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Riders will be able to book bus rides and select pick-up and drop-off locations using the mobile app, TapRide.Handout

Public transit users on an island community near Vancouver will have a new service to book rides to destinations not reached by existing routes, as officials seek to improve transportation options to a small population spread over a relatively large area.

The program on Bowen Island comes as communities turn to technology to overcome the challenges of providing public transit in small or rural communities at a sustainable cost.

TransLink, the region’s transit authority, is launching a pilot project on Bowen Island, a community of about 3,500 located a short ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay. Riders will be able to use a mobile app called TapRide, accessible over the phone or online, to book bus rides and select pick-up and drop-off locations within a pre-defined service zone. Fares are the same as with traditional bus service.

Mayor Gary Ander said the island only has two regular bus routes.

“We’re extremely excited about it,” Mr. Ander said in an interview. “There are about two or three sections on the island that have absolutely no service because it’s just the way it is; they don’t have the population to justify taking a single bus there."

Ben Murphy, a spokesperson of TransLink, said the transit-on-demand model is part of the agency’s strategy to find new ways to deliver service.

“Bowen Island is a suitable pilot location for several reasons including on-demand services not interfering with the regional transit network, the island’s constrained geography, and its very supportive local council,” he said in an e-mail.

The project will begin on July 15 and continues until Sept. 15. Mr. Murphy said after the pilot is complete, they will review all the data and feedback before deciding how or if the program should continue. If the on-demand model is successful, he said it could be expanded to other parts of the Vancouver area.

TransLink ran a small-scale test earlier this year. Bowen Island resident Jason Dowdeswell was one of the participants and he had nothing but good things to say.

"Very simple to use; very much like when you use an Uber app,” he said.

“The current transit route services the ferry, but there are so many other destinations on Bowen that you don’t necessarily feel like you want to be dropped off at the ferry terminal and wait for another bus to pick you up and take you to the other side of the island.”

There have been other examples of small communities coming up with creative ways to improve their transit.

Last fall, Belleville, Ont., changed its nighttime bus-service model by eliminating fixed-routes and instead allowing riders to use an app to request pickup and drop-off points.

In 2017, Innisfil, Ont., decided to subsidize Uber rides rather than funding its own system. Riders could book rides with flat rates to a number of major spots in town, or receive a discount when travelling to other destinations.

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at University of Toronto, said communities like Bowen Island and Innisfil are looking for ways to deal with the problems inherent with providing public transit in smaller places.

“You’re starting to see innovation starting across the country,” he said. “The traditional fixed-routes public transit service in lower-density smaller communities is going to be expensive and not necessarily financially viable, and maybe not even the best for the users, so they’re trying to come up with all sorts of alternatives.”

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