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Feedback Received at MTO In-Person Consultations on Intercommunity Bus Modernization

Date: September 19, 2016

During this past summer, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) held 13 in-person consultation sessions across the province seeking input on modernizing and reforming the intercommunity/city bus system. Something that was clear at all of these sessions is that Ontario’s transportation needs have evolved, that people are travelling in new and different ways, and that the intercommunity bus services and the regulatory environment have not kept up with the evolving landscape.

Below is a “collection” of the feedback that was received, based on summaries of the key themes that emerged from each of the sessions (To view all of the details from the summaries of each event, please visit: www.intercommunitybuson.ca/what-were-hearing):

Time and again it was emphasized that the needs of Ontario communities differ, and those of small, rural and northern communities are not the same as those found in larger communities or cities. It was also pointed out that there are real variations and inconsistencies in service depending on where you are in the province, as some communities don’t have intercommunity passenger transportation services at all. For this reason, most felt that any solutions needed to be tailored to meet the diverse needs of communities around Ontario.

A number of participants highlighted the belief that provincial government assistance is needed to help improve intercommunity transportation in small communities in the form of funding or subsidies, the provision of infrastructure and equipment and/or the integration of information. While there are many local programs and partnerships working to support passenger transportation needs (e.g., between municipalities, social and health services providers, community groups and the private sector), more are needed and the province could help to harmonize and align these services.

For instance, one opportunity could be to offer an online platform or portal, which would list all of the services and routes available within the province. This would be of assistance to both passengers and transportation providers. “Information hubs” could also be developed to share information with those who do not have access to online services. These portals and “hubs” would not only improve awareness of existing services and help connect users to transportation, but even provide route options and centralized booking services for operators.

It was pointed out that, while modernization has the potential to improve service in some areas, other routes would have to be subsidized to encourage operators to enter or even remain in the market. Many critical routes, in northern Ontario for example, are unlikely to ever become profitable or break even financially due to low ridership numbers and great distances. Therefore, long-term subsidies would be required.There were different ways suggested that subsidies could be provided, such as through vouchers for vulnerable community members, covering a portion of the costs of complying with any new safety and insurance requirements for smaller operators, capital investment funding for private operators or the franchising of critical routes. Overall it was felt that the government should carefully consider how any subsidies are implemented, including who and/or what to subsidize, in order to avoid unintended consequences.

Participants also voiced concern that modernization alone wouldn’t address the issue of a lack of connections between rural communities and main routes in much of Ontario. As a result, there would be a need for some level of oversight by the province. It was felt that solutions should focus on the consumer first, rather than revenue generation. For instance, in order to address gaps in service and isolation, the needs of northern and rural communities and users would need to be considered. These communities experience constraints related to infrastructure, weather conditions, and travel distances, as well as safety, affordability, accessibility and convenience.

While there is a provincial role in facilitating services, municipalities, community agencies, not-for-profits, public institutions and the private sector have roles to play as well. Gaps in regional transportation require innovative approaches to integrating services, sharing assets and determining routes and scheduling. Policy-makers should work closely with communities to leverage local knowledge and identify solutions tailored to their specific needs.

One innovative solution that that was suggested involves a brokerage model, which is currently utilized in the United States. There were also calls for improved connectivity and better integration with existing bus services and other modes of transportation, including rail, marine and air. Ideas were offered for connecting and integrating with carpooling and ride-sourcing services (such as Uber), as well as cycling.

Some went as far as to call for integrated and centralized public transit service provision throughout the province, like that in British Columbia. This could be established with local municipal governments and would provide a space where all services could be integrated and rolled out. Given that intercommunity bus transportation cannot be solved with a generic solution, it would be essential that all the key players work together to share information, resources and innovation.

Collaboration between existing public, private and volunteer organizations could involve mapping all available transportation, connecting to multi-modal services outside a region, and coordinating appointments. It would also require that the Ministry of Transportation involve other relevant ministries in planning and decision-making processes (e.g., Health & Long-Term Care, Community and Social Services, etc.). Connections with communities in neighbouring provinces and the United States could also be made.

In terms of licensing, safety and other regulations, there was a diversity of views on whether smaller vehicles (e.g., fewer than 10 passengers) and operators should be held to the same standards and regulations as larger vehicles, such as motor coaches. There were those who said “yes” that they should, and that policy changes should be made to “level the playing field”, while others felt that scaled requirements would be more appropriate. There was recognition of the administrative and financial burdens that may be placed on smaller operators, and that flexibility and hybrid approaches for licensing and inspection should be considered. Enforcement to ensure compliance was also identified as an issue. Overall, passenger safety was of utmost concern regardless of vehicle size and passenger load.

Finally, there was a call to link any consideration and decision-making related to intercommunity bus modernization to those initiatives outlined in the provincial Climate Change Action Plan. Participants also highlighted the connections between the availability of intercommunity transportation, local economic development and building healthy communities across Ontario.