In May 2017 the Town of Innisfil, located in Simcoe County, north of Toronto, launched a transit pilot project that was the first of its kind in Canada. In a response to the creeping suburban fringe of the Greater Toronto Area reaching its mostly rural landscape, the Town decided to launch its own transit system. But rather than make the investment of purchasing two buses, hiring drivers to drive them, and installing bus stops, the Town decided to take a different approach - they called Uber.

Requesting an Uber in InnisfilRequesting an Uber in Innisfil, image courtesy of Uber

Uber is a mobility service that allows users to request, via its smartphone app, a driver to pick them up at a pre-specified location, and drop them off at another pre-specified location for a fee. Critics, and the taxi industry itself, call Uber a taxi company, while the company and many of its supporters refer to it as a “ride-sharing service”. Regardless of the semantics of language, the Town of Innisfil opted to contract their transit service out to Uber, rather than operate their own conventional bus service.

The idea is that attempting to run a fixed-route transit service through such low density areas would almost certainly result in a significant operating loss, and attract little to no ridership beyond those who absolutely needed to use the service. Instead, the Town opted to subsidize each ride so that it was a fixed price to travel to various destinations within the Town. For example, a trip from wherever in Innisfil to the Barrie South GO Station, a major transit station on the north edge of the Town, is a flat rate of $5. Travel from anywhere to the Innisfil Recreation Centre is a flat rate of $3.

Origin & Destination Cost TableOrigin & Destination Cost Table, courtesy of the Town of Innisfil

This partnership is beneficial for all parties. Rather than running buses on a fixed schedule regardless of whether anyone is actually riding them, the Town only subsidizes trips that actually take place. For Uber, the driver and company still receive the same amount of revenue as they would from a ‘regular’ Uber trip, only the revenue is being generated from two different sources. And for the rider, they get point-to-point transportation for a predictable and relatively low cost.

The results thus far have been encouraging. Between May 15th and July 15th, the first two months the pilot was in operation, Uber undertook 4,868 subsidized trips, or an average of 79 trips per day. A report presented to Council detailing the initial results of the pilot concluded that “[t]he total costs after two months have been $26,462.41 for the town’s ridesharing transit service, while there would have been a $270,000 start-up net cost for one bus and $610,000 for two buses running along routes servicing only a small portion of the town. This strongly indicates that the cost of a fixed-route bus system to service all of Innisfil would have been far greater and a less convenient option than through the current ridesharing transit service.” The Town has yet to publicly provide another update on the pilot's ridership numbers.

Another advantage of this program is the data collection and analysis component. Unlike the vast majority of transit systems, which obtain ridership data through a combination of Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs), manual counts, and smart payment cards (Presto Card in the GTHA), Innisfil will have access to complete origin-destination data through Uber.

While the previous methods only collect data at a meta level (“X number of boardings at this location”), the detailed O-D data provided by Uber will allow the Town to analyze ridership patterns in far more detail. This will allow the Town to  see if there is a sufficient density of trip origins and destinations along a certain corridor, which could open the door to one day introducing a ‘traditional’ fixed-route bus service along it if the ridership warrants.

Given the initial success of this model, other municipalities, particularly those with significant rural or low-density suburban built forms, could potentially consider this model, either as an alternative to their existing transit service, or as a start-up model for a new service.