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Jason Reynar: Exploring Innisfil’s Uber public transit experiment

The Town of Innisfil, with a population of about 37,000 people located north of Toronto, is spread out over 200 square kilometres, making it physically the size of Mississauga.

As one might expect, an amalgamated city with such spread out neighbourhoods means there just wasn’t the population density needed to effectively implement a traditional transit system. The solution, according to Innisfil CAO Jason Reynar, was the creation of an international award-winning system powered by a partnership with Uber.

In place since 2017, the project has resulted in some lessons learned along the way. Reynar shared those thoughts with Municipal World CEO Susan Gardner at the Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association 2019 Spring Workshop.

Building an Uber Solution to Transit Issues

“We have been struggling with the transit problem for a long time because buses that move around, that are predominately empty, are expensive,” he said. “This was a great option for us. We only pay for the rides that are used. If the system isn’t active, then we’re not paying for it.”

The project in Innisfil sees the municipality partnering with Uber (along with an accessible taxi company). All users need to do is download the company’s app and then – if within municipal boundaries – select Innisfil Transit. If the ride is to a “key destination” (such as town hall or the GO Train station) then it is a flat fee. Anywhere else in the municipality, users receive a discount off the regular Uber X price.

Users select the ride, go door-to-door, and then the municipality receives a bill once a month from Uber.

The Need to Explore Temporary Solutions

Reynar said several lessons have been learned along the way. For example, how many flat fee destinations were appropriate, was the price charged sustainable, and whether Innisfil could afford to continue funding the project given its success.

While those and other questions continue to be answered, Reynar said the essential consideration is the need for the system. After all, the project began with “only a handful of rides” and has grown to some 9,800 rides a month.

“For the community, some systems, some service is better than no service. How do we get comfortable as a government with a kind of imperfect solution, knowing we’re going to iterate and make it better?” he said. “In government, we’re so consumed with all the T’s being crossed and all the I’s being dotted. We sometimes miss the change that some of our services can create in people’s lives, even though it might not be the perfect solution.”  MW

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