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COLT transit system wheelin' in data to iron out kinks

Cochrane's on demand bus system COLT is the first of its kind in North America. Although still early in its pilot project, steps are already being made toward making the service more feasible and appealing to Cochranites.
COLT out at the last Street Market of the year.

In its third week out and about Cochrane's COLT on demand bus service has been met with both positive and negative reviews from critics.

Running with four out of the total eight busses that will arrive in 2020, the Town has received plenty of feedback from the on demand system and will be going over issues with a fine-tooth comb near the end of the year. The hope is to build the service accordingly based on the data they have collected and the communities input.

Currently the COLT system is in its pilot project and is free to Cochranites which would explain the influx of residents trying to test out the service. Though in its early stage, transit coordinator Devin LaFleche says COLT has been an overall success.

"It's been very impressive to start, a lot of other transit agencies when they launch they say 'it's like having a birthday party and nobody shows up.' For us it was very much like a new restaurant and we're lined up out the door."

There has always been a need for a transit system in Cochrane and this has been confirmed by the challenges of being able to secure a ride via the mobile app. LaFleche credits this inconsistency to high volumes of residents trying to experiment the service.

"Right now it tends to be that you have an 80 to 90 per cent chance of getting a bus, if you're booking the day before. The day of is a bit tricker. We're seeing those at about 20 or 30 per cent chance and then for that last 30 minutes it's around 15 to 20 per cent," said LaFleche. "The ridership we are seeing is inflated because it's free, it's also people who are just trying to understand and use it."

The idea behind COLT was for those who are not able to drive, for seniors as well as those who are interested in lowering their carbon footprint. LaFleche says they are seeing a lot of users by choice which is something other transit systems envy. He mentioned he would also like COLT to be used for students in after-school programs and not those who choose to ride COLT instead of their morning bus.

After talking to Cochranites, many have expressed the same end result - having fixed routes. LaFleche expressed that this has always been a plan, but before it happens the on demand system is providing information as to which areas are seeing COLT most, what times are showing high ride volumes and what demographic is using the service.

"We are really going to start piloting some fixed routes and see how that works," said LaFleche adding if they go strictly with just a fixed route system within town and take away the on demand service, eight busses will be needed to cover all of Cochrane and the busses will run one hour loops. This will cost approximately $1.5 to $1.7 million versus $600,000 for the on demand only system. 

Another pocket friendly option being considered is having a combination of fixed routes at specific times along with the on demand service. This will cost roughly $600,000 as well.

So far trip times haven't been much to complain about and are only showing about a six to eight minute lag as opposed to driving. Based on its current ridership, COLT is already meeting its targets for the end of 2020.

Peak hours have been planned from 6 a.m to 9 a.m and then 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thanks to the on demand system LaFleche has been able to see that the morning time does not require four busses to be on so it has been easy to shift the schedule based on the numbers they receive. He adds the on demand service is providing information to create set schedules and to build profiles which in turn will iron out all the kinks within the service going into the new year.

In January COLT will no longer be free and will begin to collect revenue from riders. At that point LaFleche will look at what can be offered as far as more busses or service hours being extended to Sundays, as well as later evenings on Fridays and Saturdays for youth and seniors.

"We really adjusted the parameters to make it as enticing to Cochrane residents as possible. Now we have to adjust the parameters to make more fair rides and assure we are picking up as many people as possible," said LaFleche.

"There's all these little things we can tweak and we get data on everything from riders rating their trip and the comments they give. How often a bus is off schedule, traffic data, it's mind boggling the amount of data we get from the service. It helps us adjust the system."

All this has been a learning curve for LaFleche and for the on demand system. Right now there are 153 stops for COLT, LaFleche pointed out they are looking at taking away stops that are redundant which ends up causing the bus to take a longer trip. The hope is to make the routes more efficient and this could also aid in preparation for fixed routes. 

"We will see some realistic ridership numbers in January so then we will really fine tune for that."