By Lethbridge Herald on April 28, 2020.
Transit-on-demand and more stringent standards for who might be allowed to use Access-A-Ride were both up for discussion at Monday’s Community Issues Committee meeting at city hall.
The conversation around these subjects was sparked by Phase One of the KPMG operational report submitted to council back in November, which identified that the way transit service is currently offered in the city is expensive, and only recouperates about $3 million from fares and advertising revenue on a $13 million operating cost.
The same report also suggested Access-A-Ride in Lethbridge is over-subscribed compared to other similar sized cities who offer both regular accessible transit on city buses and the additional handi-bus service.
On the subject of the former, a report presented to the CIC by Scott Grieco, transit operations manager for the City of Lethbridge, showed the key to better service and lower costs could be to increase route efficiency and increase transit ridership by adopting a transit-on-demand system and a city link plan which streamlines and shortens existing routes.
The proposed system is both similar and not similar to the current transit-by-reservation service operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Transit-by-reservation is a lot different than transit-on-demand technology,” he explained to reporters after his presentation to council. “The transit-on-demand is an app-based technology that gets buses in real time to get their schedules to take orders (for service).
“Right now with transit-by-reservation,” he added, “we can’t book rides right away. We have to take phone calls, we have to take emails, compile all that; so it takes a significant amount of resources to put that together. And with the (transit-on-demand) technology, what that does is really take the administrative reduncies of accepting bookings, accepting schedules and amalgamating that. The other thing the technology does is it runs an algorithm where it takes the most efficient route which accommodates the right amount of people to the right place at the right time.”
Where it is similar is in the convenience it offers to riders who won’t have to wait and wonder when the next bus will come, Grieco said, and that allows buses to better compete with personalized pick up and drop off apps like Uber.
The biggest benefit you would have, explained Grieco, is you could eliminate regular routing through areas of the city that don’t have a high demand for transit service by replacing those regular routes with transit-on-demand.
Other cost-saving ideas presented to council were the option to drop the number of buses operating at any given time in the city, which would also increase wait times for passengers and reduce service, and also to potentially consider stopping transit service at 10 p.m at night, which would have repercussions for those who need to use transit for their evening jobs or night shifts.
Deputy Mayor Belinda Crowson reminded her council colleagues that transit service does recoup about 23 per cent of its operating costs, and noted that roads built in the city recouped none. Thus, transit service was technically more efficient on a cost-recovery basis than building infrastructure for single-vehicle use, she stated.
Coun. Joe Mauro supported by Coun. Blaine Hyggen wondered if staff had ever considered the possibility of privatizing public transit in Lethbridge.
City of Lethbridge transit manager Kevin Ponech confirmed his staff had not done so because it was not given any directive from council to do so. He said whether private or public, when a municipality offers any kind of transit service for its residents, it always comes with costs and trade-offs.
“Everybody’s viewpoint within the privatization within the services of the City of Lethbridge is we are always looking at the most efficient way to do business,” he stated. “When you do (privatize) there are a lot of trade-offs. You trade-off some control. You trade-off some flexibility, and everything has a price or a number.”
On the topic of Access-A-Ride over-subscription, City of Lethbridge transit system operations supervisor Michelle Loxton told council the reason Lethbridge saw higher numbers and costs is some riders who were using Access-A-Ride shouldn’t be using Access-A-Ride, which is supposed to only be for those who cannot use the City’s regular bus system.
She pointed out the City’s regular bus fleet was all categorized as “accessible,” and could accommodate most people with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs.
“There are more trips being done in not the right way … because all of Lethbridge Transit is accessible,” she said. “So changing our focus to ensure the people who are riding Access-A-Ride truly require Access-A-Ride, where their challenges are perhaps a little more severe, and they cannot ride our normal accessible transit on their own.”
To ensure only those using Access-A-Ride truly need it, Loxton proposed much stricter criteria on the types of disabilities which would be accommodated, which would mean interviewing current users to see what their needs are. The City could use an occupational therapist, she said, to determine on a case by case basis who should be using Access-A-Ride and who shouldn’t. That same occupational therapist could also train individuals who really should be using regular transit to transition them toward the regular bus service and away from Access-A-Ride.
Loxton was asked if hiring such an occupational therapist wouldn’t add to the City’s costs? And if she was worried about potential Charter or legal challenges if an individual was told they are just not “handicapped enough” to use Access-A-Ride?
“We haven’t said we would contract anybody full time by any means,” she responded. “This would be sort of a pilot project, but through our research–we have researched 21 properties throughout this operational review. And 67 per cent of them are already doing this. Their trips per capita or rides per capita are certainly lower than ours, and they do have more riders shifting off to their (regular) accessible transit system.”
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