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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

That Bus – how did it work out?

The Denman Island Summer Bus Pilot – That Bus – quietly finished its run on September 6th. Over two months of operations, three days a week with stat Mondays, there were 563 riders. The CVRD is pleased enough with the trial to run the service again next year, probably for longer, perhaps starting in June, though they want to see numbers at least double. That will not be hard with more lead time (this year there was only two weeks to get it up and running), and the experience of actually promoting an island bus service. People who actually used the service were almost universally enthusiastic and grateful that there was some way to cross the island without a car.

Enough cannot be said about the day driver, Cheryl Veley, who drove all the way up from Qualicum to catch the 7:40 from Buckley Bay and ended the day at 6:40, often left to catch the 8:30, with an hour’s break to eat lunch, gas up and get back on the road. Unique in the transit system with two ferries in shuttle mode to chase, the schedule was frustrating, but Cheryl’s enthusiasm for the service, and constant attention to ways to make it better never flagged. She was the best customer rep we could possibly have had. The same can also be said of Lindsay Harrison who took on the late Friday evening Hornby ferries, a lonesome task, it turned out, with very few riders, and for that reason, on Lindsay’s sage advice, not worth repeating unless the Thatch is reincarnated at Shingle Spit (though the idea of riding an empty bus in the summer twilight winding along shadowed East Road is great literary fodder).

The service also received great support from BC ferries terminal staff who thought the service much needed and were always helpful and supportive. The whole thing would have been a nightmare without the Traffic Control at Gravelly Bay who flagged the bus through with hardly any delays and watched out for the parking.

The CVRD’s vendor, Ambassador Transport lived up to their contract, providing a safe, reliable vehicle right-sized for the summer service, enthusiastic about Denman and the possibilities, always open to suggestions. Pre-trip inspections were never skipped. Ridership and scheduled stop times were assiduously logged. Their fleet offers some interesting options should they continue.

Finally, Denman Work’s team, led by Patrice Leblanc, kept their eye on the service every day, meeting with the drivers and answering customer calls, keeping the posted schedule up to date, and promoting the service as best we could with a brochure, articles, posters, and social media posts. In our support role, the goal at Denman Works was to develop a trusted working relationship with the CVRD and the vendor. It is safe to say, that was achieved. Being a pilot, there was more time spent than you would normally do once all the bugs are worked out. Almost 200 hours was spent, when all is said and done. It’s a serious matter to offer a service on which the public expects to rely. Even though Denman Works wasn’t the operator, we found that not a day could go by without paying attention and being available. There’s no question that an on-island presence is always going to be needed.

From a purely cross-island, ferry service viewpoint, there are other ways in which the summer service could improve apart from promotion. In particular, two buses, the 17-seater we had for the summer, and maybe a mini-van, would be better able to keep up with the ferry shuttles.

A final report with recommendations is posted on the Denman Works bus page.

All well and good but the elephant in the room cannot be ignored. What about the community bus service? In all this, how can Denman islanders feel confident that a bus service is meeting their needs? It was a common perception that the summer service was just for Hornby, for tourists.

The summer service did include roadside ride-hailing which was a purely community element. Though there was no attempt to ask riders where they came from, there’s enough bus data to indicate that at least 20 percent of the ridership was local. Driver reports left no doubt that residents were using the service. Clark Sifford, who used to run Denman Hardware, once told me that it takes three years to establish a business on Denman, and many people took that view of the bus service. It’ll get there.

The Transport Survey was a part of the project that sought to determine what needs a community service might meet with a scope that went beyond the bus. With a statistically respectable response of 103 questionnaires, plus numerous comments in social media, we got some answers. About a third of Denman residents use some other means to get around than their car. There was substantial support for public transportation to events with alcohol, and for downtown shopping. Over 80 percent of respondents knew someone who they thought could use public transportation.

The full survey is available on the Denman Works bus page.

These results support the original vision of the Transport Committee, further borne out by the experience of the summer bus. They wanted to see a community service that would service events, get people downtown to shop, help out with home care, and cover the island north-south, not just circuit between the ferries. A bus permanently on island was essential.

The CVRD contracts with the vendor and with Denman Works included provision for a fall community bus pilot. Covid, and not enough left in the budget, as well as a lack of continuity with a short-term experiment, have led to a postponement. The thinking now is to try a pilot in the spring of 2022, with a segue into the summer service that might blend the two elements, serving the island while also dealing with the ferries.

The community service is going to be quite different, fitting into a broader picture of transportation that will include public (within CVRD transport plan), community (on-island needs), commercial (events), and even private (cars). There is a need for a transportation vision that covers all aspects, even in respect to the recent CVRD Regional Active Transportation Plan covering bikes, walking, and trails (from which Denman and Hornby are conspicuously absent).

At least we now have real experience of public transportation on Denman. Perhaps the best part for me was helping those two people who lost their wallets on the bus. There’s nothing like an emergency to make you feel really needed.



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