours of work was gonna be and what we could anticipate for ridership so that weren’t missing anybody. ‘Cause our sole purpose once we decided to start decreasing our level of service was to maintain the essential services, essential trips, to get people to and from work, to and from our hospital here in Belleville, and to and from grocery stores when they were needed.
05:50 PB: So then we started taking a look at when these rides were gonna be and we quickly realized that our service still had to operate from 5:00 AM until at least midnight to get everybody to and from their shifts at work, and to and from home. And in order to do that, then we started taking a look at, “What are the options? How can we do that?” Because at the same time we were also eliminating cash fare or payment on the bus so that we could maintain safe distances for our drivers. We implemented the rear-door entries so that we didn’t have anybody coming past the drivers, or maintaining that social distance as best as we could. And we started capping off seats so that we were limiting our ridership on board. And all of this had to be taken into account and consideration so we could decide the best service to operate. And so we started looking at our options. Do we run an hourly service? Can we run…
06:48 PB: How can we set this up to make the most amount of sense with what we had. And our daily ridership was down, at this point, to basically what we were seeing in our regular night service. We were down to almost 200 passengers in a day, and we were carrying more than that at night in two and a half hours of service with on-demand. So it was a pretty quick decision that the best way in order to cover the full regular service hours from 5:00 AM until midnight was gonna be with on-demand. But then, we had to take a look at where were our peaks and valleys. We started to look at when people were riding the bus, and we noticed we had two peaks. We had an AM peak starting right at 5:00 AM that ran till approximately 9:00-9:30 AM. And then we had a second peak kick in, which was actually higher than our AM peak, around that 1:00 until 3:00 in the afternoon, the switchovers at the factories when everybody was going in and coming home at the same time.
07:46 PB: So then we started looking at, “How can we provide the best service, give our drivers a break so that they’re not working as many hours as they have been because they need that social distancing as well, set up our sanitizing, spread out the workload as best we can?” ‘Cause the other thing we did not wanna do was to have to lay off any drivers. So we wanted to maintain our full driver count of 34, not have to lay anybody off, still paying them their 40-hour a week, but spread the work out so that it was shared and balanced and even. So then we started operating on-demand. It just made perfect sense. We started, we reached out to the employers in the area, gave them a heads up three days ahead of time that we were gonna switch over to the on-demand, and we also made sure we had four different ways for people to book their ride. We set up the email through transit that anybody could email their ride requests in. We set up the customer service phone line that we maintained so they could phone their rides in through the day, weekdays, Monday to Friday, 8:30 AM-4:30 PM.
09:01 PB: We had the computer portal that we’ve always had from day one that they could book through. And then we also had the app for Android and Apple based phones that people could book through. So we sent that information out, we did up the press releases, we hit our social media accounts and let everybody know what was happening, that this is the way we were gonna go, and also to encourage that we were there to provide essential trips only. We didn’t want people just riding the bus for entertainment purposes, or to get out for any social events. We were there for employers and employees and people that needed groceries and appointments, that type of thing. And then we launched, and we were quite surprised, again, at the number of people that we had that took full advantage of it. It’s been well received. Our ridership has maintained steady between that 200-250 a day. But I noticed this week, we’re starting to creep up. We’re getting…
10:03 LM: Yeah, the numbers went up quite… I think today is your highest number yet, and it’s probably going to keep going up.
10:09 PB: Yeah, yeah. And what we have to do with that now is we have to keep an eye on what we have for service, because what’s happening is a number of our employees that are riding the bus to the industrial park are telling their friends about, “Hey, you know what? This is working out excellent, and it’s doing really well.” Then I see that our increased ridership is pretty much all to the industrial park. So with the Pantonium product, we get regular reports that we can go in and check. We can see time of day, we can see all the information that we need at our fingertips to decide how to redistribute the service. And we’ve done that a couple of times, and already just we can slide shifts ahead or back and make sure that we cover those peaks and valleys as best we can.
10:57 PB: And another thing that we have that we really like with the Pantonium product is we can control the number of people on board through the booking. We can state the number of riders that can access each vehicle. We’re not pulling up to a bus stop and saying, “Well, we can only carry 10, sorry. You’ll have to wait for the next bus”, or to call somebody in. Through the app, we set the cap at eight mobility, one… Or eight ambulatory, one mobility, plus a driver for our total of 10 on board, and then the system will start automatically scheduling those bookings to another bus. So that takes that difficulty off our hands, it’s all done automatically. And it also allows us to control which buses are in and out of service so that we can maintain our sanitizing and track which buses have to come in and which buses are good to go.
11:51 LM: And I also noticed that in response to the spikes in demand… In that first week, I think it was on the March 27th, when we first had that launch, you started with three vehicles. And that’s down from when you had something like 14 vehicles covering a whole city, down to three. But I think what we realized very quickly was that those three vehicles weren’t enough in the face of the demand. So the very next day, I think, you already had scheduled another vehicle to cover, and then the lateness and cancellations goes down pretty much as soon as you can flip that new vehicle onto the service. So that flexibility, did that help respond to this kind of changing circumstance? Compared to a fixed route which, I think, as everybody knows, is a much more static and… If you change a fixed route even a little bit by adding or taking away a vehicle, suddenly the service changes quite a bit. Is that…
12:56 PB: Absolutely. With the on-demand we have that flexibility to the customer service side of it. They see the improvement, but they don’t know how or how many buses or how the service has changed to affect that. They just see the fact that their ability to book a ride is there, and they’re on time and they get to where they wanna go in a reasonable amount of time. And we did. In our first week after launching the daytime on-demand, the response from our riders up to the industrial park was substantial because it was convenient. And it certainly didn’t hurt that we’re still not accepting cash fares, or fares at all through the…
13:37 LM: Yeah, yeah. Free ride is nice.
13:39 PB: So that spread pretty quickly. So our ridership peaked, actually, right after we launched the on-demand, it rose up a little bit. So we adjusted, and we could do that on the fly, almost instantaneously. All you have to do is put another bus in the service and put them into the system. So we’ve actually increased our daytime operations now. We have a total of five buses in our AM peak, six in our PM peak, and then through our quiet times it reduces down to three, and then late night service now is really quiet so we’re down to just a couple of buses to cover the late night. Now, traditionally, under our regular service we were running 27 buses a day total, with 13 at the peak. And now we’re down to 11 buses a day with six at the peak, which is almost… It is a 58% decrease in the number of vehicles that we’re using in a daily basis, and still covering the same service hours from 5:00 AM until midnight, and not having any unaccommodated trips. We’re still accommodating every request that comes onto the system.
14:52 PB: We do actually have mid-day and early evening time where we actually have buses that are looking for work, or they’re sitting. But we’re not gonna take them out of service ’cause now that we’re seeing this increase in ridership again they’ll be picking up shortly. Now with the decrease in the number of buses that we’re putting on the road in a day, our numbers of kilometers per day are dropping as well. We were traveling roughly 4000 kilometers on a weekday, and we’ve dropped that down now to just over 1500 kilometers in a weekday with the number of buses that we have out there. Over the period of a week, we have a 60% decrease in the number of kilometers that we’re covering in a week as well. And still, that 5:00 AM till midnight, we’re still covering the entire city, every bus stop, with that decrease. And then again, our total operating hours in a day. Fortunately, it doesn’t affect our budget because we’re still paying our drivers their full 40 hours as a matter of principle from the city’s side of things.
16:00 PB: But we do have a 64… Almost a… A 64.8% reduction in the hours per day that we’re putting out in service, but still covering that full term of the day, which has helped a little bit. Which in turn, because we have fewer vehicles, we’re driving fewer kilometers, the one thing that we can count on being reduced is the amount of fuel that we’re using as well. And that’s down… Our usage of fuel is down about 60% with the introduction of the on-demand service as well. So we are losing revenue through the fare box ’cause we’re not collecting fares, we’re still paying our drivers their wage, but some of our expenses are going away in that our fuel usage is decreasing. And we’re also taking advantage of this time, with the number of buses that we have that we don’t have to run in service, to get some maintenance done too. So it’s working out well.
16:56 LM: So, I guess you were in the enviable position of… Every other transit agency in North America and the world pretty much has had the same crisis of plummeting ridership, having to manage social distancing. Do you think that having an on-demand tool in your tool box as a transit agency is necessary just in the back pocket for every agency to have something like this so when the next catastrophe happens you’re ready to switch off? So is on-demand something that maybe you don’t need it in the daytime when everything’s running normally, but… Do you think Belleville was in a better position because you were running that pilot project at nighttime and were able to switch very quickly over?
17:53 PB: Absolutely. With having on-demand there, ready and ready to go, it made that entire transition from a regular full operating service to on-demand, and to help us better set up for social distancing and to be prepared for our customers. Rather than having to do additional education to the passengers about number of people on the bus and how do we have something else prepared in case there’s more passengers than our social distancing will allow with the 10 on board… Do we have buses sitting ready to go? How does that work? With the on-demand, that made it all very, very easy because you set the number of passengers that the system can book on a bus, you see your daily bookings, you know when you’re gonna get your peaks and valleys.
18:49 PB: So it set up the social distancing much easier for us. The ability to schedule a bus and schedule a time, again, is done on the fly, it’s done easily. The transition, in reality… Once we decided that on-demand was the way to go, once we got the information out to the public and prepared our drivers, in reality, now that we know the drivers are aware and we know how quickly we can notify the public, this can be done in literally a couple of hours. We can go from full regular service to on-demand and be functioning well without any issues. What we have looked at now that we’ve had the opportunity to operate on-demand on a full day, is how easy the transition could be when we go back to regular service for our off-peak hours.
19:44 PB: We can run our regular fixed route service through our peaks when we know that we have, or will have, passengers going to the college or going to work. We know when those key times are now, we can start looking at running earlier morning service on-demand until ridership builds up to the point where we have to go to our fixed routing, go to the fixed route for that set time a day, and then during our peaks and after peaks, pre-peak and post-peak, we can go back to on-demand and cover the same amount of area with fewer vehicles and still be able to meet our goals and our requirements. So that’s something we’re taking a very close look at. When we first start to ramp back up, initially it will just be back to our regular daytime service. But when we were doing our service review that we’re kinda working on now, that’s absolutely gonna be a part of it, how we can bring on-demand into a more regular part of our service.
20:50 LM: And I know you touched on this briefly, and I’m just gonna share some data that we’ve pulled from the system. And maybe we could talk a little bit about the operations now that you have about a month of running this under your belt. I know… So this is your response slide essentially. Now you have five or six vehicles covering the whole city at your peaks. And one thing that we’ve noticed is the convenience factor for the riders. And I know it’s a free trip, as you’ve said, but also it’s a direct trip now. And I think that’s what we wanna focus on when it comes to on-demand transit and how it makes the commute much more convenient sometimes. And I don’t wanna slag your fixed route network, and I think the fixed route network of Belleville performs very well compared to a lot of cities. I think you can get around pretty much anywhere in the town.
21:53 LM: But what we’ve been able to do is compare a commute in a daytime, which we never had the data for, for a fixed route service versus the on-demand service. And so we’ve pulled a few trips here and there in the system. So in this case it’s from Victoria to Walmart, which I know Walmart is the hot destination in Belleville, it’s number one stop. And in this case there were a few different ways you could access the trip via the fixed route network, but all of them required a transfer, essentially, and they took at about between 30 and 40 minutes to take. And what we’ve seen in the on-demand service trips, you have maybe a 20-minute ride time plus an average of a 10-minute wait, and no transfer. So these types of trips… And I don’t know if you’ve heard from the riders, but are these types of… Or is this change in the service level and the convenience of that, is that being noticed by the riders? Have you heard any comments on that? Or you just seen them vote with their feet by increasing the use of the service?
23:06 PB: We are hearing that from a lot of our workers in the industrial park, not so much our Walmart. It’s going down a little bit now because we’re only doing the essential trips. But our workers that are coming from all over Belleville to get to that Northeast Industrial Park, we’re experiencing exactly the same thing. Depending on where they lived in the city, it was taking them 38-40 minutes, sometimes an hour to get to work, but now with the convenience of the on-demand, they’re booking their ride at 5:00 AM or 5:15 AM and they’re at work within 20, 30 minutes at the most. And I think that’s another reason we’re starting to see that boost in ridership, again, for on-demand is because it’s convenient. We can get you from anywhere in the city to anywhere in the city with no transfers in almost 50% to 60%, 40%… Between 40% and 50% quicker than we could with the fixed route service. And another benefit to the on-demand now that we’re running essential trips only is we can see where the trips are going from and going to. So we have the ability, because everybody registers with an email address, if we start to see somebody that looks like maybe it’s not an essential trip, we can send an email and say, “Just a quick reminder that we’re operating for essential only. And appreciate it if, if this isn’t an essential trip, if you could cancel it or change your ride mode.” And that’s helped us there a lot as well.
24:40 LM: Interesting, that is an interesting use case. And here’s another example, and here’s an example where the fixed route beat out the average time, and that’s the Concentric. And I know they’re a great partner of yours, that those… And even we’ve had employees from Concentric in their other offices emailing us and ask for the service in Oshawa for example, because they like it so much in Belleville. Now I think let’s… I have some lessons that we as a team have learned at Belleville, or from the Belleville experience in the last month, and I’m sure you’ve already shared a lot of it. But I think I can just run through this really fast. And the coverage and the efficiency of the coverage when demand is low, it’s clearly been proved. And I think if you’re running an empty fixed bus because there’s no demands, but you have to run the empty fixed bus, the best thing you could do is just park that bus.
25:40 LM: And I think that’s what Belleville has been doing in that if there is no demand and you still wanna keep that bus around ’cause you don’t wanna leave anybody stranded, why not just park the bus somewhere strategic and wait for the trips to come to it, and you save on gas. And I think that’s, as you said, has been proven as something. And then the flexibility of the supply of vehicles I think is another key thing. So yeah, if you get a lot of trips and higher demand and you start to see decline in service, if you’re getting late or long wait times, you can immediately add a bus to fix that. And I think this is something that we’re still working on, is adding more automation to the entire process. So worst case scenario, if this social distancing practices have to continue for six months, I mean, fingers crossed that it doesn’t, transit agencies might have to have even more stringent controls on interacting with drivers. So for instance, if somebody boards a bus now in Belleville, they can still ask the driver to… Or if you were to collect fares once again, can you automate that process so people don’t even have to hand a physical card to a driver?
27:05 LM: So I think there are still some things that we can do to improve the automation of the process to completely eliminate any human interaction. And then, as we were talking about, the commute time reduction is a big potential. Obviously, when there’s very little demand you can get away with having a better service. So I think if we tried this in normal circumstances you would need a lot of vehicles to provide the same level of service for your normal runs. But in times like this or at night times, I think the on-demand can edge out the fixed routes in terms of serving commuters. Is there any other lessons that you’ve learned from running it for about a month now in terms of how to manage with the COVID crisis and also just on-demand in general?
27:57 PB: We’ve always believed that there was gonna be some benefits to the on-demand at certain times a day, and like you said, at off-peak or at lower ridership times, but this has been an excellent opportunity for us to actually put it into practice and see it for sure. Now we have the numbers. Now we can put things together and say, “These are the benefits, this is the savings, this is how we can improve our service for our customers during the off-peak times.” We still have, and we’ll always have, the demand for certain core routes that have to be fixed because we know the volume, back and forth to our college in particular, our North-South route to our Walmart, of course, is our second number two destination. And then some of our locations along the way, like Concentrics, the one route that was quicker on fixed rather than on-demand, is because it’s on the college route. So it’s gonna see that increased level of service, but a higher ride volume as well. But other areas, once we start to operate north of our 401 into our rural area, and some of our lesser densely populated locations right in town, we can serve those less expensively and better with an on-demand service than we ever could with a fixed route. And we’re also taking a look at, right now our specialized services, our door-to-door service for mobility, their ridership is down 90 plus percent as well.
29:37 LM: Oh, yeah. Really?
29:38 PB: We have an opportunity, we could tie all of these together. We could do door-to-door service with on-demand utilizing conventional transit, or vice versa. We have that flexibility on the fly to combine the services and cover the biggest number of passengers using the least number of vehicles as we have.
30:02 LM: Yeah, para-transit, that’s the… I think that’s another interesting thing about this project, is when most people consider demand response or on-demand services they think of para-transit. And what we’ve seen here, and this might be a unique project in that it’s conventional transit through and through. It’s large buses, it’s the commuting, it’s daytime hours, peak hours, but it’s on-demand. So it’s a very different thing than the traditional… Yeah, you have your para-transit, specialized transit service, which is door-to-door and only by request, but this is your commuters. So that is an interesting… And then, of course, the opportunity of merging those two together, I think that’s the holy grail of making transit sustainable, at least fiscally and in your operations. Paratransit is a millstone around every transit’s budget.
31:01 LM: So any way to minimize those costs and still keep the service at the level it needs to be, that would be a great opportunity. And I think now let’s talk about the future of Belleville transit. I know you guys just got some big funds for new buses. It’s an interesting time to get new equipment, but where do you see transit in general going in the next six to 12 months? Assuming this crisis is gonna linger around, but also it will be mitigated, or the intensity will be reduced, your demand is gonna go up but you’re still gonna have to have social distancing principles. So what are transits gonna do in this transition phase, so to speak?
31:52 PB: Oh, I wish I had a crystal ball.
31:54 LM: Yeah.
31:57 PB: As everyone is, we’re hoping that this corrects itself soon and we can come back to some semblance of normal that we’re all used to. But we are prepared if this continues, we’re starting to look at how it’s gonna roll out. I think there’s been a substantial awakening in the transit industry that the exchange of cash fares and the exchange of tickets is probably not a good idea, and we’re gonna see a concern from our customers to go back to that. How do we give them the confidence that we can collect fares without that contamination or risk? And just to get people back on board the bus, I think there’s gonna be some concern with safety there. And I don’t think we’re gonna randomly choose a day and say, “Okay, we’re good to go. Let’s start on such and such a day and be fully operational.” I think, it’s gonna take some time to ramp up. And I think we need to take a look at how we deliver our services and how the customer wants us to deliver our services moving forward. I don’t think normal is gonna be as normal as we’ve had in the past. I think the new normal is gonna be regular social distancing, changes in how we communicate directly with our customers onboard the bus, how we board.
33:31 PB: And with this technology of on-demand, like we’ve said before, this already puts us in a good spot to continue that, but be able to grow our service back up, but still maintain some of those expectations of social distancing and technology and how we book and how we board passengers. With the new equipment that we just purchased, our four new buses, these are the first brand new pieces of equipment that we’ve purchased in 10 years. So we’ve ordered them set up with the technology that we think will continue us down that path of the new normal, that the technology of on-demand will work well with, and we’ll be able to continue to serve the customers in the manner they hope to see. And that’s the real thing with on-demand is it’s a substantial change in how you look at the service, because we’re not telling people how to use the service or how to get to where they’re going, they get to tell us. We decide how many pieces of equipment and how many hours we’re out there for, but the customer decides how it gets used.
34:47 LM: Yeah. And how do you think this is… For all the… In terms of what the government can do and also what the private sector can do, how can transit be helped? ‘Cause I know recovering from this is gonna be slow, your budget has been… You guys have probably thought of your budget last year, and suddenly you have to throw all of that away. What can be done to help transit? Is now the time to lobby for more funding, or is now the time to… Some people might be saying scrap it all and replace it with taxis. So how do we fight those people or the ones who wanna just replace it all with Uber in the end?
35:35 PB: Uber and taxis, they will not be able to supply sufficient demand, or to meet the demand of ridership. And in order to do that the number of cars on the streets would just be astronomical. Public transit is always gonna be required, there’s always gonna be the demand for it. There’s no other service that’s there that can move the number of people that transit moves in a day the way we do it. And most systems, or all systems, do it as efficiently as they possibly can. This isn’t… It’s not something that we set out to lose as much money as we can on, we set out to move as many people as we can as efficiently as we can. So I don’t know that… Yeah, our budget, because we have zero revenue generation right now and we still have the expenses to operate the service, while we could absolutely benefit from some sort of a government subsidy to cover this current loss, but I think more importantly, moving forward, it’d be an ideal time for federal and provincial governments to look at how they can set up a regular distribution of funds to operate public transit so that if this ever does happen again we have the reliance of some income to continue operations without reaching into the hole too deep as we are right now.
37:06 LM: Yeah, okay. And I think, just in terms of question, there was… Oh, we had 25 questions, and I think we have about 20 minutes. So I think we can try to get through some of these. So I’m gonna just pull up the questions now and we’ll go through them. And, oh yeah, it looks like… I’ll pick the ones that are liked the most. So the first one is from Jason Yani. “Do you have thresholds in place for when fixed routes would make more sense than on-demand?”
37:39 PB: We do.
37:39 LM: Oh, yeah. Okay.
37:41 PB: Yeah. That’s the one thing that we’re always looking at, is at what point does the tip occur when fixed routing meets or is better than the on-demand? And that for us is when… It’s a matter of number of buses. If we get to the point where we have to use seven on-demand buses to cover the area and cover the demand, when if we situated fixed routing and could cover that with fewer vehicles, that’s the switch. So the threshold for us is number of vehicles as opposed to number of passengers.
38:23 LM:38:23 LM: Interesting, okay. I didn’t even know that. [chuckle] Good to know. Next one is from Jeremy Dacosta. Hi, Jeremy. So he’s asking, “Hi, Paul. Does the app track the number of unfilled rides? So in other words, do you have any points where the demand exceeds bus supply and trips are not able to be completed?”
38:43 PB: It does. It doesn’t… We see it from the operational side. We’ll get… We actually, it’s been a very long time since we’ve hit that.
38:51 LM: Yeah
38:53 PB: ‘Cause we do fluctuate the service in order to meet the demand. But the passenger will get, and we get on our system, it’s recorded as an unaccommodated trip. But what Pantonium product is excellent at doing is it is constantly trying to improve the efficiency of the service. So it may flash as unaccommodated now, but depending on if somebody’s cancelling when that trip comes in, it’ll get accommodated very, very quickly, and it gets shuttled in. But it does, it does track if there’s anything that’s unaccommodated, but we haven’t seen that in our daytime operation of on-demand at all, and we haven’t seen it with our nighttime on-demand since July of last year, or this year.
39:37 LM: Yeah. Just to add to that, I got an interesting stat from our support team on how… Basically, how it does that, exactly what Paul described, is in Belleville’s case, in an average day I think it’s running about 2.6 million iterations of plans. So every time a new trip is added it’s running thousands and thousands of iterations in order to fit that trip in. So even if it can’t immediately be accommodated, maybe there’s a cancellation, or maybe a bus gets rerouted, or maybe the system finds that needle in a haystack in the course of the iterations to get that trip built. And that’s how we can keep the accommodations so high. So the next question from Wilhelm, “Do you think there’s any part of the technology that is being used for your on-demand service that could be implemented and useful for your fixed service when it returns?” And I think you covered this a little bit in talking about filling in the gaps, filling in those low density areas. I think the ward two example, so that northern rural area, and also the off-peak. Is there anything else that this would be useful for, or maybe for planning or any of that kind of thing?
40:49 PB: Definitely for planning. Any time we take a look at how we’re looking at our service or are doing anything, we always look at how on-demand will fit in. And I think the biggest part of on-demand that we’re gonna see the use of the technology for is another thing I mentioned, is the combination of conventional and specialized or para-transit. That inclusion of everybody on one bus being able to book the same way on-demand, they don’t have to do it ahead of time, that’s gonna be the big technology merge with on-demand that I see coming up.
41:27 LM: Okay. And next question from Luke Richard. “How did the use of on-demand affect your scheduling protocols? And what about the union? Any challenges?” And I know that I get that question all the time, “What do the unions think of this?” And I think you have a great relationship with your union, so it may not be applicable to all transit agencies which may have more trouble with this.
41:49 PB: Yeah, we do. We have an excellent working relationship with our Union, and we always make sure to maintain that as best we can. So before we made the switch to on-demand full-time days we sat down with the union and asked for their opinion and input on it, as well as how we were gonna do it. So what we ended up doing is because we weren’t gonna lay anybody off, everybody was gonna maintain their regular pay, we sat down and took all of the fixed routing and the bid that we had currently and set it aside and just put everybody on spare board and split up all the duties. Our sanitizing is done by our drivers as well as the driving. So everybody just kinda went to spare board, they pick by seniority and choose their work and away they go, and that helped a lot. When we very first launched on-demand, the Union was a little bit worried because this is a completely different aspect in how we do things.
42:51 PB: And they were afraid that it was gonna be an efficiency project where we started to reduce service because we had on-demand. When we sat down and started to work with them and explained to them, “What we’re looking to do is actually grow the service with on-demand, not reduce it”, so that when we went down the street… Right now our fixed route goes down the street, turns right, picks up one person, and then goes seven or eight, nine, 10 stops and doesn’t get anybody. With the on-demand, every single stop they go to will have somebody there. So it’s gonna increase our reliance on drivers and the ability to run our service. So they are very supportive of it now that they see that it’s actually an increase in business, and it somewhat protects them and the industry that we do.
43:41 LM: Okay, yeah. And the next question from Winnie. “How are bus drivers responding to the switch to on-demand service? Does it require additional training to those who used to operate fixed routes?” So I think, in your case, you trained a lot of people up? And again, that was why you’re fortunate that you had it in the first place, but…
44:01 PB: It does require some training. It’s all operated… From the driver’s side, it’s operated through a tablet, an Android-based LTE tablet. And it only requires two or three taps on a tablet at every pick-up. It’s very easy to use, it’s fairly intuitive for the drivers to understand and know what’s going on, so the training time in it was very quick. It’s about an hour for driver and they’ve got it. It’s pretty easy to use.
44:32 LM: Okay. And question from Caroline. Hi, Caroline. “How does Belleville promote this service to increase passenger usage tenfolds?” So I’ve been thinking about this too, because how do you… Imagine you’re releasing a new service, and in a pandemic do you hand out pamphlets to people on the bus? It’s a tricky thing marketing in this day and age.
45:00 PB: It was tricky to market, but we’ve got, again, an excellent communications program set up with Belleville. So we have the ability to push it out through all our social medias. We got information out to all of our regular media, radio, print, in the city as well. But the benefit to the Pantonium product, because we already had it, is everyone registers with an email address. So we have all of our regular users’ emails that we could also push out emails to and say, “Just be advised, we’re switching to on-demand for all of our service, and this is how to use it.” And then by setting up the additional email option for booking a ride and to set up our own call center, customer service call center, Monday to Friday, to book rides by phone, that helped a lot as well. And we still do that. We regularly… Every couple of days we’ll push out some more, “We’re still operating on-demand”, media information just to keep everybody going. And we also, because we knew we only wanted to operate essential services, our economic development staff reached out to the industrial park employers that we knew were still gonna be operating, and provided them bulletins to post in the workplace.
46:21 LM: Okay. This question from Phil. “For you Paul. Pantonium sounds like a big win for riders.” Thanks Phil. “How was the transition for internal operations?” And I think maybe you covered this in the other questions, but did you receive any pushback from anybody in the organization internally to buy into the changes so quickly? ‘Cause I know it was a very rapid change.
46:42 PB: We did move pretty quickly. The benefit to Pantonium is that it’s predominantly completely autonomous. Once our supervisor puts in the number of buses for the day and the drivers for the day, the system operates entirely on its own. Which was the benefit to us when we first launched our pilot, because our service doesn’t have dispatchers, and we didn’t have supervisors on in the evening when the service was run. So the best part of it for us was that we didn’t need people other than the drivers and the customers. So it was a pretty easy transition. Once the drivers got on to the fact that there was no more fixed routing and they didn’t know where they were going from day-to-day, until they got used to that, then it was a little bit okay because it wasn’t as redundant. And they saw the benefits, they saw the passengers on board the buses. Rather than driving around empty all night, they were driving around busy, they were full.
47:50 LM: Okay. Let’s see, from Will Towns. This one just got uploaded the most. “Before the pandemic were you moving 300 to 400 passengers per night on the late night service with two buses, or did you have to scale vehicle numbers up to eventually meet this demand?”
48:10 PB: We had to scale up. The most recent number of vehicles that we had on the road for our late night was five. Back in July, we had to make the decision. We were seeing… That’s when we started to see our unaccommodated trips show up on our late night service, and we were getting some complaints from customers that the rides were taking too long. So in July we made the decision to go slightly less efficient, but better on the customer service side, and increase the number of vehicles on the road. Which opened up additional spots for ridership, it took some of the pressure off of our drivers. They didn’t have the push to constantly be as busy as they were. And the customers were seeing easier to book trips and shorter trips. So it was worth the choice.
49:05 LM: Okay. And this one from Brian Harvey. Hey, Brian, I hope things are all well with you. “How early are riders required to book their trip?” And that’s an easy one, I think.
49:15 PB: Yeah. They can book their rides in advance in multiple trips. So if you are an employee working in the industrial park, and you have your schedule for the next two weeks, you can implement it for the next two weeks or beyond. If you are at work and you have a trip booked, or something happens and you need to go home, we have the ASAP option as well, where you just go into the app, you book your pick-up point, your drop-off point, and request the bus ASAP, and it’ll schedule it to you as quickly as it can. And right now we’re looking at about a 10-to 12-minute wait for the ASAP trips.
49:53 LM: Okay. And from Tristan. “Normal… ” Sorry. “Do you have strategies to nudge people on how to enter the bus and where to sit?” So I’ve seen plenty of examples in Toronto doing this. But yeah, I wonder what Belleville is doing.
50:08 PB: Yeah. We just don’t open the front doors. We only open the rear doors when we pull up to the stop. The front doors have a sign that states rear door boarding only. But if we pull up and somebody’s there with a mobility device and need the ramp then we bring them in through the front door. On board the bus we have every other seat is taped off and signed so that they can’t use it.
50:31 LM: Okay. And… Okay, one from Brian. “Can the system integrate on demand with fixed route as to create timely transfers between the two?” That’s something we haven’t actually tried in Belleville, yet.
50:44 PB: Theoretically, yes.
50:48 LM: Yeah.
50:48 PB: That’s what we’re gonna actually look at when we launch in Ward 2. We are gonna tie in our Ward 2 on-demand service with our daytime fixed routing down south of the 401 in the city proper. So we believe it will. There’s no reason to believe it won’t. From what we’ve looked at and what we’ve tested, we think it’s gonna work really well.
51:14 LM: Yeah. And just to add to that, we have… All you need as a transit agency to do that integration with us for the fixed routes and the on-demand is GTFS data. So the system will pull in the GTFS data of the fixed route service and then the system will give that to the riders and show, “Okay, this is when the buses will arrive at that bus stop.” And you can just pick that time and it will coordinate an on-demand drop-off or pick-up at that time when the fixed route is gonna be arriving. So next question from Tristan. “Normally less than 20% of the nodes serve over 80% of the passenger… ” So nodes would be stops, I suspect. And, “Did you incorporate a strategy based on this or did you follow a more agile strategy?” I think that’s… The system does that audit, that’s the…
51:32 PB: It does.
51:32 LM: On-demand is agile, that’s the point. So I think Walmart and your employment area, the industrial area, probably gets 80% of the trips now, probably more.
52:24 PB: More currently. When we first launched, and still is, we just have every bus stop in the city of Belleville is able to book a trip to. And the Pantonium product itself does that scheduling. So the service… The nodes are operated the same as they would be through the fixed route service, it’s just we don’t use anything other than what’s booked. So they’re all available, but if we don’t need them, we don’t use them. The service looks after that itself.
52:58 LM: Okay. And then next one from William. “What is something you wish you had known or learned before adopting this on-demand strategy either for the pilot or for the current pandemic response?”
53:14 PB: I wish we had known about it and had it sooner.
53:17 LM: Yeah, nice.
53:20 PB: It’s the technology that we’ve always been looking for, anybody that’s ever run Dial-A-Bus in the past or anything similar to that, and we always said, “This would be great if we could make it more efficient or if something would schedule it better.” And that’s what this does. It just… I haven’t seen a single opportunity in our service where it doesn’t have a possibility of fitting in and working. Yeah. For me, the only wish I had is that it’s just always been here. I’m just glad we have it now.
53:55 LM: Yeah. And I think just… That’s a great answer, Paul. One thing we did learn is never underestimate the demand, ’cause I think both in the initial pilot, we didn’t expect that kind of demand, and I think we were surprised by that.
54:11 PB: I was horribly surprised by that because I was…
54:15 PB: Being a transit person, things don’t happen quickly. When you start a new service with transit you anticipate that it’s gonna build slowly over time. You expect that when it launches it’s gonna take a while for passengers to catch on to it, become accustomed to it, get used to it, and start to trust it, and then start to grow. Literally, from the first night of service with on-demand, the passengers started showing up. And it grew in days to where I thought it would take years. It’s just been fantastic.
54:51 LM: So a question from Michael. Hi, Michael. “Did Paul say 300 to 400 passengers per night?” With three questions marks.
54:58 PB: I did. I did. Yeah. We went from 35 to 40, to 300, between 300 and 400 in our busiest nights. Yeah. And it took no time at all, the customer response to the on-demand. And we started… When we first started talking with Pantonium we started putting out a news release about every six months that we were looking at the system, and we were moving forward with the system, and we were anticipating its release. And then when we did release it we didn’t do as much marketing as I would have liked to have done, and it turns out we didn’t need to because the public was more than ready for it, they were anticipating it, and they reacted and responded immediately to it.
55:43 LM: Yeah. Another question from Tristan. “Did you enter any edge cases that increased risk?” So that could mean… I guess edge cases, things that didn’t… I guess normally a fixed route service is pretty predictable, right? An on-demand service, I suppose the buses are going everywhere, anything could happen, or a lot more could happen. Have you had anything like that?
56:14 PB: We really didn’t. We knew that with on-demand we could be more agile, we could change things more or less on the fly. So we just monitored it and were ready for it. We didn’t really test anything, we just went live to see what would happen. And everything’s been pleasant, pleasantly surprising so far.
56:39 LM: Yeah. A question from anonymous. “Is the service still fare free? If yes, is there a transition plan to return to fares?” And I think you touched on that, but maybe you can expand on that.
56:52 PB: Currently, we are still fare free in Belleville, and we are waiting for the provincial emergency measures to be removed, and then we’ll start to look at how we ramp back up. We are prepared to launch a mobile pay service right now, where you can pay through your phone. So that will be incorporated when we ramp back up to avoid that transfer of tickets or cash. But should be… The returning to cash fares for us will be as easy as it was to turn it off. We’ll just start to advertise that, “Effective such and such a day we’ll be, again, collecting fares through the service.” But we’ll also run that cushion of time, probably three or four days, till everybody gets back in the swing of things and has an opportunity to load up all their fare media or to purchase fare media and get back into the routine.
57:55 LM: We’ve hit one o’clock, so I think we’ve… We still have a few questions. There is a few questions I just wanna hit just on the administrative side. Somebody asked if we’ll be sharing this after. So yeah, we’ll share a recording and also the deck of the webinar after. So if you signed up and attended you’ll get a recording. Other than that, I think if anybody is interested in learning more about this, feel free to reach out. We’ll be following up with the outcome of the webinar. Paul, is there anything you wanna end on? I’m sorry, everybody who asked a question, we just ran out of a time. Is there any last thoughts or anything you wanna plug yourself, Paul, while we have you here?
58:23 PB: No, actually. To everybody out there that’s running a transit operation right now, I wish you all the best of luck and I look forward to getting things back into our normal. And reach out. If you have any more questions or if there’s anything we didn’t address here and it’s piqued your interest, send me an email or give me a call and I’ll do what I can to help you out, for sure.
58:23 LM: Alright. Well, thank you, Paul, so much. This was great. I learned a lot. I hope everybody else learned something today. And do please stay safe. And hopefully, soon we’ll be back to normal. But if… Hopefully, on-demand transit from Pantonium can help now, or can help in the future. And with that, I’ll leave it. Again, we’ll be following up with the recording. And if you do have any questions, feel free to either email myself or Paul, as he said. So anyways, thank you everybody for your time and have a great rest of your week.