Change the culture. How often do we hear that? Doesn’t that seem to be the answer to every people problem out there? Just change the culture, well some things are easier said than done.
My name is Dan Hendry; I am from Kingston, Ontario and I would like to tell you a story about how we are changing our culture – specifically how we see and use public transit using purposeful behaviourial change strategies. Here is a fact I am proud of - ridership in Kingston increased by more than 70 per cent since 2012, which is the highest ridership growth in the country. What helped contribute to this jump?
Well let me take you back a little bit, to 2012 when the city of Kingston’s council recognized the benefits for young people using public transportation and decided to allow grade nines free access to Kingston Transit.
I worked at the city and the Limestone District School Board at the time and noticed the two systems were slightly different. Grade 9s, when wanting to get their free pass had to take their student ID to 1 of 2 locations, they had to bring their itinerary and these were the parameters the city set up, which made sense.
The issue was that students did not get their ID until November and many of them didn’t regularly use public transportation. These seemingly small tasks proved to be large barriers to students without the freedom of mobility.
And this was the start of the Kingston Transit & Limestone District School Board’s transit orientation project, which has become increasingly important for our secondary students. Basically, each year in September we take a Kingston Transit bus to each high school and teach every Grade 9 how to use public transportation as well as allowing them to get their bus pass at the high school that day.
The main barrier we were helping overcome was that no one was teaching the students how to use transit, describing to them the social, economic, health and environmental benefits, letting them meet a driver, seeing how to get on and off and most importantly highlighting the freedom they would have.
This is why we now take grade 9 students on a mini trip on a chartered City bus so they can learn firsthand about public transportation – you might be thinking what would they be learning?
I always start the students off in front of the bus. This is where I show them how to use the bike rack, I tell them the true story of when I first used it, I had never taken my bike on the bus and I actually had a pop tire, a true story. Of course I have my bus pass, the bus pulled up, I proceeded to get in front of the bus and I looked at the bike rack wondering how to do it with 40 people looking at me, cars going by, the transit operator unable to come off and assist, I was sweating, my helmet was flopping around it was intimidating even as a 30 year old.
I know now that it is a simple thing to do - pulling it down, putting your bike on and locking in place – but without a safe and no-stress opportunity to learn how – many new riders just won’t try. I have collected these stories from over 200 student presentations over the past 5 years. These stories matter. They are what the students remember because they help them feel more comfortable on the bus.
We regard the ability to use public transit as an essential life skill and by giving students and other new riders information through an authentic experience, it helps build confidence and eliminate barriers - whether mental or physical - that might prevent them from using transit.
The main objective of this project has been to build confidence through knowledge and experience so that if students feel comfortable on the bus, understand the online route planning tools, and have a pass in their hand, they will be more apt to use the bus now and in the future.
Every year since the initial cohort the next grade was provided access to free public transportation, so now students from grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 ride free in the city of Kingston. I am proud to say that during the 2016-17 school year the Kingston High School Transit Pass Program reached its goal of providing city bus passes to all high-school students. In its pilot year students took about 28k rides on public transit. In 2016 Kingston high school students took nearly 600,000 trips. High school students now represent about 10% of our ridership. I am not talking about special bus routes for students, that is nearly 600,000 more trips on our pre-existing bus routes.
The program has produced so much robust data that a student from the University of Waterloo was able to complete her thesis entitled Impact of Free Transit Passes on Youth Travel Behaviour.
She found that Grade 12 students, on average, use the transit pass three times more frequently than Grade 9 students. This shows that as students become older and gain more experience with transit, they become more frequent transit users.
Student feedback indicated that the transit pass facilitated more independent trips and helped students participate in more activities.
Though our community has been unique in giving high school students free access to transit, the explicit need for orientation is applicable for all students. Using transit is a skill set that requires confidence, understanding and responsibility.
Free passes coupled with a student engagement program has enabled students to get to various activities including volunteering, work, sports and recreation, dual credits, cooperative education, and extracurricular activities. It has also fostered independence and responsibility and removed transportation as a barrier for some students.
In Kingston 33% of our GHG emissions come from transportation, and we know that 71% of commuters drive to work alone. This program is helping alter these numbers.
One city councillor said that in his time on council, this was the biggest initiative he has contributed to in regards to social equity.
This program has helped increase our total ridership by 70% over the past 6 years.
This program doesn’t require significantly more money, or more technology. It requires strong partnerships and the will to work with local school boards and students.
I believe this “made-in-Kingston solution”, can have a huge effect on reducing green house gas emissions throughout North America.
Dan Hendry is a social innovator, facilitator, mentor and communicator who focuses his energy and efforts on making Kingston a sustainable, livable & smart city. He tweets @SustainableDan.