How a Transport Vacuum is Risking Canadian Lives

The exit of a bus transport player from the Canadian market in May this year left a substantial public transport vacuum and resulted in a heated debate on whether the Canadian government should move in to rescue its citizens from the lack of a critical service.

The move by Greyhound, one of the two bus companies that offered long-distance travel across Canada, sent shockwaves across the nation when the firm shut down its remaining routes in the country.

Greyhound first pulled out of Western Canada in October 2018 over low ridership and put its remaining routes on hold when COVID-19 struck in 2020.

The economic effects of the pandemic were the final nail in the coffin for Greyhound’s business in Canada as the company was left without revenue for a whole year as the government put in place restrictions to avert a health disaster just as COVID-19 was beginning to rear its ugly head.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that Greyhound had operated for almost a century.

This was a hard pill to swallow for many Canadians, especially those who reside in rural areas. Greyhound was the only bus company that offered comprehensive routes across the whole country.

Greyhound buses parked at a stand in Canada. The company left a huge vacuum when it exited the Canadian public transport market. {Image Source: blogTO}
Greyhound buses parked at a stand in Canada. The company left a huge vacuum when it exited the Canadian public transport market. {Image Source: blogTO}

Why is this a Big Deal?

Following Greyhound’s exit, many Canadian communities, especially rural areas, are currently underserved. In many instances, no mode of public transport is available to ferry people to and from these areas.

The lack of a safe and reliable intercity and regional mode of transport forces residents to resort to expensive and unsafe options.

The National Farmers Union, in a statement, regretted the exit and called on the government to establish a national transit system.

The Federal government proposed a $15 billion transport funding to fill this void, but this did not have any tangible effect as some provincial governments rejected the plan.

Vulnerable Communities Affected

A study authored by Paul Starkey and John Hine dubbed: Poverty and Sustainable Transport: How Transport Affects Poor People with Policy Implications for Poverty Reduction states that lack of reliable transport mostly affects poor people residing in rural areas which in turn denies them access to basic rights such as healthcare, education, government services, and food.

A stock image of a rural road in Canada. There is a vacuum of public transport in the country. {Image Source: Liftango}
A stock image of a rural road in Canada. There is a vacuum of public transport in the country. {Image Source: Liftango}

This also makes it difficult for them to access economic and employment opportunities.

In the case of Canada, the calls to establish a national transit system will go a long way in guaranteeing mobility rights, health equity, human dignity, and environmental justice.

Troubled Canadian Public Transport

The Greyhound exit is not the first time that Canadian citizens have been hung to dry.

In May 2017, faced with the tough decision of cutting down on something, the Canadian government shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC). This bus company had operated in the region for 70 years.

Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) buses parked at the side of the road. The company was shut down in 2017 over budget constraints. {Image Source: STC Stories}
Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) buses parked at the side of the road. The company was shut down in 2017 over budget constraints. {Image Source: STC Stories}

The government argued budget constraints had left it with no other option but to end this service, but critics held that this was the wrong thing to do and warned of negative impacts.

A study done to evaluate the true impact of the shutdown dubbed Politics, transportation, and the people’s health: a socio-political autopsy of the demise of a 70-year-old bus company authored by Jacob Albin Korem, Charles Smith, and Lori Hanson observes the closure culminated into health inequities among the area’s residents.

Road Accidents

The lack of reliable and efficient public transport means Canadian citizens look for other options, which are usually private means.

More vehicles on the road increase the risk of a road accident happening.

Simply put, the lack of safe, reliable, and efficient public transport in Canada increases the risk of road fatalities.

According to data shared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada posted an increase in road deaths in 2018.

A file image of a road accident in Canada. Canada posted an increase in road deaths in 2018. {Image Source: Klein Lawyers}
A file image of a road accident in Canada. Canada posted an increase in road deaths in 2018. {Image Source: Klein Lawyers}

As per the statistics, 1922 people succumbed to traffic crashes in 2018, representing a 3.6% increase from 2017, when 1856 fatalities were reported.

The economic cost of this was 2.1% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The outbreak of COVID-19, however, led to a reduction in road fatalities as lockdown measures were introduced.

 As an illustration, traffic volumes decreased by 30 to 50%, while the number of road deaths decreased by 46% in April 2020, compared with the average for 2017-19, based on estimated data.

OECD DATA

Global Perspective

When looked at from an international lens, road fatalities impose an enormous burden on population health.

According to a research article titled: Transport for Health: The Global Burden of Disease From Motorized Road Transport co-authored by the Global Road Safety Facility (World Bank initiative) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, more than 1.5 million people die every year from road accidents while 79.6 million healthy years of life are lost.

Two cars in an accident with one rammed into a road guard rail. More than 1.5 million people die every year from road accidents. {Image Source: Insurance Business Canada}
Two cars in an accident with one rammed into a road guard rail. More than 1.5 million people die every year from road accidents. {Image Source: Insurance Business Canada}

Deaths from road transport exceed those from HIV, tuberculosis, or malaria. Injuries and pollution from vehicles contribute to six of the top 10 causes of death globally.

WORLD BANK & IHME RESEARCH

That’s not all:

  • Road injuries have a profound impact on child and maternal health. The report points out road injuries are among the top 10 causes of death after one year of birth through to age 59. Conversely, road injuries are also a top 10 cause of death among women old enough to give birth and the fourth-leading cause of death among women aged between 15-29 years.
  • In the last twenty years, deaths from road crashes grew 46%, while deaths from air pollution ticked up by 11%.
  • Road crashes lead to 1.3 million deaths every year and 78.2 million non-fatal injuries that require medical attention.
  • Globally, pedestrians account for 35% of road injury deaths. In East and Central Sub Saharan Africa, pedestrians account for 50% of road injury deaths.

Now let us look at the different modes of public transportation in Canada.

Modes of Public Transport in Canada

By being the world’s second-largest country after Russia, travelling around Canada often involves covering massive distances.

The most common modes of mobility in the country include buses, taxis, rail, and air transport.

Buses

Bus transport is one of the most popular ways to travel between Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.

Buses are preferred for intercity travel because they are affordable compared to plane and train journeys. This is despite the fact that bus transport takes much more time than air transport.

Some of the most popular bus routes include Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Montreal, Montreal to Ottawa, and Toronto to the United States.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the exit of Greyhound dealt a significant blow to the Canadian bus transport system mainly because the company was the main player in this market.

Megabus is now the biggest bus company in Canada, although it does not offer wide coverage as Greyhound did.

A Megabus coach parked on the side of the road. The company is now the biggest player in the sector following Greyhound's exit. {Image Source: Daily Hive}
A Megabus coach parked on the side of the road. The company is now the biggest player in the sector following Greyhound’s exit. {Image Source: Daily Hive}

Companies that currently offer intercity bus travel in Canada include:

  • Megabus (Ontario and Quebec with links to US cities)
  • Coach Canada (Ontario and Quebec)
  • Galland Bus (Mont-Laurier to Montreal)
  • Maritime Bus (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island)
  • Orleans Express (Quebec)

The mandate to regulate bus transportation lies with provincial governments. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the federal government has the right to regulate inter-provincial bus services. This prompts the two levels of government to work with each other to manage this sector properly.

To ensure profits earned from busier city-to city lines can supplement service to thinly populated territory, busier city-to city lines are limited to 1 carrier.

Entry and exit from the marketplace and fares are tightly regulated.

Data Corner

Bijan Raheemi, an Associate Professor in Management Information Systems and Technology at the Telfer School of Management in Ottawa, and his protege Shahrzad Jalali, a student in the Masters of Electronic Business Technologies program, use Big Data to understand bus ridership patterns and tackle impromptu changes that affect bus schedules.

For that purpose, we are working with SMATS Traffic Solutions. The sensors they have built can gather data on the number of passengers embarking and leaving the bus in the duration of the trip by anonymously detecting the signal of their mobile phones.

The challenge is that we are talking about a significant amount of data dynamically changing and mixed with lots of noises, but we are able to address these challenges by using advanced data mining methods.

PROFESSOR RAHEEMI IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TELFER WEBSITE

Air Transport

Canada is a vast country; hence there are regular flights between major cities and towns.

Air Canada is the national carrier and the country’s largest airline. It operates both international and local flights.

Air Canada plane at an airport. The airline is the national carrier and the largest commercial airline in the country. {Image Source: Air Cargo News}
Air Canada plane at an airport. The airline is the national carrier and the largest commercial airline in the country. {Image Source: Air Cargo News}

The busiest airports in Canada include Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Montreal.

Westjet is the most popular budget carrier in the country. It operates flights to 33 Canadian cities and internationally to the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

Other airlines that operate in Canada include Air North, Air Transat, First Air, Porter Airlines, and Canadian North.

The aviation sector is a crucial pillar of the Canadian economy.

Data shared by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that the aviation sector in Canada contributed $49 billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually before COVID-19.

The sector also supported 633,000 jobs in the country, both directly and indirectly.

Data Corner

Canadian business jet manufacturer Bombardier in October 2019 announced that it would be offering to install a Health Monitoring Unit (HMU) in two of its aircraft (The Global and The Challenger) as part of its effort to incorporate Big Data in aviation.

In the plan, Bombardier announced that it would be teaming up with GE Aviation to install the smart boxes in approximately 2,500 aircraft in a project dubbed Smart Link Plus.

The HMUs, which GE describes as “brains”, will capture data from each flight. Data will then be “analysed and transferred into actionable insights, drawing on Bombardier’s aircraft expertise and leveraging the power of the entire connected fleet.

ALN NEWS REPORT ON BOMBARDIER BIG DATA PLANS

Taxis

At least three different taxi companies operate in each Canadian cities which gives commuters options to choose from.

A noteworthy aspect of Canadian taxi transport is that the cabs have meters, and the fares are regulated at the city level and are non-negotiable.

A Canadian Taxi. The cab industry in the country is very competitive. {Image Source: Betakit}
A Canadian Taxi. The cab industry in the country is very competitive. {Image Source: Betakit}

A commuter wishing to pay a flat rate must negotiate before boarding the taxi.

All taxi drivers in all major cities must be certified and are issued with certificates and identification numbers before being allowed to operate.

This is done to ensure that they are trained and that their operation is legal and complies with safety regulations.

However, digital taxi apps currently dominate the cab space in Canada. Still, they have been accused of failing to comply with regulations to gain market advantage, leading to friction between them and traditional taxi operators.

According to a report published by the Canadian government dubbed Modernizing Regulation in the Canadian Taxi Industry, the traditional taxi operators have been calling on cities to whip the digital apps into line to ensure an even playing field for all players.

Traditional taxi operators are constrained by regulations. In many jurisdictions, they cannot vary their prices in response to consumer demand. They must operate certain types of vehicles. Only a limited number of them can be on the road. The list goes on. But then you have new providers who do not follow similar rules.

This leaves the regulators, Canadian municipalities and provinces, in a tough spot. They are trapped between maintaining their existing systems, which severely restrict competition but provide for oversight and public safety, and the demands of consumers, who are attracted to the low prices and high service levels of innovative new providers.

REPORT: MODERNIZING REGULATION IN THE CANADIAN TAXI INDUSTRY

Data Corner

A study dubbed Emerging Big Data Sources for Public Transport Planning. A Systematic Review on Current State of Art and Future Directions authored by Khatun E Zannat and Charisma F. Choudhury observes Big Data can be used to understand travel behaviour and develop travel demand models for transport planning.

“They prescribed using Big Data for activity-based model and agent-based simulations to understand individual travel behaviour,”

reads the report.

Train Transport

VIA Rail Canada is the dominant player in the intercity passenger rail services space in the North American country.

The Crown Corporation, established in 1977, operates approximately 500 trains weekly, serving more than 450 communities across 12,500 kilometres of the rail network.

The company offers various classes for travel as well as discounts for the elderly and the young, advanced purchases, and discounted fare prices at certain times of the year.

VIA Rail posts average annual passenger revenues of $260 to $280 million. Additionally, it has also been classified as a Class I railway.

Long-distance rail journeys in Canada take days to complete. Some of VIA Rail’s routes connect to major cities in the United States.

Urban Rail Systems

A VIA Rail train traveling across the Canadian landscape. Some of the routes the company offers connect to the United States. {Image Source: Vancouver Sun}
A VIA Rail train travelling across the Canadian landscape. Some of the routes the company offers are connections to the United States. {Image Source: Vancouver Sun}

Canada’s main cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, all have modern rail systems designed to serve the needs of these metropolitan areas’ inhabitants.

For instance, Toronto has a Subway, Vancouver has its SkyTrain, while Montreal has a metro.

Toronto Subway

This modern rail network in Toronto serves more than 850,000 passengers every day.

The Toronto Transit Commission opened the first subway in the city in 1954. The 7.4-kilometre line stretched from Eglinton to Union but has since been extended multiple times to create the 31-kilometre Yonge – University – Spadina route.

Currently, the network comprises 3 standard subway routes and the Scarborough Rapid Transit link, which cumulatively form a 70-kilometre transit system.

Line 4 Sheppard of the Toronto Subway. {Image Source: Welwyn22}
Line 4 Sheppard of the Toronto Subway. {Image Source: Welwyn22}

The Toronto subway is the heartbeat of the city’s transport system. Multiple bus routes service the network.

Montreal Metro

The Montreal Metro, inaugurated in October 1966, is an underground rapid transit system that serves the Greater Montreal area in Quebec, Canada.

The network is operated by the Société de transport de Montréal (STM).

Since 1966, the network has been expanded from 26 stations to 68 stations on 4 lines running 69.2 kilometres. The lines serve Montreal’s east, north, and centre with linkages to Longeguil via the Yellow Line and Laval through the Orange Line.

The Montreal Metro. The network serves the Greater Montreal area in Quebec, Canada. {Image Source: Mobile Syrup}
The Montreal Metro. The network serves the Greater Montreal area in Quebec, Canada. {Image Source: Mobile Syrup}

Consequently, The Montreal Metro is Canada’s second-busiest rapid transit system after the Toronto Subway.

The Montreal Metro makes an average of 1,500,000 unlinked passenger trips every working day.

Vancouver Skytrain

The Vancouver SkyTrain is a rapid transit system that serves Vancouver, British Columbia, and their suburbs.

The metro has 79.6 kilometres of track and deploys fully automated tracks on grade-separated tracks that operate on underground and elevated guideways, making it seamless for the metro to be always punctual.

The Vancouver SkyTrain. The line offers riders a panoramic view of Vancouver. {Image Source: Lonely Planet}
The Vancouver SkyTrain. The line offers riders a panoramic view of Vancouver. {Image Source: Lonely Planet}

The metro’s name “SkyTrain” was coined in the buildup to Expo 86 because the first line runs on an elevated guideway outside Downtown Vancouver which gave riders a panoramic view of the metropolitan area.

SkyTrain is also known to use the second-longest cable-supported transit-only bridge in the world. The bridge is used to cross the Fraser River.

When the Evergreen Extension was opened on December 2, 2016, Skytrain was the world’s longest automated driverless rapid system until 2021, when the Dubai Metro was opened.

Data Corner

Canadian Pacific Railways uses wheel impact load detectors mounted on the rails to measure and issue alerts for severely imbalanced cars.

CP can now forecast individual freight car wheel life and be more proactive to avoid service interruptions.

CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAYS ON ITS WEBSITE

The company also uses acoustic detectors to predict scenarios and timings when bearings are going to fail.

The model is able to predict this three months in advance, allowing us to pull and repair these assets before a failure occurs.

CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAYS ON ITS WEBSITE

Now or Never

With pressure piling on Canadian authorities to insulate rural citizens from a lack of a reliable and efficient transport system, the question at the top of everybody’s mind is how this will be possible if private players are wary of the risk.

There has never been a time when data has been so precious to the authorities like now when the need to find a solution is a pressing matter.

The reason for turning to data is to analyze the history of travel patterns which will inform the design of a new service at a time when there is a resource squeeze.

Public transport is a basic right and the folks living in Canadian rural areas deserve a safe and reliable mode of mobility.

Big Data holds the key to that happening.

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