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City of Powell River receives analysis of Zunga Bus pilot and transit system improvement outline

Councillors presented with overview of transit system, including on-demand service
GOALS OUTLINED: City of Powell River councillors received an analysis of the Powell River Regional Transit System, including some statistics and testimonial regarding the on-demand Zunga Bus service.

City staff will be directed to work with BC Transit on revising busing in the City of Powell River.

At the March 15 committee of the whole meeting, city councillors received an analysis of the Zunga Bus pilot and an outline of the path forward for improvement of the community’s transit system in alignment with Powell River Regional Transit System vision and goals.

Sustainability planner Ana Lukyanova said that in February 2020, council adopted the transit vision and goals document, which outlined a vision for efficient, convenient, reliable and accessible public transit that is well-used by the community and contributes to sustainable, vibrant and equitable quality of life.

“One of the actions in this document was to explore on-demand transit,” said Lukyanova.

She said with federal support, the Zunga Bus project was launched in February 2021. She said the pilot has allowed the city to collect valuable data and community feedback on the service.

“As we were analyzing the pilot, we couldn’t just look at the Zunga Bus in isolation,” said Lukyanova. “We had to look at the transit system as a whole and how on-demand could be part of it and benefit our public transit service.”

She said to take a more holistic look, the city worked with consultants.

David Cooper, from Leading Mobility, one of the consultants, provided an overview. He said the system is a bit unintuitive in terms of the fixed-route transit design. He said the routes try to cover as much ground as possible, which has time penalties for customers.

“Time is an asset to everyone and when we have services that are trying to do everything, it penalizes the people who rely on the service,” said Cooper.

He said transit service hours have been steady for the past five years. Ridership, pre-pandemic, was about 18 passengers per hour and dropped to about 11 with the ridership restrictions, according to Cooper.

“You had about 54 per cent of your riders last year, which is pretty consistent across the country,” he added.

Cooper outlined Zunga Bus average rides per service hour in fall 2021 and said there’s roughly three to six passengers per revenue hour. He said the city has a unique operating model, with the first on-demand transit service in BC.

Powell River Transit vision and goals

Cooper then outlined the transit vision and goals. He said one of the components is growing ridership. Cooper said the method of getting there is investing in transit service that increases access for all residents.

The second goal is directing and connecting community centres. The third goal is being efficient and cost effective. Cooper said there is duplication of the bus services with an overlap between route three/upper Westview and the Zunga Bus. He said in future, the city should be looking at replacing the upper Westview route with an enhanced on-demand service.

The fourth goal is working efficiently with other transportation options. Cooper said that goal is to increase the convenience of the transit system to make it more attractive to more residents.

The next goal is being technologically innovative. Cooper said the city can harness a lot of data through its on-demand service. He said additionally, BC Transit will be implementing the next ride program, which is an automatic vehicle location system on transit buses.

Cooper said the city sets the routes and service levels for transit, establishes fares and receives transit revenue to offset operating costs. BC Transit is responsible for operating capital funding support and provides detailed planning and scheduling.

There were five service planning recommendations. These include: improving the transit experience and level of service for customers; reducing service duplication; simplifying and streamlining the experience in the near term; maximizing the benefit of on-demand transit, and aligning resources for future system enhancements in the longer term.

Short-term planning action recommendations include keeping one Zunga Bus in operation with the same service hours. Steps include engaging the public on the consolidation of route three upper Westview into an expanded Zunga Bus service.

Medium-term planning would include lobbying BC Transit to fund the Zunga Bus service subsidy similar to paratransit levels in other communities, which is between 47 and 67 per cent. Another recommendation is to lobby BC Transit to retain local branding of the Zunga Bus in future agreements.

“You have a very unique brand,” said Cooper. “You have a brand that is celebrated by the community. We think if you want to build upon the success of the program, you are going to want to retain the brand.”

The committee carried a motion that staff be directed to work with BC Transit on a service discussion document to explore improved alignment and integration options between Zunga Bus service and BC Transit conventional service, and implementing the Powell River Transit analysis and recommendations. The committee also passed two recommendations to the finance committee regarding continuing the Zunga Bus service.