School bus fleets remain an underutilized public resource and thousands of yellow buses sit idle for not only much of the school week, but for long periods of the calendar year. Most school districts consider those buses to be ‘school board property’ and continue to see transporting students and providing community transit as completely separate functions. That remains the case even though rural and small town communities with aging populations are very under-served when it comes to alternatives to gas-guzzling private automobiles, vans and trucks.
While school age populations are static or declining in most districts. communities are now responding to a growing aging population about to exert profound economic and social impacts, particularly in rural areas of Canada. Senior citizens use public transit more than any other age group, and the numbers of Canadians 65 or older will grow by 25 per cent from 2011 to 2031.
Developing improved rural transit services is emerging as a critical part of planning for the future. Two of the greatest challenges in rural mobility, whether in Northern or Eastern Ontario, or most of the Prairie West and the Maritimes, are residents’ access to healthcare, shopping and seniors’ services, since many elderly citizens are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.
One new Ontario pilot project attracting a lot of attention is the Muskoka Extended Transit (MET) initiative. While major cities look to pour millions into subway and rapid rail systems, this rural district in Central Ontario is turning to school buses to help its citizens get around. Starting on January 12, 2016, three companies will be operating school buses weekly along seven routes connecting small villages to the larger communities of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville in Muskoka. The initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the provincial ministry of transportation.
Muskoka’s year-round residents, numbering about 60,000, are a population much like that of rural Canada as a whole. The district also has a high proportion of seniors, with more people over 75 than under 19 years of age. Average incomes in Muskoka have slid from 91 per cent to 83 per cent of the provincial average over the past 10 years. Two of the seven Muskoka bus routes, for example, transport seniors to Huntsville on Tuesdays, so seniors’ centres and health providers can schedule services to match demand. Other Ontario districts, such as Deseronto and Huron County, utilizing transit buses or rideshare systems, report high public demand for employment, education, and seniors’ services.
The idea of deploying school buses is one that could potentially be applied more widely in rural Canada: taking advantage of school buses sitting idle between picking up kids in the morning and dropping them back home in the afternoon. It was proposed in our AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, back in January 2015, but there was little take-up on the policy option.
Financial barriers do exist for rural transit models, since it can be difficult to justify providing a self-standing service carrying a relatively small number of passengers over sometimes long distances. The 2003 Durham Region Transportation Plan study, for that reason, recommended using demand-responsive services, including school buses, public para transit, van pools and group-chartered taxis. Of those options, school buses are emerging as the most viable for mid-day and late-afternoon route services.
Not much has happened in Maritime Canada since our Education on Wheels report. Today, one or two of Nova Scotia’s municipalities are experimenting on a small scale with using school buses, as strictly local initiatives, acting without much visible provincial support.
The Town and County of Antigonish launched their own Antigonish Community Transit service on September 15, 2014, and secured support from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities at the November 2014 UNSM Fall conference. Community Wheels, a public/community transit service operating in and around Chester, Nova Scotia, has used a wheelchair accessible mini-bus to provide students with after-school service to access community and extra-curricular activities. The pioneering Kings Transit Service, connecting Wolfville and Brooklyn, NS, was suspended in September 2015 after the Town of Windsor and the municipality of West Hants pulled out, resulting in a 76 per cent reduction in funding for the route.
Many communities, aside from those in rural Ontario, consider maintaining separate public transit and student transportation systems as duplicative and wasteful. Community transit can also be a safe, affordable, and convenient supplement to traditional school buses, especially for middle and high-school students.
Instead of tethering yellow buses to limited school routes, it’s time to meet the pent-up demand for services in rural and small town Canada. Muskoka’s Extended Transit service (MET) shows that it can be done on a larger, more coordinated, region-wide scale. Sharing bus services between municipalities and school boards is an idea whose time has come. It should be part of any province-wide, integrated urban and rural development plan going forward.
Why are school buses sitting idle for much of the week and calendar year when there is a crying need to provide improved rural transit? Should school districts be looking at serving the aging population as student enrollments level off or decline in rural areas? What are the added advantages of incorporating school bus services into community transit ? What’s standing in the way of sharing services, partnering with local transit firms, and collaborating across silos in the public sector?