The jury’s still out on the future of the COLT transit system in Cochrane, as Town Council awaits more information on the public transportation service's merits.
But if comments at last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting are any indication, at least one councillor is going to have to be convinced the on-demand bus service worth keeping.
Town administration presented an update on their latest figures on March 20, showing ridership at its highest in the last three years, in what was described as a “recovery from COVID” period.
In some areas, the service was meeting targets, and in others, it fell short. On the whole, director of community services Mitchell Hamm said the numbers looked pretty good.
“An 80 per cent ride share statistic is exceptional,” Hamm told the committee.
But Coun. Morgan Nagel was neither impressed nor convinced when it was his turn to ask questions.
“To be honest, when I see 80 per cent shared ride, that doesn’t seem very good to me for a bus service, because that means only 80 per cent of the time there’s more than one person (on a bus),” Nagel said. “For me, a successful bus has 10 people on it.”
He added that when the COLT system was first introduced, it was always characterized as a pilot project, but that seems to have changed.
“I don’t feel there’s ever been a ‘pilot’ side to it, because we’ve never had the opportunity to reverse course on any of the decisions we’ve made, and we’ve always been shown these presentations and told everything’s going great,” Nagel said.
Hamm responded that the on-demand aspect of COLT is what was described as a pilot, not the entire system.
Nagel asked for the “all-in cost” of COLT, including capital depreciation and operating expenses, so council could see what the cost per ride was.
Administration did not have that figure on hand, but said they would bring it to a future meeting.
“I suspect that it’s significantly more expensive than just buying Ubers and taxis for everybody, and that makes the project not very successful,” Nagel said.
He said once the all-in costs were available, he’d like to start a discussion on possibly making big changes to COLT, whether that means going to fixed routes, or discontinuing it altogether.
“I just wanted to speak my truth – I don’t think COLT’s been very successful,” he argued.
Hamm responded that the statistics showed otherwise.
“Objectively, our system is exceptional, based on statistical data, ridership, ratings, and all the information that comes along with it. Objectively exceptional,” he said.
Where Hamm was reluctant to estimate a cost-per-ride figure earlier in the meeting because the depreciation costs weren’t at his fingertips, when later pressed by Nagel for a figure to compare to an average $15 Uber ride, he said he feels when all the figures are in, COLT would come out the less expensive option, for riders.
It was a claim Nagel didn’t seem to buy.
“That would impress me, truly,” he said.
According to administration’s stats, in 2022, there were 181 COLT riders per day on weekdays, compared to 124 in 2921. The shared ride statistic that Hamm referred to means that 80 per cent of the time, there were at least two riders in a bus.
There were 48,223 total passengers on COLT buses in 2022 compared to 33,318 in 2021.
On-time performance went from 89 per cent in 2021 to 81 per cent in 2022, while the average rider rating went down slightly, from 4.8 out of five in 2021 to 4.7 out of five in 2022.
Hamm said the quality rating did not decline “in a negative way, but it’s more indicative of the amount of passengers that we have and how popular the service has become.
“So it’s a reduction in overall quality but it’s more relatable to the fact we are performing more, and so how we define that going forward is really a work with council,” he noted.
Average ridership at the end of 2022 was around five to five-and-a-half riders per vehicle hour.
Administration also pointed out that the March 20 meeting’s purpose as a committee of the whole meeting was just to provide an informational update on the latest figures, and that a more fulsome report is coming at a later date, when council will have the opportunity to have a more in-depth discussion.
Coun. Susan Flowers said she can’t imagine a town the size of Cochrane without a viable public transit system.
“We just need to make it better so we have less complaints and it works for more people,” she said, adding she’s heard complaints from constituents who had trouble booking a COLT ride, and ultimately giving up.
“I don’t know how we get feedback from them unless we do public engagement or a survey of some kind,” she said.