Bowen Island, B.C: On-demand Bus Pilot 2019

Bowen Island Pilot

Between July 15th and September 15th this year we saw the first on-demand bus pilot, available to all residents, in action on Bowen Island, British Columbia. For two months throughout the Summer, residents of the small island of the coast of Vancouver had colourfully clad, chauffeured buses at their disposal as part of Translink’s TapRide Pilot. movmi was a collaborator on this project from it’s inception. In our role as liaison between the different stakeholders: TransLink, First Transit, Bowen Island Community and TappRide, we were responsible for the project management towards the launch – with a particular focus on technology and operations. We were in charge of operational setup, the training of drivers and community engagement people. Keep reading to understand more about the this pilot and to learn why and how this service was integrated into Bowen Island’s transportation infrastructure.

Do you need help getting a similar project off the ground? To read learn more about the services we offer, to make an initial inquiry or to book a consultation, click here.

Bowen Island, B.C: On-demand bus Pilot 2019

why bowen island?

Bowen Island

Buses tend to operate on fixed routes with infrequent schedules in many parts of Metro Vancouver that have a lower population density. As transportation demand is lower than that of a big city, recently, on-demand mobility services have been seen as a way to reduce the cost of transit while improving the customer experience.

Bowen Island is a small community located northwest of Vancouver, B.C with around 3,600 residents. The community currently has three shuttle routes operated by First Transit Canada. The local residents rely strongly on the BC Ferries service, water-taxis and personal vehicles to commute and travel every day. The population is steadily increasing on Bowen Island and therefore the the transportation infrastructure has become strained due to the sprawling-built form and topography. One major issue with transportation on Bowen Island is that the bus schedules are heavily based around the BC Ferries schedule.

On-demand mobility is a combination of regular public transit services and personalised taxi services. They are used where traditional public transit services are lacking, not cost-effective, or to cover the demand areas. On-demand mobility has also been used as a method of solving the first/last mile problem for both cities and smaller communities. Since communities in similar situations turned to on-demand solutions, TransLink agreed to explore this new delivery model. 

On-Demand case studies

For on-demand transportation to be successful, a high level collaboration between transit operators, technology providers, municipal officials and transit users is necessary. There are many on-demand services available, a few of which are:

Public-private partnerships (P3’s)

Public/Private partnerships allow transit authorities, local municipalities and private companies the chance to collaborate on mobility schemes would usually never happen due to competition within the industry. P3’s ensures stakeholders collaborate on cross-purposes regional priorities through partnership-based agreements which aim to benefit all parties. It also acts as an accountability tool to enforce regulations and address feedback. By sharing responsibilities equally among the partners complex problems can be solved faster and more efficiently, however P3’s need a lot of financial and human capital and require a longer project timeframe to allow for everyone involved to share their thoughts and concerns as a project develops. An example of a Public/Private Partnership is Belleville Transit and Pantonium.

Transit Agency & Technology Vendor: Belleville Transit & Pantonium

Screen Shot 2019 10 04 at 13.57.46

Belleville is a small city in eastern Ontario with approximately 50,000 residents. In 2018, Belleville Transit launched an on-demand service for its night bus routes. Through the use of an app customers could request a bus ride with custom pick-up and drop-off locations, rather than the traditional fixed route system. During the pilot, Belleville Transit was able to double ridership on the night route due to technology benefits from understanding transit demand patterns. Booking, scheduling and navigation were all completed through the app since there are no available customer support agents during the evening.

Throughout this scheme Belleville partnered with technology vendor, Pantonium – a tech company based in Toronto. This partnership solved transportation issues while reducing the technological burden on the transit agency. Currently, Belleville is aiming to expand the pilot in 2019 to daytime service as well.

Key take-aways from the Belleville Pilot

  1. Understanding when and where on-demand services would be most useful: On-demand transit is a better option for people who live in areas that are rarely travelled. In bigger cities, particularly in downtown areas, too much demand requires higher frequency and more fixed routes. By using data generated by the pilot project, Belleville Transit was able to use origin-destinations data to analyze trips which allowed them to alter their service so that it would be better utilized by residents.
  2. Flexible and robust technology to handle trip request: Not everyone wants to call or use an app to ride the bus. Also, as populations grow, residents don’t always know about pilot projects or upcoming service changes. Therefore, the technology must accommodate riders on an ad hoc basis. This pilot’s approach was to change operations as little as possible, to ensure continuous service.
  3. Automation is critical for both routing and on-boarding: Since the on-demand service is deployed for night time routes, the service must run accurately and autonomously. To reduce the burden on operators or dispatchers the system uses QR code to identify riders. This process can also assist public transit agencies to set up automated payments while preparing for a future of driverless vehicles.
  4. Use the infrastructure you’ve already got. Belleville Transit operates 14 buses and has a network of bus stops in its district. Incorporating current infrastructure such as fleet or facilities can reduce the cost of projects and simplify planning.

Private Enterprise

Private enterprises can complement and augment an existing infrastructure such as public transporatation, or it can compete, causing public transit ridership to fluctuate. The operational advantage with private organizations is that their low overhead cost and flexible fleet/routing allow them to fill gaps in public transit. End users benefit from this model since they can track, pay, and retrieve information in real-time. However, these private enterprises also run the risk of creating additional mobility inequalities (such a pricing) when competing with public transit operations. An example of a private enterprise is Chariot Shuttles. 

Micro-transit Operator: Chariot Shuttles in multiple cities

chariot columbus

In 2014, Chariot launched in San Francisco with four buses and by 2016 it has grown to 50 buses operating on seven different bus routes. However after being acquired by Ford Motor Company, in January of this year the company stopped all operations.

Chariot was unique because it operated routes based on crowdsourced feedback on their website. Routes were considered to be viable if at least 60 people purchased rides. The advantage with Chariot was that it could get a route up and running in a matter of 2-3 days. Chariot partnered with Ford Motors to incorporate fleet vehicles which accommodate up to 15-passengers.

Similar to other on-demand services, user downloaded an app to sign up. Then, users have the option to buy pay-as-you-go, multi-ride packs, or monthly passes. The company did provide wheelchair accessible service with at least one day’s notice. In San Francisco, Chariot had over 80 drivers and 13 office workers. The company was also operational in Austin, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Detroit, Lake Tahoe, LA, New York and Seattle. Before shutting down operations, Chariot served about 700 to 1,000 people per day. In comparison, SF bus lines serve over 33,000 riders a day on average.

Ultimately was caused Chariot’s downfall was its versatility in creating new routes. Commuters need reliable and consistent services which is not also available through micro transit options.

Key take-aways from CHARIOT SHUTTLES

1. Competing Interest between public transit and microtransit: When microtransit operates on-top of existing public transit, it creates tension. The best way to reduce this competition is by using microtransit to compliment public transit by linking commuters to existing infrastructure like a rail or bus-rapid station.

2. Lack of schedule or route consistency: The majority of on-demand services have no fixed routes or schedules. From a consumer perspective the lack of reliability makes microtransit unsuitable for the majority of commuters.

3. Reducing cost to provide service (labour, operational, and capital cost): Microtransit operators have the same challenges as transit agencies; they had vehicles driving around with few or no passengers.

4. Evolving routing decisions by computers. Computers are smart, but they don’t have the intuition of planners. Even though they are very complex to model and optimize, the real difficulty stems from predicting behaviour of clients – to provide more reliable service.


It is clear that on-demand service can thrive in several environments, but it is important to realize that depending on area, each place will have its own unique set of problems/issues. Therefore, choosing the right on-demand service is vital. Generating the highest passenger load per trip requires planning, which can be simplified by the use of technology to monitor demand patterns and habits of commuters.

Since Bowen Island is a small community with finite activities, planning for mobility needs could be simplified by reliable data. By knowing when and where events are happening, or specific recreational hot spots, on-demand service can be customized in advance to ensure the system captures the highest volume of trips per day and per direction.

Use the infrastructure already in place was a recommendation for Bowen Island. Since the BC Ferries schedule is fixed (and residents heavily rely on it), buses on Bowen Island should also remain fixed routes to ensure travellers can catch corresponding ferries. This would mean services remaining consistent and reliable throughout the pilot. By acting as a link, an on-demand service could utilize the current network (buses, schedule, routes) while still increasing ridership, and reducing the need to drive into town to catch a ferry ride, or to use public services.

As the case studies demonstrated, on-demand services tend to operate with 9-15 passenger vans (wheelchair support available) as they serve low-density areas. Examining the type of vehicle fleets required beforehand could reduce upfront and operational costs.

Finding a technology vendor who understands public transit constraints is key. On-demand technology vendors vary and so does the way their systems dynamically-route vehicles. However, some systems are better suited at integrating fixed routes, bus schedules and other important inputs required by transit agencies. Some vendors may not have the expertise or experience required to cater to transit operations.


bowen island

The pilot project ran between July 15th and September 15th and as recommended, did not affect regular scheduled bus routes on Bowen Island. This broader service followed a beta test that ran earlier this year which also used the TapRide app, allowing customers to reserve seats ahead on time.

This recent pilot had two “on-demand concepts.” On weekday evenings users could book a ride, only from the cove to another location, so all rides had to start in the cove (one-to-many). On the weekends, users could request rides from anywhere to anywhere within the designated service area. The pilot overall saw 1,947 boardings over 1,201 trips. There were also 1,686 TapRide accounts created over the course of the pilot.

“One in every five taps was in the on-demand shuttle during the on-demand operating hours on weekdays according to Compass tap data… On weekends (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) this number increases to almost 36 per cent of all taps.” – staff report to the Mayor’s Council on Regional Transportation

The report also noted that Bowen’s summer transit ridership averages at 6,200 boardings a month and that the app-collected user feedback was mostly positive scoring an average of 4.7 out of 5 for reliability, 4.2 for ease of use and 4.7 for overall experience. Residents and users of the service were encouraged to fill out an online survey that asks for suggestions, moving forward, with this app-based on-demand service. This is an encouraging sign, hopefully marking the beginning of a full-time on-demand being implemented across the region.

we can help

Note: This article has not been endorsed or sponsored by any of the providers mentioned and there is no affiliation between movmi and them.

Struggling with profitability of your shared mobility service? Get in touch