October 12, 2022, Lambton Shores – Serving a combined rural population of just more than 36,000 in Lambton Shores, South Huron, Bluewater, North Middlesex, and Kettle & Stony Point First Nation, Huron Shores Area Transit’s (HSAT) first two operational years (2020 and 2021) were shaped by government imposed shut-downs and stay-at-home advisories, not an ideal time to launch a new transit system!
In 2021, HSAT had 1,600 passengers. By the end of August 2022, ridership exceeded 5,000 passengers in eight months. Compared to the same month of the previous year, that’s a 594% difference! If the ridership trend continues, by the end of 2022, ridership could top 7,500 passengers.
Not surprisingly, the area’s summer months witnessed a bump in ridership. Buses traveling from London to Grand Bend were filled to capacity, necessitating two additional bus runs every Saturday and Sunday from mid-July to Labour Day.
“It’s been a busy summer,” says Susan Mills, the new Transit Coordinator who took over the role at the end of June this year.
“Beginning about mid-July, we had regular passengers telling us they could not get on the bus because it was already full when it arrived at their stop. We also took immediate action and doubled the number of bus runs from London to Grand Bend.”
The highest-performing stop in the transit system is located opposite Masonville Mall; a shared London Transit stop, which accounted for 2,004 passengers. Similarly, Lambton Mall in Sarnia accounted for 409 passengers. Other top-performing bus stops include University Hospital in London (221 passengers), Kettle Point Plaza (215 passengers), and Sanders Street stop in Exeter (204 passengers). Thirty (30) riders used the wheelchair/scooter passenger spots.
“It was interesting to discover which bus stops were the most used and who’s using the bus system,” says Mills. “We get many inquiries through the Facebook page, mostly from young adults and twenty-somethings who use the bus to get to work, go shopping, and socialize and now use it to get to university and college. We have one stop right on the Lambton College campus. We’ve even had parents send us testimonials about how convenient it is that their kids can get around without relying on a drive from Mom or Dad.”
Although the majority of passengers (82%) pay cash, about 15% of passengers use Smart Cards to pay for bus rides. Launched in February 2021, 991 active tap-and-go Smart Cards are now in use. Smart Cards enable passengers to set up a transit account and add dollar value to their card by credit card or debit visa, monitor their balance, transfer the balance of a lost card to a replacement card and obtain receipts for tax purposes. Specially marked Smart Card Packages are available from local libraries, health centres, grocery stores, and other handy local retail locations.
When weather, construction, vehicle breakdown, or other unforeseen event delays or interrupts service, passengers can rely on several methods of notification, including social media announcements, email, and mobile apps like Google Maps and the “Transit” app (transitapp.com). Coming soon will be an easy-to-use texting service with notifications going directly to a passenger’s mobile. Every bus stop will have a QR code and bus stop number. By scanning the QR code, passengers can get bus schedule information and sign up for service notifications from their cellphones.
“This was one of the things I was really happy to get into place,” says Mills. “I have spent time standing at bus stops and wondering when the next bus would arrive. I wish we had today’s technology then. If we have a delay or service interruption, I can quickly get the word out to our passengers.”
Mills is also working to improve the overall transit experience by re-evaluating bus stop performance, the distance between bus stops, bus schedules, transit shelters, and access to bus and schedule information at every bus stop.
Mills notes, “there’s a lady who walks almost an hour to the Kettle Point Plaza bus stop, and although she loves the access to public transit, we want to reduce that distance. We hope to add a bus stop between Port Franks and Kettle & Stony Point First Nation to break up that distance and make it easier for passengers to get on the bus.”
With pandemic closures behind us, the promotion of the bus system has increased to bring greater awareness among residents and build ridership. Over the next six to eight months, look for advertising on outdoor billboards, electronic boards, social media campaigns, print and radio ads, vehicle wraps, and admail campaigns.