How small Ontario towns are finding new transit solutions

For those who live in a smaller communities, a car can seem like a necessity. A growing number of smaller centres across the province is trying to change that
By Diane Peters - Published on Nov 20, 2019
Huntsville, population 20,000, has operated a bus route since the early 2000s using local company Campbell Bus Lines. (Kevin Van Paassen/CP)

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If you live in a city in Ontario, you expect to be able to walk a few blocks and catch a bus, streetcar, subway, or train to get you across town. But, if you’re one of the 2.6 million Ontarians who live outside metro areas — 1.1 million of them in towns with populations between 10,000 and 100,000 — there may not be any public transit to speak of.

But that’s starting to change as more of Ontario’s small towns invest in transit, running passenger vans on routes around town.

When Karen Cameron, CEO of the Ontario Public Transit Association, took over her position in 2015, there were 95 transit systems in Ontario — that number has now grown to 109. “That’s a bigger increase in those four years than in the previous 10,” she says.

Recently, she attended a meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. “The vast majority of people who came up to us and wanted to talk about transit were from small municipalities that didn’t have a transit system,” she says. “They’re paying attention to this issue.”

Smaller centres are increasingly realizing that transit helps alleviate many pressing problems, including those related to wealth inequality, climate change, and mobility and loneliness for seniors.

“It’s a mode of transportation for people who don’t have or can’t afford vehicles,” says Stephen Hernan, director of operations and protective services in Huntsville, population 20,000, which has operated a bus route since the early 2000s using local company Campbell Bus Lines.

It’s also a way to retain residents, according to Alex Piggott, transit coordinator for Tillsonburg, a southwestern Ontario town of 16,000. “If you’re in a small town and don’t have the means to get around, you have to leave the community,” he says. “You’ll see an exodus from places like Tillsonburg if you don’t have a service for people.” In 2016, Community Living Tillsonburg bought a van and launched a dial-a-ride bus service that had a flexible base route. The town took it over in 2018, bought a second bus, and, in August, launched two fixed routes with 29 stops each. Already, it’s attracting up to 40 riders a day.

Lincoln, a town of 22,000 the Niagara Region and one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the province, piloted a bus service in 2017 using bus company BTS Network, and recently made its three routes permanent. “We were hearing that some of our seniors were having to move to other communities because they didn’t have a way to get around,” says Dave Graham, director of public works.

And small centres know that businesses looking for a place to set up shop want transit. “The towns that have public-transit systems use that fact to attract business,” says Piggott.

Some of the province’s growth in transit can be traced back to new sources of funding, such as the Ontario Gas Tax for Transit Program, which launched in 2004 and became permanent in 2013. “That made all the difference,” says Cameron. “The municipalities could count on it. You can’t plan to increase service if you don’t know where the funding is coming from.”

Since 2015, the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund has offered money for infrastructure projects, including transit-related undertakings in such places as Bracebridge, Fort Erie, Midland, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Prince Edward County. And the Ontario government just gave the green light for 57 transit projects outside the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region to apply to the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program — smaller communities such as Machin and Port Hope have already filed requests.

In Ontario’s large cities, fares cover, on average, 62 per cent of the cost of the systems, according to 2015 data from the Ministry of Transportation. In centres with fewer than 50,000 people, they cover, on average, 35 per cent.

So small municipalities — which have small budgets — must pay a hefty chunk to run their systems. Lincoln estimates that its system will cost $263,550 to run in 2019: the gas tax will cover $195,000 and fares just $2,000, leaving the city on the hook for $65,550. In Huntsville, where patrons pay $2.25 for a bus ride, the gas tax contributed $115,000 in 2017, so the system cost the city $131,000 that year.

Recently, Huntsville looked into expanding its bus route beyond its current 12 square kilometres. “The tenders came in, and it just wasn’t feasible,” says Hernan. “We’re trying to find some more money.”

“The challenge is one of matching supply and demand and the cost of what you can do,” says Cameron. Pigott describes this as a Catch-22: “For you to make it a viable and more attractive service, you’ve got to put more vehicles on the road. And more costs more money.”

Most small towns are not built for transit, as housing and shopping districts are often scattered. For places like Lincoln, it can be an especially challenging proposition: the town is an amalgamation of eight smaller centres, including Beamsville and Jordan, that span 163 square kilometres. Its three bus routes cover only a fraction of its jurisdiction.

Ideally, transit can help people get around in town and travel to and from different municipalities — but, since for-profit bus companies like Greyhound started slashing their services, there have been major gaps. Piggott notes that Tillsonburg residents who need to make criminal-court appearances have to travel to Woodstock: it’s 37 kilometres away, and there’s no bus that travels that route. And many locals, he says, get health care 60 kilometres away in London — those who don’t drive either have to take a taxi the full way (which runs about $150) or combine a taxi with a bus from Ingersoll, which is 24 kilometres away. People who live in smaller towns around these small towns often have no way to get to a grocery store, government office, or job if they don’t drive.

In response, the South Central Ontario Region Economic Development Corporation is helping its member municipalities develop intra-town bus systems that synch up with each other. “You want to have a common rider experience and perhaps similar fares,” says executive director Kimberly Earls, noting that four municipalities in the region recently got a total of $5 million in provincial infrastructure funding for transit. Graham notes that municipalities in Niagara are taking a similar approach, working together to improve travel between towns and to make sure their services link up to the area’s planned GO Train route.

Transit planning takes years, and it can take additional years to build ridership on small-scale systems that offer infrequent service to only a few destinations. Huntsville’s well-established system offers 28,000 rides a year, while Lincoln’s two-year-old service averages just nine riders per day. “We’re a vehicle-based community,” Graham says.

Those that take small-town buses regularly, though, report that they appreciate the service. “This bus enables people to participate in our community now,” one Lincoln Transit rider wrote to the town. “It is inclusive to everyone.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Machin as a town. It is, in fact, a township. TVO.org regrets the error.

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