A Community Bus may be coming to an island near you, and perhaps it will be inspired by one like the Gabriola Environmentally Responsible Trans-Isle Express, fondly known as GERTIE, now in its fourth year of operation with ridership increasing exponentially this past spring and summer.
It’s a long, winding, bumpy road to plan, start up, and maintain a community bus, but as the GERTIE crew has discovered over the past 4 years, it’s also satisfying and sometimes downright exhilarating to see the response and support from passengers, funders, and local government when they realize that this is a home-grown project whose time has come.
And that’s a really important aspect of the planning process – the time must be right for such a big project to be successful. Gabriolans who contemplated a bus service as far back as the 1990s used the 2008 Climate Action Dividends program to initiate a transportation study group that undertook a series of surveys and meetings to determine if community transit was feasible, and if so, what kind of operating model would work for the island.
After studying transportation needs and travel patterns on Gabriola, and service levels provided by BC Transit, the transportation study group realized that the kind of governance and service we wanted to provide was best done on our own; a somewhat risky business but “doing it our way” is familiar to islanders and is open to more flexible planning and the use of resources that aren’t available to larger, conventional transit services.
There are several important steps in planning a community bus service, and they are clearly outlined in the March 2016 Southern Gulf Islands Community Bus Assessment, which could be used for any small community with a population from 4,000 (Gabriola) to 12,000 (Salt Spring). Depending on the travel patterns and road system for a community, a public bus service could be planned for even smaller populations, as long as careful steps are taken to ensure reliability of the service and sustainability of the operation.
Briefly, the necessary steps to planning a local bus service are: 1) engage the community; 2) establish a non-profit organization to operate the service and keep the community involved; 3) develop a service plan; 4) obtain the necessary safety and transportation permits; 5) seek funding from all levels of government and donors; 6) develop a budget and solid accounting methods; 7) acquire vehicles suitable for your budget and ridership; and 8) recruit drivers – either volunteer or paid, depending on the level of funding and permanence of the transit plan.
Before reviewing the steps that GERTIE followed in planning and implementing its transit system (all of the above), let’s look at why a community bus service is an attractive idea for small places. Like all public transit systems, it provides additional mobility options for anyone who can’t afford or doesn’t want to own a vehicle. This includes seniors who want to remain active in their community and families who shouldn’t have to rely on owning one or more vehicles to get to school, work, appointments, and recreational opportunities.
Many of BC’s island and coastal communities have Transition (to a greener future) groups and citizens who are environmental activists, and a public transit system can go a long way to reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and traffic congestion, not to mention the need for more parking spaces to fit the large vehicles that are still so disturbingly popular. Just ask anyone who rides a Salish Sea ferry regularly about how many less vehicles their ferry can accommodate now compared to 30 years ago.
A local transit system also supports the local economy and civic planning; for example Gabriola’s GERTIE system provides jobs for drivers and a coordinator, and is an integral part of the island’s zoning and official community plan, as a determinant for various types of housing and other development.
Let’s take a closer look at the nuts, bolts, and wheels that keep the Gabriola Environmentally Responsible Trans-Isle Express running and growing to fit the community.
The GERTIE project began in 2013 as a 3-year pilot project with the goal of demonstrating the viability of public transit on Gabriola. It was sponsored by Island Futures Society, a visionary non-profit group that supports innovative and sustainable initiatives on Gabriola. The Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) provided $30,000 for the purchase of buses and a volunteer Board began the necessary start-up tasks, some of which seemed overwhelming at the time. These included purchasing and licensing the buses, hiring volunteer drivers, developing the bus routes, maintaining the vehicles, promoting the service, and continued fundraising to pay for a part-time driver-coordinator, fuel and repairs, minimal infrastructure (bus stops), replacement vehicles, promotional material, and printed schedules.
After 3 years of a successful pilot project which garnered growing support from the public and from Gabriola’s local governments (RDN and Islands Trust), a referendum was held in February 2016 asking the community to establish a property tax assessment to support GERTIE and enable it to expand according to the community’s needs. The referendum passed with 67% support and a high voter turnout, and GERTIE now has an assured source of funding to pay drivers (no longer volunteer) and a part-time driver-coordinator, to help fund operating expenses, and to accumulate funds for new and replacement vehicles.
Shortly after the referendum that resulted in reliable, regular funding for GERTIE, Island Futures Society transferred its Board duties (Directing and Operating) to the newly formed Gabriola Community Bus Foundation, a 7-person Board whose current members have some crossover with Island Futures. GCBF continues to perform both operating and directing duties, and meets every second Monday to discuss plans, problems, successes, bright ideas, and reports from the book-keeper and the driver-coordinator. All GCGF meetings are open to the public, who must have faith in GERTIE, because only rarely does someone drop in to a meeting to see how those wheels keep turning.
A few months ago, the GERTIE bookkeeper commented that GCBF meetings are actually fun, and as a past and current member of the Board, I agree. Even when the ferries are horribly late, messing up the bus schedule as far as tomorrow, the encouraging comments we get from passengers, and the strange and wondrous events that happen when neighbours board their bus with bicycles, dogs, chickens, babies, potato-cannons and lawn-mowers (to be repaired somewhere in the village) are what keep GERTIE going in the right direction.
Several factors are important to the success and sustainability of a community bus system, all of which GERTIE still follows; we also looked at established services like the one on Salt Spring Island for advice and guidance. Community involvement right from the initial planning stages to ongoing service is essential, especially if tax-based funding is requested at some point. During the 3-year pilot phase of the GERTIE project, community information and input meetings were held every few months in order to get ideas and feedback on everything from funding sources to neighborhood routes.
Bus service oriented to residents over the entire year is important, especially in communities that experience ups and downs in seasonal population. Gabriola Island has many commuters who work in Nanaimo, so providing regular, reliable commuter runs in the morning and late afternoon are essential.
Gabriola’s commercial and service outlets are mostly in the village hub, so mid-day runs focus on getting residents from around the island to the village area, and picking up visitors from Silva Bay and the ferry for their destinations. During the school year the GERTIE buses pick up many high school students bound for the ferry trip to the high school in Nanaimo, and quite a few elementary school children who live closer to a GERTIE route than to a school bus stop.
GERTIE does its best to maintain a regular schedule and routes and at the same time offer request stops and pick-ups close to the regular route, operating on four routes that cover most of Gabriola Island. There are two components to the scheduled service, plus runs to community events and charter services. Commuter runs generate most of the ridership from September through June; their decline in the summer is offset by a substantial increase in visitors who ride the mid-day runs to local shopping areas, restaurants, beaches, trails, and to destinations like Silva Bay and the golf course.
Transportation for civic and community events like the annual salmon barbecue, the Canada Day potato cannon contest, Oceans Day, the fall and spring cross-island hikes, and elections is provided by GERTIE, and this promotes community pride and involvement. Sometimes the service is free (elections) and sometimes another organization shares the cost or pays for the service; resulting in collaboration between local organizations like the Museum, the Land and Trails group, the Arts Council, and the Recreation Society.
Charter services help to bring in money for GERTIE, and they also provide safe and enjoyable transportation for large groups like weddings, reunions, off-island boaters, and people who want to enjoy a late night gathering at one of Gabriola’s pubs and restaurants.
Reliable vehicles are perhaps the most tenuous aspect of starting a community bus service on a shoestring budget; certainly the main topic of GERTIE’s budget considerations is always when will we get a new/better/replacement bus? Passengers must be able to depend on being picked up and dropped off according to an established route and schedule in order to maintain and grow ridership, and this is not always assured with older vehicles.
We sometimes joke about the “express” in the GERTIE acronym because mechanical breakdown can cause problems on all levels. On Gabriola, our greatest problem with maintaining a reliable schedule is the bamboozlement of the ferry schedule during the summer; everything from huge overloads to more ambulance runs in the summer can affect the ferry schedule, which in turn can really mess up the bus schedule. The GERTIE solution to this nerve-wracking problem is to let people know (on the website and in our advertising) that GERTIE waits for the ferry until it arrives on the afternoon commuter runs, and will wait 10 minutes during the mid-day runs.
There are currently four vehicles in the GERTIE fleet, one or two of which are in service during operating hours. They range in size from 9 passenger Sprinters to a 24-passenger (25 year old) handi-dart type bus that was a gift from a local pub and requires considerable repairs to keep it roadworthy.
Earlier this year GERTIE was the recipient of a very welcome Federal-Provincial infrastructure grant of $77,600, which must be matched by the community, but which has already allowed GCBF to purchase a 14-passenger 2015 Ford Transit. Passengers appreciate the comfortable ride and drivers love the reliability of such a new vehicle. Like all of the steeds in GERTIE’s stable, the newest bus has been named using an online public survey to whittle down the choices from scores of names to just a few, and then to the single most popular choice, in this case “Canabus,” because it was purchased during the Canada 150+ celebrations (and because it lives on Gabriola Island).
Over the past 4 years GERTIE has retired 2 buses (Thomas the tank school bus, converted from a forest hideaway dwelling back into a passenger bus, and Stealth-Gertie, the oldest black Sprinter) and either replaced or enhanced the vehicles in the fleet with Gertie-Noir (the other black Sprinter), Gus the Bus (the gift from the pub), Blanche (a 17-passenger white trundler), and the newest Canabus. Naming the buses is one small element of engaging the community to ensure that Gabriola’s public transit service really does belong to the island.
The buses are all branded with the froggie-green GERTIE logo and equipped as soon as possible with bicycle racks – often with help from a local welder/mechanic. Fuel costs are much lower with the small Sprinters, and with only one of them now left in the fleet GCBF is excited about being able to use bio-diesel made from waste vegetable oil (WVO) for the larger buses. This is something we’ve done right from the beginning of the pilot project, but with less enthusiasm until recently. The details of that process have now been worked out so that it is no longer an arduous, messy and NIMBY chore that didn’t always have successful results in the fuel tank.
At the beginning of July of this year, we started putting a 50/50 mix of diesel fuel and bio-diesel made from WVO into the buses, and we hope to reach a 90-100% WVO fuel by the end of 2017. At that time most of Gabriola’s restaurants and pubs will be giving their WVO to GERTIE instead of paying to have it shipped over to processing plants in Nanaimo. Replacing diesel with WVO fuel results in a significant reduction of GHG emissions; it also means savings for local businesses and a few less transport trucks on the ferry.
All GERTIE planning and operations are done by the volunteer GCBF Board, with accounting help from a part-time book keeper and regular input from the community. The day-to-day operations of the buses are done by a salaried coordinator who works 25 to 30 hours a week, and whose responsibilities are, in his words, “to keep the buses running and make sure the drivers show up.” Other coordinator duties include fueling and maintaining the vehicles, scheduling runs and drivers, providing customer information, monitoring operations and reporting to the Board, and driving as necessary to cover vacant shifts.
Communication on all levels is an important aspect of any community bus service, and GERTIE takes pride in using every method available to let its riders and supporters know what’s happening with the day-to-day service and with current and future planning. Anyone on or off Gabriola can find out about GERTIE by checking the website at www.gertie.ca, where they will find a summary of the history of the GERTIE project, recent and past community events, and the latest news about routes and schedules. Reports on GERTIE’s progress are also on the website, and there is a section where people can leave comments and ask questions, which are always answered (perhaps not with the reply one is hoping for).
Printed schedules are distributed on GERTIE buses and at 30 outlets on Gabriola and at the Nanaimo ferry terminal, where the foot passenger crew on the Nanaimo side have taken a special interest in handing out the riders’ guides. Maps of routes and schedules are displayed in key bus stop locations around the island, and special seasonal brochures are printed each summer to encourage locals and visitors to hop aboard GERTIE and explore the island. This summer and the summer of 2016 the Gabriola Museum collaborated with GERTIE to arrange very popular tours of the island on Sundays. They leave from the museum and focus alternately on either the cultural or geographical history of Gabriola. As the summer progresses the tours become more popular and the larger (17 or 24 passenger) buses are used.
The corollary to good communication is solid community engagement and support, which is essential for maintaining and increasing ridership, forming partnerships, and fundraising. Community support has been a key factor in GERTIE’s success, and is something GCBF celebrates at almost every bi-monthly meeting. Long before GERTIE began its pilot project an extensive survey was undertaken in 2008 to raise awareness of plans for a transit service, and to ask Gabriola residents for their ideas about a local bus service.
A “Go GERTIE” team of volunteers operates alongside the current GCBF board to help with public input and promotion of the service, and to engage volunteers, riders, supporters and visitors whenever and wherever possible. During the summer the “Go GERTIE” team has a booth at the Saturday market where they can be seen selling raffle tickets, extolling the virtues of a biodegradable, non-toxic soap made from the glycerin byproduct of the biodiesel process, or just handing out riders guides to people who may not have had the pleasure of riding with friends to a favourite island destination.
GERTIE now has so many community supporters that it would be difficult to name an island entity that has not or does not support GERTIE either financially or collaboratively. Many of the community events that GERTIE provides transportation for are funded wholly or partly by donors ranging from Gabriola’s local restaurants, hairdressers, almost all of our commercial retail outlets, realtors, and even our Village Liquor Store, whose “one per cent” program recently donated over $900 to help purchase the next new or replacement vehicle.
An important and sometimes overlooked aspect of developing and maintaining a successful local transit service is the drivers, and GERTIE excels (so we are told by passengers) in that department. GERTIE drivers go beyond what is normally required when it comes to being helpful, resourceful, and willing to go out of their way, literally and figuratively. Statistics are kept for ridership, fuel usage, vehicle mileage, and route coverage; sometimes they result in unusual counts, like the notes from early July, which saw GERTIE’s highest passenger count to date: 404 people, 10 chickens, several dogs, and maybe one mouse (no questions asked).
GERTIE is now an established part of Gabriola Island’s economic and cultural makeup; perhaps in a few more years it will also be an important thread in the fabric of Gabriola’s history. Meanwhile, the wheels on the buses go round and round the island, thanks to our adventurous passengers, dependable drivers, and the enormous combined support from businesses, local governments, residents, and generous donors whose help has made GERTIE a fine example of local planning, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, and determination!
Susan Yates is a community volunteer on Gabriola Island, BC, and a member of the Watershed Sentinel’s volunteer board.