Written by Doug O’Neill
In September 2018, the night bus service in Belleville, Ontario, stopped operating along defined bus routes. That wasn't the only innovation that users immediately picked up on: instead of following instructions from a central dispatch office, nighttime bus drivers were directed by EverRun, an intelligent routing software developed by Toronto-based Pantonium.
The system has been a game-changer in the increasingly challenged public transportation sector in North America. Case in point: The implementation of the digital system in Belleville has enabled passengers to start booking bus trips on-demand or to request a pickup and drop-off point in advance from any device with an Internet connection. The traditional system required bus operators to drive around established routes hoping to pick up passengers, which frequently resulted in empty or near-empty buses. Belleville’s new system, a hybrid of a “hail-a-ride” service, has resulted in a 300% increase in ridership and a 30% reduction in mileage. Belleville city administrators have praised the on-demand service for making it easier for shift workers and students to get around the entire city of Belleville– not just areas near previously designated routes – at night.
As Pantonium marketing director Luke Mellor explains: “Unlike every other demand-response system so far deployed by public transit, this service runs autonomously thanks to Pantonium’s EverRun platform, which relies on dynamic routing capabilities. The system is capable of making on-the-fly decisions about schedules and routes. The software acts as a dispatcher without the need for human intervention.”
Municipal leaders in Belleville have enthusiastically encouraged transit riders to use their smartphones and tablets to access the new platform – but no one is left out. “People who don’t have a mobile or tablet are still able to phone or book a ride online,” says Mellor. “The key word: efficiency.”
It was the quest for efficiency in transportation that was the epiphany for co-founders Remi Desa and Khun Yee Fung.
From moving parcels to moving people
Desa and Khun Yee had worked together at a firm where they focused on solving logistics for shipping. When the company changed ownership and the two colleagues moved on, they formed a partnership and started their own company doing similar work: applying optimization to logistics problems. “But in this new chapter of their careers,” says Mellor, “they opted to focus on an area that was even more difficult than moving packages. They wanted to use their optimization experience for the transportation of people.”
Thus, Pantonium was born, with Yee Fun as chief technology officer and Desa as chief executive officer. Their first contract, in 2011, was with Ontario Patient Transport, which specializes in non-emergency patient transfer (NEPT). The two partners were presented with the challenge of optimizing the transfer of non-emergency patients throughout a specific region of the province on a daily basis, including people returning from hospital appointments, individuals going to and from dialysis sessions etc.
“Their challenge was to come up with a plan that would be efficient, and make optimal use of the numbers of vehicles and drivers in a given area,” says Mellor. “”Khun Yee had an epiphany the moment he set up an algorithm based on the data and parameters requests outlined by the client. He ran it and it produced a spectacular plan very quickly and realized the algorithm system had potential outside the healthcare field.” The team concluded the algorithm could be applied to the public transportation sector in order to plan an entire day’s worth of trips for involving hundreds of vehicles and ultimately thousands of passengers.
The Pantonium team has evolved its EverRun system since “Khun Yee’s epiphany that set the innovation in motion. It’s now being used in numerous other North American cities, such as Fresno, California. Pantonium is currently working closely with the University of Toronto Institute of Transportation Engineers, scrutinizing data from Belleville’s revamped public transport system. “Our goal is to conduct an in-depth survey to get more granular details on transportation usership,” says Mellor, who, along with his colleagues, has been involved with Mars Discovery, and Ryerson’s research and innovation lab.
Mellor acknowledges the timeliness of the EverRun platform, at a time when numerous regional transit systems across Canada are being challenged due to increasing costs and, frequently, falling ridership. “Without changing the number of current vehicles and extending operating hours, we can help regions immensely,” says Mellor. “Just by routing the buses with our technology and algorithms, we can add a lot of value.” Ultimately, that’s what’s resonating with public transit users across Canada: value and efficiency.
Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real