Upgrading public transit to include some fixed routes in peak hours in 2024 has been recommended to town council in a detailed report.

It's also proposed hours be extended and include service on Sundays and Stat Holidays for the first time ever.

Town council received a detailed report on public transit at its May 15 committee-of-the-whole meeting and was left wrestling with what is the best path forward and what is an acceptable cost to the community.

Community Services director Mitchell Hamm presented extensive data that delved into the wins and shortfallings of Cochrane On-Demand Local Transit (COLT), coupled with extensive short and medium-term recommendations and operational changes.

It also addressed questions asked by council on Mar. 20  as to its cost-effectiveness, ability to serve ridership, and whether better alternatives existed, such as Uber or fixed-route services, exist.

Sought was a budget increase of about $310,00 in the current 2023 budget to increase hours of services until the end of the year and prepare the way for establishing a hybrid system that includes fixed routes in peak hours in 2024.

Further examination of the financial impacts of a service level change would become part of the town's 2024 operating budget discussions.

It is proposed the weekday service be increased by two hours and run from 5:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Saturdays hours would be extended to a full-day service of 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. from the current 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. operation. For is proposed a Sunday and statutory holidays service be introduced and operate from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The additional hours would especially be of value to those using the service for transportation to and from work and closer aligned to the +operational hours of local businesses.

Backing the need for the additional hours was the frustration experienced by potential customers unable to get a ride who simply stop trying and instead secure other transportation.

"Based on the current service level, COLT is oversubscribed. COLT could increase efficiency and scale to serve core demand, but it does not have low ridership," Hamm told council.

Currently, an average of 160 people use the service during its current Monday-to-Saturday operation.

Its occupancy rate averaged 4.8 passenger trips per vehicle hour in March 2023. Its occupied time per vehicle hour has increased to 82 per cent in March from 77 per cent in 2022.

An additional 21.775 weekday vehicle hours were added in January and the results further demonstrated that demand exists.

"There was no advertising, we did not market it, we just looked for an opportunity to coordinate with our partner and they chose to increase those hours for January," said Hamm. "What we saw was an instant increase by ridership in our community, which means that people are there and they're waiting to use the system."

Hamm told council the utilization of Uber or a paid taxis system was not recommended. There remain concerns over financial sustainability, lack of contribution to decongestion, air pollution, or greenhouse gas reductions, and its overall role in the evolution of transit as ridership increases. In 2018, the town's transit task force also rejected the idea.

Hamm says this shouldn't be viewed as a subsidy but rather a community investment.

"We invest in roads, we invest in parks, we invest in rec centres, we invest in all kinds of different things in our community. The intention of transit isn't just to get people from point A to point B, it's to reduce the congestion on our roadways, reduce the number of people that are driving on our roadways, and reduce the wear and tear on our roadways. We don't subsidize roadways. That's a community investment. We're not subsidizing transit in our community, we're creating a community that has a list of micromobility options."

Council had a mixed reaction to the report and sought more time to digest the information provided. What was clear is they saw the merits and failures of the current system and needed to be assured a further investment would produce positive results.

In the meantime, further analysis will be completed, and council will receive further information to assist in future deliberations.

This was a committee-of-the-whole meeting where no decisions can be reached. It's a setting where councillors, administration, and presenters can delve into ideas and issues.