Evaluating the Community Transportation Pilot Grant Program – Some Expected Results, Some Surprises

Date: April 10, 2018

Having worked on the pilot program for the past 3 years at MTO, I’m glad to be able to share some of my observations on the program evaluation and what I have learned... by Jeannie Lee, Senior Policy Advisor, MTO Transit Policy Branch

As the Ministry of Transportation’s (MTO) $2 million Community Transportation Pilot Grant Program came to a close this March 31, 2018, the ministry released the results of the pilot program evaluation and shared them on the OCTN website. The evaluation outcomes are based on information gathered from all 22 grant recipients, including results from a survey, project reporting information, and ridership and service data.

The evaluation has allowed MTO to assess the outcomes of the pilots and also for me to reflect on how the concepts underlying community transportation have worked.

At the outset of the pilot program, staff were uncertain of how the grant program would be received by municipalities. Even though the province had returned to funding municipal transit broadly since 2003 with proceeds from the gas tax, we knew that there were still a significant number of smaller, rural or remote municipalities that did not provide transit service to their communities. These communities tend to have low populations that may not provide the property tax base to support a regular transit service or cover large geographical areas that make it costly to serve. Despite these challenges, there is evidence from other jurisdictions with established community transportation programs that small communities often have local services and resources that could be coordinated to serve more people, if given the right support.

MTO launched the pilot program in November 2014 to test community transportation as an effective service delivery model, with two questions in mind:

1. Could a municipality with little or no service, use a community-based transportation delivery model, where they can define their own transportation needs and priorities, make use of local resources and partnerships in the community, to produce a service that met their needs?

2. Would municipalities that have not operated transit or have little experience in transportation service respond to a transportation grant program that required them to develop and operate a transportation project by working with community partners?

In answer to the second question, municipalities did respond and fifty-four applications were received from across the province, about half of them with populations under 50,000 (Slide 7 of the evaluation results) and most with no transit service.

To answer Question 1, the overall assessment of the program indicated the community transportation delivery model to be effective in serving areas that are hard to serve by traditional systems of transportation service, meeting all three objectives of the program (Slide 2). For example, based on the survey, all projects found that the program had a high or moderately high impact on improving the mobility of individuals who have few transportation options. According to the survey, 77% of pilots reported the program had a high or moderately high impact on increasing transportation capacity (more seats on the bus or more buses) in the community (Slide 17). The majority of pilots shared resources and assets to improve service. Based on project reports, the pilots delivered 105,297 passenger trips and served 28,831 passengers over a 12-month period (Slide 15).

The evaluation produced some expected results:

• That the most common project was a new coordinated service that was demand-responsive, using wheel-chair accessible vans with less than 10 seats or small buses of less than 30 feet (Slide 10).

• That most projects targeted their service to seniors (82%), persons with low-income (59%), and persons with disabilities (59%) (Slide 12).

• That the vast majority of community transportation services took residents to health and social services (89%), health care facilities (84%) and shopping (84%).

The evaluation also produced results that were unexpected and which point to the potential of a community-based approach to transportation delivery:

• The majority of projects provided intercommunity service (82%), connecting residents to other municipalities within a region or county, and some connecting into another region. This result demonstrates that residents of small municipalities need to travel beyond their communities to access needed services. An important aspect of the community transportation model is the flexibility to define the service area (Slide 13).

• Similarly, a good portion of projects (63%) connected to other transportation services, including municipal and regional transit systems, and other not-for-profit services, pointing to the potential of community transportation to form networks of service across counties and regions (Slide 18).

• When asked what was most effective about partnerships, 82% found strengthening the network of participating community organizations and other groups to be effective or very effective. There were other top responses that were not predicted, such as raising community awareness of other transportation or social programs (68%) and creating new partnerships and collaborations to deliver other projects or services (68%). These responses indicate that grassroots collaboration can have benefits beyond the immediate service objective, and can be an important part of community building (Slide 23).

Some of the assumptions made when developing the grant program came to fruition, for example that the most effective approaches to coordination would be in sharing human resources (75%) and in centralizing functions in transportation delivery, such as having one point of contact for trip bookings (72%) and centralizing information and referral services for multiple transportation services (72%) (Slide 21).

Some assumptions did not really pan out. We had assumed that using IT would be an important factor in helping communities coordinate multiple agency services, for example, by using a common IT platform for scheduling, booking or dispatch. Although a few projects did include IT enhancements as part of their project, and one initiative focused on the development of an online community transportation portal for partnering agencies, the survey results did not reveal IT to be that significant in delivering community transportation. Only 33% of projects found accessing technology or software to be an effective outcome of partnerships (Slide 23) and leveraging technology was ranked second last as an aspect that would help develop or sustain community transportation initiatives (Slide 24). It is likely that the funding and the time required to develop IT applications that would be truly useful to smaller transportation services were not available in a two year pilot program with a modest budget. Nevertheless, it remains an area that should be further explored.

It was also assumed that the sharing of hard assets, such as offices, vehicles, garages, computers, or the joint procurement of these assets would play a large role in collaborative transportation. With the exception of vehicles, such hard assets were shared by less than 28% of the pilot projects (Slide 19). As it turns out, it is the fundamentals of transportation service that were shared the most: staff, drivers, vehicles, and training - which makes sense.