Putting the Bus Stop in Your Pocket

An Ontario city is testing an app that lets residents hail a bus to a certain stop. Could it change the way cities of all sizes run their bus fleets?

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A pilot project that lets transit riders summon a bus on demand could change the way transit systems in North America run their bus fleets.

Belleville, a city in Eastern Ontario with a population of 50,000, has debuted an app that lets users hail a bus to a list of preset stops, like they would an Uber. Belleville Transit partnered with Toronto-based tech company Pantonium to solve the technical and mathematical challenges around optimizing routes for on-demand pickup and drop-off.

This ride-sharing model makes use of existing transit infrastructure while providing the fastest way for riders to get where they need to go. Instead of buses driving around in fixed loops, hoping to pick up riders along the way, the app maps out flexible routes for drivers to follow that can efficiently bypass unused stops.

For the first six weeks, the pilot is covering a late-night bus route, with one bus pairing with the app, and another running the standard route. This will ensure that riders can still access transit during the transition period when some users might not have the app, or while problems are being worked out. Thereafter, both buses will be converted to on-demand service.

Pantonium’s app sorts through information on bus location, traffic conditions, and user pickup and drop-off requests, processing the data in real-time to recalculate routes. This is a massive mathematical challenge, and one that will grow as more buses and more users are added to the mix.

If successful, the pilot could expand to cover more routes, including daytime routes. The city also plans to integrate payment into the app.

While fixed routes work very well in popular high-density areas, low-density areas struggle when the lack of flexibility takes largely empty diesel buses in wide circles to unused stops. On-demand service would reduce unnecessary wear on vehicles and reduce wasted fuel. This could be a huge step in modernizing a fairly risk-averse service.

Bigger cities might also find on-demand bus service useful on less dense routes as a way to shuttle riders to denser areas.

The project hopes to attract greater ridership by providing faster pickups and shorter travel times.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.