An Ontario town daunted by the cost of building a traditional public transit system has turned to a popular ride-hailing company for a solution.
The town of Innisfil, Ont., is subsidizing the cost of rides for its residents with Uber Canada, offering flat rates to travel to certain public hubs and offering a discount for travel anywhere else within the community.
Some American cities have struck similar partnerships with Uber in the past, but the company said the arrangement in Innisfil, effective Monday, marks the first time a Canadian municipality has enlisted Uber to fill a public transit void.
Innisfil Deputy Mayor Lynn Dollin said the option made sense given the demographic breakdown of the town, which sees a population of about 36,000 scattered over about 270 square kilometres largely consisting of gravel roads and rural areas.
"The issue we've got is with the population so spread out," Dollin said in a telephone interview. "Any of the areas that we would try to set up fixed-route transit or a more traditional transit system with, we'd end up not servicing about 80 per cent of the geography but asking everybody to subsidize it."
Dollin said the town has set aside $100,000 for the first phase of the project, which is currently projected to last about six months.
That money, she said, will be used to subsidize the cost of Uber rides booked through the company's smartphone app and online platform.
Innisfil residents will be left to pay just $3 for a ride to and from the area surrounding the town's recreational complex and town hall, while lifts to and from regional GO Transit bus stops will cost $5.
People looking to commute to and from the GO train station in neighbouring Barrie, Ont., as well as a local employment hub and car pool lot near a major highway, will pay $5.
Residents also have the option to take a ride wherever they please within the town, Dollin said, adding the municipality will give people $5 off all those rides.
Innisfil has partnered with a taxi company in a neighbouring city to offer wheelchair-accessible service at the same rates. And iPads have been installed at the community centre to help those without smartphones access a ride if needed, Dollin said.
If the first phase of the project is successful, the town plans to potentially expand the service in the future.
Uber said the arrangement meets the unique needs of the Innisfil community while hopefully promoting broader use of public transit resources further afield.
"We want to encourage as many people as we can to leave the personal car at home, and rather than driving into other cities ... connect to local transit hubs and think about connecting to public transit in that manner," said Uber Canada Public Policy manager Chris Schafer.
Dollin said very early signs on Monday suggest the partnership is already in demand amongst a population that's been seeking a transit solution for years.
"By the time the driver came to take the mayor on what we thought was going to be the first Uber drive, he'd already done five trips that morning," Dollin said.
One expert hailed the partnership as an innovative solution, but raised concerns that only one player was currently allowed to provide regular service.
Murtaza Haider, who teaches travel demand forecasting at Toronto's Ryerson University, said mass transit makes no sense for a town like Innisfil that combines sparse population with vast territory.
He said the cost of employing drivers to chauffeur just 10 buses could easily cost the city $1 million, adding such a budget would not account for costs such as building the transit infrastructure or purchasing and maintaining vehicles.
Haider said the project offers a solution that's suitable for Innisfil's specific needs, but said he doesn't want to see Uber hold a monopoly on providing the town with transit options.
Private transportation providers, for instance, may be interested in running shuttles or vans to help move passengers during peak periods. Haider said he hopes the town will eventually allow others to get in on the action.
"The thing that I would expect from Innisfil is that it's not a one-company solution that they're after," Haider said. "That they're able to create a competitive landscape for mobility solutions in which companies of repute are able to compete and offer the best service at the most affordable price."