The city of Burlington is located on the north shore of Lake Ontario in southern Ontario, at the western end of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). With a population of about 151,000 in the urban transit area, it is a relatively low-density city without a college or university and the region has the highest percentage of car ownership in the GTA. Not the easiest area for Burlington Transit (BT), operated by the corporation of the city of Burlington, Transit & Traffic Department, to be winning over people to transit.
The city took over the transit system in 1975 and Donna Shepherd, now director of transit and traffic, was appointed to the contract position. “I worked for the city of Burlington in the human resources department,” she says. “I was quite familiar with the transit operations; I was responsible for hiring staff and benefits administration and participated in union negotiations.
“I applied and I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the contract and then became permanent two years later,” she explains. Nine years ago, after being the manager of operations, she became the director of transit and traffic. “My portfolio now is larger in that it has the traffic component as well as traffic control, parking by law enforcement, school crossing guards and downtown parking.”
When talking to Shepherd, it’s about the synergies between the departments and creative marketing that contribute to making it easier to run a transit agency in the typical car-loving suburbs.
“We’re currently exploring opportunities to implement transit signal priority,” says Shepherd. The fact that the signal system is within the Transit and Traffic Department makes it easier for the implementation process. This is just one of the examples Shepherd gives while talking about the collaboration between the different city departments.
The GTA has significant issues with traffic congestion so encouraging alternative modes of transportation is important. “With bike racks on all the buses, it shows the integration between different modes of travel,” she stresses. “We were the first transit system in the Greater Toronto Area to have racks on all the buses.”
BT is focused on generating and increasing ridership. Probably like most of the transit agencies out there. The way BT has gone about it is by developing a variety of target marketing campaigns to increase the different market segments. The examples we discussed were senior riders, students and commuters.
“For this year, for increasing the senior ridership, we’ve actually contacted all of the retirement homes within the city and have offered travel training,” Shepherd explains. “We take a bus out to the retirement center or senior home and illustrate how to ride a bus and how to read a schedule.”
She adds, “We leave the bus on site so they can understand how to get on the bus and how to request a stop.
“We’ve done that this year; we attended eight retirement homes to help with that,” she says.
For its commuters, BT has looked at different ways of engaging people to encourage ridership. On Clean Air Day and July 1st, Canada Day, BT offered free service.
Surveys of riders on Clean Air Day helped BT learn why people were there. Shepherd says they could then see if people took the bus to help the environment or simply because it was free.
“We took the Clean Air Day to market alternative modes plus our transit services,” she says. During the event, BT had marketing tables at both of the GO stations it serves. At the booths people learned about transit and alternative modes of transit and they could get a free cup of coffee and fill out a ballot to win a prize.
The prizes focused on alternative modes of travel. There was a bike package, a roller blade package and a hiking package. As an example, the bike package included a bike, helmet and a water bottle.
As for Canada Day, regular service does not run on that day. Instead, there was free transit based on a Sunday schedule. During the Labour Day Weekend Ribfest, free shuttles ran all weekend. “One of the ward councilors who sits on our Burlington Transportation Advisory Committee, he actually chartered — at his own expense — a shuttle service from his ward down to the Ribfest event,” Shepherd explains.
“That was the first year this was operated and he had close to 40 passengers an hour.” She stresses, “He was very pleased, we were very pleased.”
Generating Future Ridership
A partnership with the Halton Board of Public Education has been so successful, BT won the 2006 National Transit Recognition Award from the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) under the Category of Corporate Innovation and the 2006 Halton District School Board Award of Distinction in recognition of the partnership.
Public transit messaging is reaching 7th, 8th and 9th graders through curriculum developed to fit in the geography classes. Teachers receive a package of curriculum that they teach in the class. “It’s a direct link to Burlington Transit and land-use patterns and planning routes,” Shepherd explains. “Then we offer a free charter to each teacher teaching the curriculum to enable students to participate in a field trip.”
There is a two-week Complete Teaching Package and a three-day Condensed Teaching Package for each grade level.
Teachers in the school district wrote the curriculum and Burlington Transit provided the resources it could. Paging through the 9th grade Canadian Geography Condensed Teaching Package, there is a wealth of information to get educators and students thinking about sustainability.
The packet starts with the learning objectives, or Key Learnings, Overall (OE) and Specific (SE) Expectations specific to 9th grade geography standards, and the skills the students will use.
Students learn about the Revitalization Plan for the city of Burlington then take a field trip on a BT bus to gather evidence that looks at quality of life issues and the level of sustainability in the community.Through analyzing data, predicting consequences and communicating their assessment, students determine solutions for improving Burlington’s quality of life.
As I read over the notes for the field trip, there are 28 points of interest where specific concepts are addressed, such as a parking lot for a city bus terminal being an example of public and private transportation designed to complement each other. Adaptive reuse and wastewater management are just a couple of the other topics covered during the in-depth field trip.
The packet is complete with a rubric, a commonly used scoring tool that lists criteria to measure the success of the lesson.
Shepherd points out some of the many benefits. “For us there’s a lot of advantages to the program in terms of introducing the younger students, which are our future customers, to public transit and to get them thinking about the environment and the cost of single-auto travel, not only in terms of congestion, but in air quality and quality of life.”
She adds, “We’re also excited to perhaps interest them in careers in the transportation business in the future.”
Staying Connected with the Staff
Looking for creative ways to connect and communicate with the staff has proven successful for BT. CUTA’s Transit Ambassador Program provides training and BT’s management provides encouragement.
Shepherd explains that her drivers attend different modules of CUTA’s customer service-based program. Drivers train on difficult situations, special needs and a variety of other topics.
On a quarterly basis the general manager and Shepherd go to the transit office and make themselves available to all of the staff to come in and bring ideas, comments, issues or complaints. “We do that one-on-one with our operators,” Shepherd says. “We take opportunities to connect with our operators.”
She continues with an example. “If a customer compliment comes in, the transit manager will write out a letter, take it out on their route, often at the GO station, and tell them, ‘congratulations, you’ve received a passenger compliment,’ rather than simply giving the operator the letter.”
She says with 52 buses, there are virtually 52 workstations so she admits it’s not easy. She stresses, “You have to look for opportunities.”