While urban migration has traditionally consisted of people moving from smaller communities to larger urban ones, the COVID-19 pandemic and a shifting economy have altered this trend. Population migration is now creating both opportunities and challenges for transit agencies in small and medium-sized communities benefiting from population growth.
As some of these communities see unprecedented growth, local transit agencies need to rethink their transportation infrastructure to provide more sustainable mobility options. Transit can and should play a role in supporting that growth and contributing to an elevated quality of life. But how agencies approach their growth strategy will be critical to that success.
So, where can agencies make the most impact in a short period of time, attracting riders and making small city transit a positive part of the migration experience? It starts with making the bus as attractive, efficient, and sustainable as possible.
The Ramifications of Population Migration on Small and Mid-Size Communities in North America
The stakes are high to capture new riders. As populations grow, communities will need transit to provide transportation options that reduce congestion and maintain (or improve) air quality. Increasing private car traffic will have a notable negative effect for long-time residents and those who moved seeking a certain quality of life.
The influx of new residents will be looking to adopt new habits, and transit agencies have an opportunity to bring them into their customer base. For those arriving in new communities, there is no greater time to adopt a new behavior than when it’s part of a larger lifestyle change. But pivoting quickly to capitalize on this short-term population boost will require a fresh approach to transit planning.
Some communities, like Missoula, Montana are getting ahead of the curve. Missoula is currently building a bus rapid transit (BRT) system — reflecting both its population growth and the appropriate investment scale for its size. But you can’t build a BRT overnight — it still takes years of planning. And, that planning starts in a mindset shift to reflect future growth.
The Mighty Bus Can Be The Hero to Support Population Growth
Small to mid-size communities stand to gain the most from investment in modernized bus service. The lower cost, faster implementation, and future flexibility of conventional bus routes, or dedicated BRT, are a sound investment compared to more complex and expensive rail-based options, which are better aligned to large urban centers.
There is little argument that buses are the most economic and flexible form of mass transit. But they can also be the kind of transit option that can help a city make a name for itself.
With the right planning in place, buses can become the transit hero municipalities dream of. Here are six bus strategies agencies should consider to make that happen.
Making routes work for more people: Service optimization, operational diagnosis, asset management, business strategy and execution, fleet analysis — these are strategies more agencies can focus on to make their bus routes as good as they can be. Logically, more frequent route reviews and service changes can have a fast impact in making buses work for more people, creating better demand response over the long term while reducing operating costs.
Go beyond when it comes to accessibility: Being simply compliant with local laws is not sufficient for attracting and growing ridership. By making transit a convenient, pleasant experience for the most vulnerable users, an agency will make its service more attractive for everyone.
The bus as part of sustainable infrastructure: Making the bus route part of the future of a more sustainable community should be a priority for every agency. Incorporating sustainability options, such as bioswales and transit-adjacent bikeways, emphasizes a conscious connection linking transit riders to their immediate environment.
Meeting demand for diverse mobility options: Very few riders will use a single bus route as their exclusive means to get from A to B. Prioritizing mode integration — whether bikes, e-scooters, walking, or other options — will make the bus network work for more people and ultimately make transit an integral part using of a lifestyle, not only commuting.
BRTs and a future with greater growth: BRTs are an excellent option for larger centers that need that type of main artery service, and many cities are considering it as an option. But few are looking at rail convertible BRT from the outset — an approach that makes it easier to shift from BRT to light rail when the time comes. The MAX Yellow and MAX Purple transitways in Calgary are good examples of a planning approach that says, “BRT now, and maybe LRT later.”
Buses can be part of the fight against carbon emissions: No emission, low-emission, battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell — there is no shortage of options for those looking to move away from the diesel bus. While some jurisdictions are legislating zero-emission, and others are voluntarily assessing its potential, the fact is it’s complicated. Looking at the options and how they will impact operations is essential — everything from facility retrofit to staff training to route planning. Tools like Stantec’s ZEBDecide can make the decision-making process more manageable. Regardless, moving away from fossil fuels is something every agency should be taking seriously.
We encourage agencies to be forward-thinking and consider these options as a means of investing in the future growth of their communities. Making transit more attractive for people as they rethink where they choose to live, work, and play will make the growth path both more manageable and more sustainable.