Operation Innovation: Uber and The Orbit
For any small town that is growing, there are two issues that need to be addressed at the outset, to make sure that they don’t become bigger problems down the road: public transportation and urban sprawl.
Look at most any growing community in Ontario and you’ll see sprawl: bedroom communities and suburbs popping up left and right, eating up green space and agricultural land, but with seemingly little effort in the way of planning. Walkability, commercial spaces, and public services, like transportation, all seem to be an afterthought.
The Rise of the Innisfil Transit Partnership with Uber
The residents of Innisfil were interested in a system of public transit, but with a population of 37,000 people, spread over 200 square kilometres, that’s a tough program to figure out. The population density is low, compared to the similarly sized community of Mississauga, which has over a million people. A typical municipal approach to transit is to buy vehicles and hire staff or contract out the service to a traditional transit company. Early investigations made it clear that the cost of a workable but traditional transit model in Innisfil would have been prohibitive. Even with set bus routes that would serve only a fraction of the population, it would have been an expensive proposition. So how do you bring functional public transit to ratepayers without breaking the bank?
In an effort to be strategic, organizations of all kinds—including local governments—will sometimes take an idea from another group or community and copy it, trying to rig up a solution that looks like the original but ends up being messy, and costly too. Innisfil was all for innovation, but not so much for wasting time and money reinventing the wheel.
Rather than come up with their own private version of a rideshare system, they started up a conversation with Uber, back in 2015. Innisfil approached Uber with a ‘request for expression of interest’, to see if there was an opportunity to work in partnership, leveraging the existing infrastructure of the Uber platform but in a way that worked for the residents of the community, both in terms of cost and service levels.
Takara Small, with her podcast Tech Talk, shared some interesting insights on this, in a discussion that included Colleen Shaefer, Transit Partnership manager at Uber and local Innisfil resident Stewart Reese.
How does it work?
“It’s a 24/7 door-to-door service, and an average 8,500 trips a month are made by Innisfil residents. About 35% of the cost is subsidized by the town with the customer, paying the rest themselves. The most vulnerable residents can apply to the fair transit scheme, which reduces costs even further. For the last two years, the town has budgeted approximately $900,000 annually to subsidize the rides. If it invested in a traditional transit service, it’s estimated it would cost around $8 million a year to provide the same level of service as with Uber. Right now, the numbers clearly make sense from a financial point of view, from a service point of view, it’s something that seems to really work for the local residents, too.”
From Uber’s point of view, the partnership has been very successful. According to Ms. Shaefer: “Innisfil was way ahead of the curve with this one. When they came to us in 2016, with the idea for a collaborative partnership, it really pushed our own thinking. And over the years, we’ve learned so much from the town of Innisfil, who have been incredible partners, by the way. I mean, our team continues to focus public transit use cases and partnering with agencies using many of the same insights from Innisfil as a foundation for innovation. So, over the years together, we’ve evolved the offering to better suit the needs of the Innisfil community, especially as its population has grown, and the need for additional services becomes more apparent.”
The flexibility of the partnership also permits the town to weather changes in usage, such as with the COVID-19 pandemic. A drop in usage during the initial lockdown phases was a reality the town could manage, rather than worrying about having to continue to pay for buses and staff on routes that would barely have been used.
Working with a company like Uber is an ongoing collaboration on how to adapt the transit partnership to meet the demands of the community. Another advantage to this type of partnership is that growth can be managed. Growth estimates for the town of Innisfil are currently around 30,000 new residents within the next 15 years, with more to follow.
Spatial Growth While Avoiding Urban Sprawl
With the expected growth for the area comes the question of where to put all the new arrivals. There are too many examples of nice areas with suburban tracts tacked on to their outskirts, like badly fitted modular homes. These often come with limited planning for commercial and public services, as well as an increase in ‘car culture’, which tends to thread through any suburban environment quite naturally.
The key to avoiding sprawl is a detailed plan that will allow for the influx of new residents in a way that makes sense and preserves as much of the desirable community life that the original residents came for as possible.
Part of that plan, particularly for a community that is inexorably linked to larger communities, like the GTA for business, is a transit transfer point. In this case, a GO station, which is planned for Innisfil, will become the focal point for this new high density, urban community. “It (the GO station) creates a transit hub essentially in the middle of nowhere. Innisfil is literally fields right now, and the potential for it to just become a sprawl of spaghetti streets is very great.”
The architect behind Innisfil’s plan—Alex Josephson—is taking things to a new level. The design is called the Orbit.
“The Orbit is this idea that the transit hub becomes this centre of gravity, and that centre of gravity is transit and mobility and everybody and everything, including the communities that are represented by these hamlets in Innisfil orbits around this new, what you might call, transit hub. And it’s about giving a futuristic name that captures the gravity that that transit creates inside the community.”
The existing size of Innisfil, and lack of population density, make it a perfect spot to create the Orbit: “… it’s very difficult to take, say, a nine story tower and plop it into what is a single family dwelling subdivision. People get really upset about that, right? For obvious reasons. That’s not what they expected. That’s not what they bought. That’s not what they imagined, which is a huge problem, but we can drop 30,000 people into this new area because nobody’s going to be staring at it from their backyard, and people know that the stuff that they love about the sort of smaller small-town charm is only going to be preserved if we do something differently as we move forward.”
For the residents of Innisfil, there is comfort in this kind of planning. After all, it’s no longer a question of whether more people will come to the area, but when. A high level of preparedness on the part of the town will ensure that the growth is managed, to the general benefit of all residents throughout the area.
Stewart Reese, a local resident, is keen to view the Orbit as a positive addition: “It’s going to happen. So we need to plan it so that we can protect the green space so that we don’t have an unchecked sale of agricultural lands and developments of just more houses that put a strain on our streets and create more traffic and so on. We need to find good ways to do it.”
Of course, convincing people who have lived in the area for years, if not decades, requires some proof that the Orbit design is better than your basic urban sprawl. The plan for the town’s Economic Development Group has always been for Innisfil to become a tech and entrepreneurial hub, not yet another bedroom community within an hour of the GTA’s borders. According to Alex Josephson:
“It’s all about access in straight lines to the train station. Instead of being forced to travel in a zig zag or in a grid, it’s a direct line for anybody…So it really is about focusing on what kind of system of roads and pedestrian avenues are most efficient for people to walk on and get to a train station and most efficient for a car to get to a car park near a train station, instead of getting cars to highways.”
The Orbit itself is a reflection of Innisfil’s wish to become a haven for entrepreneurs: “They’ve (the town) approached it in a multipronged approach that we’ve never seen anywhere in the world. So it’s attracting the right talent. It’s attracting the right programming. It’s becoming a platform for startups.”
It’s with these kinds of strategic partnerships in place that Innisfil will grow and flourish as not only a great spot to raise a family but a well supported, innovative and agile space in which to grow a business.
To listen to the full story, listen to the Tech Town Podcast.