From left, Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson, Mayor Marvin Junkin, Director of Niagara’s GO implementation office Matt Robinson, and Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley during the September 2020 official service launch at the community centre. DON RICKERS

Public-private partnership to optimize rural service

West Niagara’s new transit program, a one-year pilot project that connects Pelham with the four corners of the region, was unveiled last Wednesday at a ceremony involving local politicians at the Meridian Community Centre.

Niagara Regional Transit (NRT) has partnered with Via Mobility to operate a ride-sharing service called NRT OnDemand, in partnership with local sub-municipalities. Passengers can book by telephone (289-302-2172) or use a smartphone app to arrange a ride within their area, or use the service to connect with a transit hub in Welland, St. Catharines, or Port Colborne to continue their journey.

Running near-empty buses throughout the region is expensive and ecologically wasteful, and small van, point-to-point pickups make much more sense, said Matt Robinson, head of Niagara inter-municipal transit working group and director of Niagara’s GO implementation office. “We’re quite happy with the numbers that have come in so far. We are excited about the type of service that’s evolving,” he said.

The program officially kicked off on August 17.

The vehicles are new Toyota Sienna vans, luxuriously appointed, with seating for eight, and bike racks on the rear bumper. Wheelchair access is available. Plexiglass barriers have been installed for COVID safety, and all travellers must wear a mask. The vehicle will be cleaned regularly during the day.

DON RICKERS

In his remarks, Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin heaped praise on Vickie van Ravenswaay, Pelham’s Director of Recreation, Culture & Wellness, for spearheading Pelham transit projects over the past several years. Pelham received grant money which helped see a steady increase in ridership.

“In 2019, Vicki got us more money, a half-million dollar grant over five years, and our ridership soared to 7,900,” said Junkin. He referred to the NRT/Via Mobility transit partnership as a “giant step” and a “game changer,” especially for local seniors.

In 2019, Vicki got us more money, a half-million dollar grant over five years, and our ridership soared to 7,900

Niagara Region Chair Jim Bradley remarked that the program is flexible and practical.

“We could have empty buses going up and down the streets,” he said. “But this program allows a personalized, reliable service for medical appointments or shopping at an affordable price.”

Pelham has a significant rural population, and the program was touted as a benefit not just for seniors without a personal vehicle, but also local students eager to travel to Brock University and Niagara College on a regular basis. Politicians are hailing the NRT OnDemand program as a blueprint for the future of transit in Niagara, and suggest it will be popular with residents in Grimsby, Pelham, Lincoln, West Lincoln, and Wainfleet.

The booking process is simple. Travellers select a pickup and drop-off location. Once a ride is booked, Via’s system matches multiple passengers headed in the same direction and directs passengers to a nearby corner, or “virtual bus stop.” Rides within Pelham are three dollars, while a lift outside of town is priced at six dollars. Drivers don’t accept payments or cash fares. Instead, riders pay in advance by credit card or pre-paid debit using the app.

NRT OnDemand service is available Monday through Saturday from 7 AM until 10 PM. Pickups generally occur at locations a short walk from a rider’s home. Children under 13 need to be accompanied by an adult during OnDemand travel. There are small charges for cancellation of trips once booked, and wait times can potentially be up to an hour.

Via had its birth in New York City seven years ago, and operates in the United States and Europe through a joint venture with Mercedes-Benz, using MB vans. Today it has 100 partnerships in 20 countries with taxi fleets, colleges and universities, and both public and private transit companies. According to its marketing materials, Via has “enabled a re-engineering of conventional schedules and rigid routes using smartphone technology.”

The partnership with Via Mobility is “taxpayer-friendly,” in that Via is providing the vehicles and drivers rather than this cost being borne by the public transit system. In addition to taking on the entire capital outlay, Via also handles all the logistics of the program, which it asserts helps keep fares low.