Yes, bring on the short, micro, tiny mobility
One of the problems with encouraging people to switch from personal cars to mass transit is that sometimes, mass transit just plain sucks.
If you happen to be near a rapid bus line (or metro, or light rail) that takes you near enough to where you want to go at a decent pace, yes of course you’ll take transit. When visiting Washington DC this spring I deliberately picked a hotel in Rosslyn, near Arlington Cemetery, because I know there’s easy access to the metro there and sure enough, in 20 minutes you’re on the Mall without having had to navigate traffic or finding a parking spot. It works brilliantly. That’s my fav spot whenever I go there, because you have plenty of jogging paths (including Roosevelt island), you get decently priced accommodations and normal food joints.
But this isn’t a travel guide.
Where I live, in Nepean, I see the 82 bus often, turning from Greenbank onto Craig Henry, or vice-versa. Early morning and late afternoon, it’s a busy enough route. But most of the time outside those peak periods, that bus is nearly empty. Why? Because it’s not going anywhere fast. it snakes around.
What if, instead, you had a bus that just went up and down Greenbank/Pinecrest every so often. It would have fewer stops along the way but it would drive on a reserved lane and go reasonably fast. You could get from Strandherd to Carling in, I don’t know, 10 or so minutes. On each of the east-west roads along the way (Strandherd, Fallowfield, Hunt Club, Baseline, Richmond, Carling) you’d have a similar rapid-ish bus. None of those buses would go sideways into residential neighbourhoods.
Yes, yes, I know. You need coverage in residential neighbourhoods. Stay with me. We’ll get there.
For now, imagine all those buses that snake around slowly near houses aren’t there. (Enjoy the quiet.) All you have are buses going up and down big arteries on reserved lanes. If you’re going, say, from the Loblaws at Strandherd and Greenbank to the Civic Hospital, you take one bus down Greenbank to Carling, then another bus going east on Carling and get to the Civic in 25 minutes or so having taken only two buses.
(Now try the same route on the OC Transpo trip planner, are you getting anything comparable?)
So. Imagine the city crisscrossed with rapid buses that just go up and down bigger streets, but fast. You still keep the express routes to Kanata and Orleans and such, the ones that work well during peak hours. And of course you have light rail and the O-train. What you don’t have anymore are those snaky slow tedious routes that take forever to get anywhere and that are empty most of the time.
But what if, say, instead of starting from the Loblaws on Strandherd you’re starting from your house at Half Moon Bay a few kilometres from there? Say you don’t wish to, or can’t, walk or bike that distance. Say it’s raining. Or you have a stroller and a toddler, or, well, it doesn’t matter. Walking or biking are not practical and you need a vehicle.
What if you could call a minivan or minibus the same way you call Uber, and what if that vehicle were to take you to the big bus stop next to Loblaws and not cost you more than the single fare you’re already paying for the bus trip to the Civic. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Seattle has been experimenting with such a system, sort of like Uber but part of the transit network. They’re early in the experimentation phase, but so far the number of trips significantly exceeds what planners were hoping for.
Launched in April, the service connects transit riders with light rail and bus lines. Southeast Seattle has little east-west bus service, which makes it difficult for people to reach the north-south-running light rail line by bus.
“We’re making it easier for people to access light rail and our buses,” said Casey Gifford, Metro’s Via project manager. “It is also about broadening access to [ride hailing] for populations that haven’t generally been able to access them.”
Via is a private company contracted by Metro to provide the vans, drivers and technology. The $3.2 million, year-long operation is funded by $2.7 million from Seattle’s transportation benefits district levy, a $350,000 Federal Transit Administration grant and $100,000 each from Metro and Sound Transit. Four months into the pilot project, Metro has collected enough data to get a sense of whether the subsidized rideshare is working.
It’s far too early for the agency to declare victory, but so far, the service has exceeded Metro’s daily ridership goals and served up more than 70,000 total rides.
Via users order a ride through the app or by calling a service center at 206-258-7739. Users connect with a driver and are usually directed to walk a few blocks for pickup. All rides on Via have the potential to be shared rides, similar to UberPool or Lyft Shared, so the app tries to route the driver on the straightest line between pickups and final destinations.
Rides cost the same as taking the bus: $2.75 for adults, $1.50 for low-income riders with ORCA Lift cards. Rides are paid for with ORCA cards or the Transit GO Ticket app. Users can also preload ORCA cards in advance with cash — an effort to increase access for people without smartphones and banks — but the drivers cannot accept cash. Via has 18 vans in its fleet, some of which are wheelchair accessible.
I know I talk big. That’s nothing. I dream way bigger. I also know people are scared of change, because, well, change is scary. But the City has, as one of its goals, to have the majority of trips in this city be active transportation (walking, biking, transit) and right now, the transit system just isn’t cutting it. It’s long, tedious, often unreliable, it’s unpretty, there’s nothing to do at transit stations (nothing to browse, buy, look at, few bathrooms), it’s expensive and overcrowded. For people who have options, it’s not an attractive choice at all so those who have a car keep driving it. Yes, LRT. Yes, it’s going to get better. But not fast enough.
It’s important to look at what’s being done elsewhere and be prepared to experiment. Maybe take one area of the city and try a service like Seattle’s Uber-like on-demand micromobility. Try rerouting certain buses so they’re faster. Don’t make people snake through neighbourhoods. For the matter of that, why have big buses run near homes at all? Yes of course there needs to be coverage in residential areas. After all, that’s where people live. But does “coverage” necessarily mean “big heavy stinky loud nearly-empty buses”?
Micromobility suggests something flexible, convenient and nimble. Maybe it’s time to use those words when thinking about how we can get more people to leave their car safely parked at home.