Share a Cab?

During its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday night, CBRM Council was briefed on a program to provide a new transportation option for people trying to get from their homes in one CBRM community to work or school in another.

By “new transportation option” I do not, alas, mean a Star Trek-like transporter or a system of human-sized pneumatic tubes — I mean taxis. But taxis used in a more coordinated, communal way.

The program, “Community Connects,” is a pilot that began a few weeks ago and is scheduled to run until October 2019 with funding from the provincial government’s Poverty Reduction Fund. It is the brainchild of the Transportation Innovation Lab (TIL) and is led by Chloe Donatelli, who updated council last night, and Robert Nichols of the Halifax-based consultancy Common Good Solutions (CGS).

Source: TIL

The project began in 2014, when the CBRM threatened to cut 30% of its public transportation budget, sparkingĀ the creation of the Community Transportation Working Group (CTWG), which formed to “kickstart discussion towards better community transportation.” The group conducted a two-year study, identifying a number of gaps in CBRM’s transportation system.

Two years later, in March 2018, the CBRM Transportation Innovation Lab was initiated by Common Good Solutions with an assist from a local advisory committee, oversight by the NS Department of Community Services and $80,000 in provincial funding to explore possible ways to bridge those gaps.

TIL created a “multi-stakeholder Lab Team” of “first voice users, community organizations, as well as organizations who represent employers.” This team considered various possible transportation solutions, reached out to as many stakeholders as possible, and decided the best option was what they initially called a “point-to-point transportation system,” but which is now called Community Connects.

 

Mind the gap

The aim of Community Connects is to fill the gap between the CBRM’s transit service, which is inflexible (and sometimes non-existent) and personal taxi service, which can be expensive. In doing so, the program tries to connect under-and unemployed residents — who find it difficult if not impossible to get to and from work or school by means of public transportation but can’t afford personal taxi serviceĀ  — with employers — who struggle to fill vacancies, despite the high unemployment rate in the area, due to “limitations around transportation.”

Donatelli said they considered the possibility of creating a non-profit point-to-point transport system but realized that in the CBRM — which has 388 taxi drivers and 200 cars — it made more sense to work with the municipality’s 10 existing cab companies, especially since taxis operate 24/7 and many of those in need of transport work night shifts and Sundays and generally odd hours.

The TIL received word in December 2018 that it would be funded to create and run a prototype program (it received $173,000 in total) so it hired two coordinators — Barbara Duca and Joanne Bisson — to connect with riders, design routes and engage taxi companies to take the routes on.

The program uses the existing taxi service areas, as defined by the CBRM’s Taxi Bylaw, to decide which trips qualify — you have to be traveling from one service area to another rather than within a single service area to use the service.

I found handy maps of these service areas on the CBRM website:

T-100 Taxi Bylaw(1)

 

Details

The attraction of Community Connections to users seems to be twofold: the price — a flat fee of $7 per trip — and the fact that somebody else will coordinate the ride sharing for you.

That said, Donatelli, said they’ve “already received feedback” suggesting this “might not be the right rate.” In response to a question from District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes (who noted she’d talked to Donatelli a lot about this project), she expanded on this, saying the province had felt a flat, unchanging rate would be less confusing for users than varying rates, but now that they’re actually talking to users, she said they are realizing that “it might be better to have a model that can fluctuate a bit more.”

All 10 of the CBRM’s licensed taxi companies have agreed to participate in the pilot stage and Donatelli said they’ve started with three “small routes” — traveling between New Waterford, Dominion and Sydney. She said the first few months have largely been about finding a model that works for the taxi owners, many of whom have expressed concerns about their drivers being adequately remunerated for their work. But as she said, this is a pilot program and that’s precisely the sort of fine tuning pilot programs are designed to do.

An important part of the program will be information gathering — participating owners and drivers will provide regular feedback to the coordinators to allow them to tweak and improve the system and gather data to measure the pilot’s success. In fact, they have a partnership with CBU economics professor Patrick Delamirande, who will conduct an ongoing and final evaluation to measure the prototype’s economic and social impacts.

 

Point-to-Point

In addition to the potential users, local employers and transport advocates TIL consulted in the first phase, the second phase saw the group reaching out to taxi owners/drivers, the CBRM Bylaws Department, post-secondary institutions, Membertou First Nations and the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The coordinators for the point-to-point system, as noted, have been hired and the technology that powers the service — GetSwift, delivery management software — has been modified for Community Connects by Click2Order, a local delivery service.

Booking requests must go through the coordinators during regular office hours or be left as voice messages after hours. Although the coordinators will be working regular business hours, the service can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, provided there is sufficient demand to establish a “viable” late-night or early-morning route.

“Viable” means a route that returns revenues of about $1.15/km to the transportation provider — the minimum out-of-service-area rate stipulated in the CBRM Taxi Bylaw. The goal of Community Connects is to increase the number of customers using the municipality’s taxis services, while reducing the cost to each individual customer, thereby maintaining per kilometer revenue at a sustainable $1.15/km. Here’s the financial model the service is based on:

Source: Transportation Innovation Lab

And this is how it is expected revenues will be distributed:

Source: Transportation Innovation Lab

The report presented to Council last night goes into significant detail about how routes will be constructed, allotted to cab companies, modified or discontinued. It explains how payments will be handled (each passenger will be responsible for paying the provider unless an organization — or perhaps employer — wants to pay for it). During the testing period, the taxi companies have been promised compensation for no-shows (if a passenger is a no-show too often, s/he will no longer be able to use the service).

The taxi companies are apparently open to providing the service to more far-flung regions of the CBRM (Eskasoni or Louisbourg, for example) or locations outside the CBRM, but such services might require subsidies from communities or employers.

Donatelli’s presentation was detailed and informative and Council seemed very interested in seeing the program succeed — District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger went so far as to suggest the municipality should be prepared to support the program financially, along with the province, if the pilot suggests the program can’t survive without subsidies.

The Community Connects Facebook Page and Website are still in development, apparently, but there’s a phone number — 902-304-8311 and an email — hello@mycommunityconnects.ca – for anyone interested in learning more about, or signing up for, the service.