It's not quite dial-a-bus or your own personal taxi service. But it's close. And cheaper.
After a year-long pilot project, the NRT OnDemand transit service has been expanded to include all of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Now, by using a mobile app – or calling a dedicated number, 289-302-2172 – you can book a minivan to take you around town or to other parts of the Niagara region.
And, in some cases, they'll even come right to your door.
The change will allow more riders to use transit whenever they need it, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Region of Niagara said in an announcement on Nov. 1.
Rob Salewytsch, the region's transit service program manager, noted the service originally included two vehicles providing trips along Niagara Stone Road and the areas of Old Town, Virgil and Glendale.
Now, “NRT OnDemand will pick you up where you are or close to it. There are no bus stops or designated pick-up spots.”
“So, if you request a pickup at home to go to Fort George, the vehicle will pick you up at your home and drop you at Fort George,” he told The Lake Report.
Trips within NOTL are $3 each way and if a rider wants to connect to an NRT bus and leave NOTL, it's $6, Salewytsch said.
But it is a cashless system. While you have to pay a fare or show proof of payment when you board, “most of the trips are paid for by having the rider’s credit card on file already” so there should be few hiccups, he said.
If you're booked to travel elsewhere in the region, when the NRT minivan picks you up, “you can ask the driver for a transfer, which you can use to get on the bus at the hub at the Outlet Collection or Glendale campus of Niagara College.”
“In reverse, you pay on the bus, get a transfer from the bus driver, and use it to book and board NRT OnDemand,” he said.
The region wants riders to use the system's pre-booking feature as much as possible – and you can request pickup times from three days in advance up until 10 p.m. the night before.
“Or you can book a trip while you’re travelling. (To avoid delays), some savvy riders will likely try and request a ride while they are still on the bus so that it arrives at the hub when they do,” but since the vehicles can only wait for two minutes, he said that is not recommended.
If riders don't use the pre-booking feature, they could wait up to 60 minutes for a trip, “but average wait times are half that and even lower in high-traffic areas like the (transit) hubs,” Salewytsch said.
However, if you booked in advance, your ride should arrive within a 30-minute window (plus or minus 15 minutes on either end), he said.
“A trip request for 10 a.m. will arrive between 9:45 a.m. and 10:15 a.m., and the rider is required to be ready during that entire window,” he added
The service uses software from U.S.-based Via, which will use “intelligent algorithms” to direct riders to a “virtual bus stop” within a short walking distance of their home, if necessary.
“Currently, payment on the vehicle is not permitted, however Niagara’s transit providers are upgrading their fare payment technology to align with the St. Catharines Transit Commission” by early 2022, Salewytsch said.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero applauded the new service.
“Transit is a much-needed, essential service, and I am so pleased to see this service now available for all of our residents,” she said in a media statement.
“I am glad to see residents have made use of this service over its pilot year and I look forward to seeing how this improved coverage and availability will result in increased service use in the days and months to come,” Disero said.
NOTL ridership has steadily increased, especially when Ontario moved through the various COVID-19 reopening stages, the region said.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, riders have taken nearly 2,500 rides in the past 12 months. But the region's data shows from July to September ridership averaged just under 500 rides per month, a “more than a 1,300 per cent increase since the service launched.”
People without a smartphone can call 289-302-2172 to book a ride. Riders can also select whether they want a wheelchair-accessible vehicle or one with a bike rack.
“We suggest that any riders that are nervous about being picked up and/or do not carry a mobile phone, should utilize the pre-booking feature whenever possible,” Salewytsch said.
“NRT OnDemand does not operate on fixed routes like a conventional bus service. It is designed to be flexible and meet the needs of the riders, allowing for a bigger service area.”