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The Higher ED Blog: Advice for starting a rural transit service

Michelle Madden / August 8, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Advice for starting a rural transit service

Elon Musk, the infamous founder of Tesla, recently released a Master Plan detailing his vision for the future of transportation. His goals include overhauling public transport with the use of autonomous and shared vehicles, which would provide door-to-door service. Musk doesn’t specifically mention rural areas, but clearly a low-density solution like this (assuming low cost) would fill a gap that is badly needed outside our cities.

Rural transit is becoming a more and more important issue as gas prices creep up, businesses and public services consolidate in larger centres, and an aging population loses its ability to drive. And yet, no matter how important rural transit becomes, it does not make delivering rural transit any less challenging. Communities and regions struggle to figure out the best routes and schedules to draw passengers, while working with very few resources and low user fees.

A few years ago, Karen Malcolm submitted a paper to the University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program that told the story of a rural transit pilot project in Nova Scotia. As the Senior Community Development Facilitator for the Strait-Highlands Regional Development Agency, she oversaw the project and as a result had many lessons to share with economic development practitioners in other communities with small and dispersed populations.

The planning stage

As with all good initiatives, the planning process started with consultation and collaboration. The Strait-Highlands Regional Development Agency formed a planning committee that included stakeholders from municipal and provincial governments, healthcare, education, community services, and other interested community organizations.

The committee commissioned a feasibility study to determine market demand for community transportation. A project team, funded through a Job Creation Program with Service Canada, consulted residents through interviews, focus groups, and a widely distributed survey. The results informed a business plan that was well received by the municipal units and funding agencies. The committee transitioned to a board format when the service was launched.

Strait Area Transit (SAT) 

Strait Area Transit (SAT) was created in 2008 with a mission to provide “safe, affordable, reliable, accessible, inclusive and green transportation” to five municipal units (two small towns, two counties, and a First Nation reserve). The service area was over 1,500 square kilometers and had a population of just 15,500.

Based on the feasibility study, SAT launched with one 22-passenger bus and two 7-passenger vans (total cost: $200,000). Operations were kept lean with one full time general manager, one office administrator, and four drivers.  The operating budget of $360,000 was funded through ridership fees, Service Nova Scotia ($1.60 per capita), the municipal units ($1.60 per capita), acquired contracts with Community Services and the School Board, training subsides, advertising, and fund raising (see table).

SAT operating budget

To maximize use of the system, it provided five types of services: 1) a scheduled route on week days, 2) a door-to-door service available during down times, 3) a freight service, 4) a charter service, and 5) a contract service.

Results

Remarkably, projections were quite accurate and SAT attracted 1,000 riders per month after the first year. These riders were mostly seniors but also students (particularly of the local community college) and patrons of literacy and transition to work programs.

In the years since Karen submitted the paper, Strait Area Transit has had good and bad years. By early 2015, it had expanded the fleet to five buses and five vans (Halifax Transit donated two 12-seat, wheelchair accessible buses at that time). Later in 2015, SAT expanded with a route into neighboring Victoria County. Unfortunately, the route was cut last month due to low ridership. Staff speculate that the schedule designed with community college students in mind was too early for other riders. Then this month, SAT announced intentions to cut door-to-door service in one of its original counties by two-thirds. That particular service was losing money every month and the municipality refused a request to cover the shortfall. Despite these recent challenges, Strait Area Transit continues to operate. It served 13,500 in the last fiscal year.

Advice for starting a rural transit service

While the planning process and pilot went well, Karen still had lessons to share as well as advice on starting a transit service.

First, she highly recommends taking the time to research other models to get a sense of the options and what’s working in other communities. Regional transit associations are good sources of information and provide great networking opportunities. Since every community is different, starting with a needs assessment and feasibility study is critical to find out if there’s demand, and if so, where to put the routes. The right model for your community will reflect the community’s needs, and allow for continual input and participation from stakeholders.

She also highlights the importance of building and maintaining relationships with many stakeholders. The board needs energetic people who are genuinely interested in being champions for the project. Their energy will draw funders (who must be many and diverse) and other partners necessary to make the system sustainable. As an example of the latter, SAT formed a win-win partnership with the local school board. The school board provided driver training and maintenance and repair of the vehicles, while SAT increased the pool of casual drivers and helped move children in hard-to-reach areas.

Finally, Karen recommends starting small and building up the service through good PR and client relations. Frequent and positive updates about the service in the media and other channels can help keep it top-of-mind, which will encourage ridership and ad sales, and will assure funders that the service is making a difference. Even more importantly, there needs to be easy feedback channels for clients/potential clients and systems in place to incorporate their feedback. Even the most enthusiastic champions and funders will lose interest if the public doesn’t use the service. Make sure they’re happy and the rest will fall into place.

 

About the authors

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program.  She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

Karen Malcolm is presently an Account Manager at Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and has past experience in community development positions with the Municipality of the County of Inverness, the Strait Highlands Regional Development Agency and Development Isle Madame. Karen has worked with a wide range of businesses, enterprises and public sector organizations. Her work has helped entrepreneurs and community organizations to create region-wide partnerships, plan new ventures, advance projects and start new enterprises. Karen is a Certified Economic Developer through the University of Waterloo and has taken APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) Training for Small Business Counsellors through the Acadia Center for Social Entrepreneurship (ACSBE). She and her family live on beautiful Isle Madame, Nova Scotia.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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