Municipal authorities are not exactly known for being innovative in public transit provision. That’s what makes Innisfil, Ontario “revolutionary”, according to Ben Spurr’s article in the Toronto Star. But is its approach to serving low-density areas really that innovative?

Innisfil, population 36,000, recently partnered with Uber to deliver a service that combines the flexibility of ride-hailing with the public subsidies of municipal transit. The town subsidizes Uber for its residents, so they pay $2-$3 to travel to/from a list of common destinations like the Barrie South GO Station and the Innisfil Town Hall, or $5 to travel elsewhere in the town. They’re pooled with others using the UberPool service.

This is the first partnership of its kind in Canada, although Uber currently has 35 similar partnerships with public transit agencies around the world. It provides one solution to the pernicious problem of trying to provide viable transit service in low-density areas. Two bus routes would have cost the town $610,000 a year while the Uber partnership has cost the town $165,535 in its first eight months. The partnership provides a much more user-centered approach, like taxis and ride-hailing apps, than traditional transit where users have to adapt their travel patterns to fixed routes and infrastructure.

But is Innisfil’s Uber partnership really that innovative? There are lots of earlier models of public-private or public-cooperative partnerships: Montréal has been combining taxi services with public transit for many years, claiming they “deserve to be part of our transportation cocktail.” Société de transport de Montréal offers a shared taxibus option in low-density areas and integrates taxis for 88% of its paratransit trips. STM also gives transit card holders discounts with car sharing company Communauto and bike sharing organization Bixi. Dorina Pojani and Dominic Stead’s edited volume The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies (Springer, 2017) details many informal or private-sector transport services in places like Mexico (informal collectivos), Indonesia (Go-Jek), and Turkey (informal dolmus), some of which operated informally for many years before being adopted by the local transit authorities.

Critics warn that, like any public-private partnership, reliance on private companies to solve problems for public agencies can be problematic. Like other tech-centered approaches, there is the risk of municipalities becoming locked into a particular technology, product, or provider through contracts that specify them. Municipalities could be forced to pay ever-higher fees for a service, give up rights to any resulting data (e.g. on travel patterns), or continue with a partnership even if it ceases to yield benefits for them. And then there’s the more philosophical debate: does partnering with private sector companies allow transit authorities to pass the buck? Should they be essentially advertising the very same private sector transportation providers that many public authorities consider their competitors? Are private sector solutions “anathema”, as Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc (a TTC board member) would say? In Spurr’s article, Mihevc claims that “The ‘public’ in public transit is destroyed when public transit agencies start subsidizing private automobile use.” Indeed, a number of the authors in Pojani and Stead’s book seem to feel that any type of informal or private-sector transportation options are competing with public transit authorities for would-be public transit riders.

Integrating short-term pilot projects with contracts specifying the public benefits and evaluation methods before/after the pilot project ends could help. We’re in the era of the pilot project, with most municipalities unable to commit to long-term services without testing them first for economic viability and other factors like community acceptance. Studying existing partnerships STM’s long-term “transportation cocktail” will also provide useful insights for future partnerships aiming to serve areas or populations in a more user-centered way than they could before.

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