New technology should make on-demand transit better than Dial-a Ride: councillor

New technology should make on-demand transit better than Dial-a Ride: councillor


By COLLIN GALLANT on September 17, 2020.

A Hatter searches for her fare before boarding a bus bound for Crescent Heights on Wednesday afternoon. Medicine Hat Transit is set to introduce new “on-demand” service on weekday evenings in the north end that will see riders able to book a new range of pickup and drop-off points for Crescent Heights routes, as well as Parkview, Ranchlands and the Box Springs Business Park.–News Photo Collin Gallant

A new pilot program to offer on-demand transit service in Medicine Hat may evoke a feeling of deja vu, but city officials are stressing the difference and advantages of the new effort.

Starting in late September, riders on northeast and northwest bus routes will be able to request special pickup and drop-off spots on weekday evenings.

The program, run through a new computer app with a phone line backup, is meant to improve ridership, lower costs and help administrators map out route changes based on the data.

The same sort of service was offered, then abandoned, in Medicine Hat in the 1990s.

“Dial-a-ride” debuted in 1992 as a response to low evening ridership. It allowed Hatters to book rides at set stops in an effort to save money by keep empty buses off the road.

“It’s similar but there are significant differences,” said Coun. Julie Friesen on Thursday, who chairs the committee that oversees the transit department and the only current councillor to have served when the previous program ran its course.

“There is much, much better technology … and that will allow us to make adjustments and do much better assessment of data.

“It will be a change, but I think it has the potential to be much better for riders at a lower cost.”

The three-month pilot will allow riders on the northwest and northeast Crescent Heights routes, as well as new areas of Parkview and Ranchlands, essentially book rides to and from specific set locations (not just current stops) in evenings. Administrators hope it will add riders and help them determine new spots, while reducing costs by providing more direct routes and keeping buses from meandering on set routes in search of passengers.

Friesen stressed it is not “door-to-door” service, but should make for quicker travel times, and better coverage for people who rely on the bus.

Some current riders recalled the previous program on Wednesday and said they were excited for more details.

“I loved Dial-a-Ride,” said Donna Whittaker, a daily transit user who lives in the north end. She said she’ll use the new service when she has more information, and is most excited about service extensions (when requested) to the Box Springs Business Park, Parkview and Ranchlands.

“It’s about time. They should have had buses there a long time ago.”

The trial is set to run for three months. The app was developed through a federal grant program that covered all costs.

It will also allow those who request a pickup to track the bus’s location via a real-time map.

In 1992, Medicine Hat Transit launched Dial-a-Ride in an effort to cut in half the number of buses operating in the evenings when ridership was lowest.

Controversy seemed to follow the program however, as riders complained about a rigid booking process and missed pickups. By 1999, a protest committee had formed and News editorials called for a more predictable system of moving Hatters from point A to B.

Friesen said the two programs are not comparable due to the technology involved, and the city’s current willingness to get transit changes right.

In 2017, council made a special motion to revert to previous routes and hours of operation following changes that summer to save $600,000 from the budget that is largely covered from tax general revenue.

There have been repeated calls to increase revenue or reduce costs, but not at the expense of service.

Friesen said that a small-scale pilot in one area of the city could give direction and could be scaled up depending on the results.

“We’ve been looking at ways to improve transit for a while,” she said. “(During the COVID-related) slowdown, we really took the opportunity to really think about how to best cater to the ridership.”

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