United Manitoulin Islands Transit seeks new transit solutions outside the box

New United Manitoulin Islands Transit board member Lorne Kostik of Manitowaning, right, gets his temperature checked prior to the start of the charter board meeting of the transit co-op. photo by Michael Erskine

M’CHIGEENG – Holding an annual general meeting during a pandemic is no small feat, especially if an in-person event is important to reach all of those for whom attainable public transit is important. Kenjgewin Teg, the Indigenous educational institute based in M’Chigeeng stepped up to offer a venue for the inaugural annual general meeting of the United Manitoulin Islands Transit (UMIT) co-operative.

In addition to the usual speeches outlining the vision and mandate of the organization that hopes to bring a sustainable public transit model to Manitoulin Island communities, the business at hand included filling out the 12-member charter board that will guide the organization into the future.

The inaugural UMIT board consists of Guy Dumas of Wiikwemkoong, president; Christine Sarbu from Kenjgewin Teg, vice president; Marie McGregor-Pitawanakwat, treasurer; Lorne Kostik of Manitowaning; Christine Esquimaux of Aundeck Omni Kaning; Brianna Harris of Gore Bay; UMIT executive director Joahnna Berti of Tehkummah; Rose Shawanda of Wiikwemkoong; Valerie McIntyre of Aundeck Omni Kaning; Maja Mielonen of Mindemoya; Matthew Redmond of Mindemoya; and Steve Shaffer of Mindemoya.

“I would like to thank very much all the current members of the board who have sat at the table. It’s been tough,” said Mr. Dumas. “There has been disappointment, heartbreak and frustration. But there is much opportunity here and ways to enhance the quality of life for local residents and citizens. It’s so compelling.” 

Mr. Dumas outlined his vision for UMIT. The impact of public transit on a community’s economic development sits front and centre in his vision. “My eye is on the big picture, a flourishing Manitoulin Island with a world-class transit system. That’s the pillar we’re edging toward,” said Mr. Dumas, who added that he feels “compelled by the vision of a flourishing Manitoulin Island.”

The potential impact of a regular and dependable public transit system should not be underestimated, suggested Mr. Dumas.

The first phase of the transit system, currently in play, focusses on two arteries into Little Current to the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre, meeting up with the new terminus of the Ontario Northland service.

Mr. Dumas expressed his dismay with the withdrawal of the Ontario Northland bus routes from Manitoulin Island communities, a withdrawal that came about with no notice and which impacted heavily on UMIT’s initial route designs—but he noted that UMIT quickly turned its attention to the new situation and has since forged forward.

In response to a comment from the floor that the service does not currently extend to Gore Bay, Mr. Dumas acknowledged that is the case, but noted “the first phase our consultants’ report showed that 68 percent of the Island population is in this region (referencing central and eastern Manitoulin). That’s the reason the service is based here.” 

The second phase of the rollout, targeted for late winter or early spring, is slated to include a second bus running through Evansville, Gore Bay and Kagawong with the target.

Central to the concept for the more out-lying communities such as Sheshegwaning is a demand-responsive concept that will incorporate leading edge transit technology.

UMIT is in conversation with Blaise Transit of Montreal for a pilot project involving that company’s software solution which allows for an adaptable route for passenger pickup that promises to increase efficiencies.

Mr. Dumas pointed out that traditional transit models are not sustainable in rural regions with widely dispersed small populations. “That is why we must think outside the box,” he said. Trying to make the standard transit model work would only doom the effort to failure.

According to its website, “Blaise Drive app seamlessly guides drivers through the generated routes on a tablet provided by Blaise. It provides directions to upcoming bus stops and information about the passengers who are picked up and dropped off there.”

“By June 2021 we will have further developed a token system to support local businesses and entrepreneurs and provide incentives to our riders,” he said. “This will combine demand response transit with fixed route and rider connecting services that will be directed to bring people to the route where their point of origin is not currently within our current service area.”

Unfortunately, a token system is not integral to the Blaise Transit solution.

The app for drivers features real time navigation, distance and time left to next stop, driver shift management and the integration of driver breaks into routes.

“The DRT is an artificial intelligence software platform,” explained Mr. Dumas. “Every driver we have driving for us will have an iPad that will show where a ride request is coming from and the shortest route. So for instance, if I’m in Wiiky and a call comes in from Kaboni my iPad will direct me there. We are targeting seniors for the DRT training, those 60 years of age and over. We would like to see 25 drivers and 55 drivers for the rest of the Island be part of this.”

Mr. Dumas said UMIT hopes to pilot the project in Wiikwemkoong, but if that community’s leadership rejects the proposal he will approach the Northeast Town.

In response to another question from the floor on the possibility of parcel delivery, Mr. Dumas responded that UMIT is already investigating that concept. 

The UMIT board and employees are particularly dedicated, as each board member ponies up $100 as a membership fee, while employees are set at $10. Ordinary membership is light, however, being set at $1. The aim is to spread the net wide for general membership.

Following the first segment of the annual general meeting, attendees were treated to a buffet-style meal catered by Kenjgewin Teg that included traditional dishes including deer, moose and fish.