How Burlington Transit is exploring the future of transit, through play

Burlington, ON

On the banks of Lake Ontario, Burlington has approximately 200,000 residents.

Persuading people young and old to see possibilities in transportation networks is one of the challenges facing communities and transit agencies. The secret may be interactive play — and inspiring the next generation of transit planners, policymakers, and riders.

The program, developed with the schools, brings city staff to high school classrooms in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area. For the last several years, Burlington Transit (BT) has been teaching grade 9 geography students about transportation.

In Ontario, the City of Burlington makes it easy to connect with students through a program called People and Places in Halton.

Robert Hagley, BT’s Marketing & Customer Service Coordinator, said in the past, they’ve used Burlington Transit maps and yarn to teach the students about bus service. “The three pieces of yarn represented high-, medium-, and low-frequency routes,” he said, “and the students would have to essentially pin the yarn to their maps to make their three routes.”

Although the activity was hands-on, it was decidedly outdated for teenagers who are particularly savvy with computers.

Digitally teaching transit

Burlington Transit started using Remix to help build a Better BT, which envisions easy and convenient ways to move around the city as it grows over the next 20 years. It gave Rob, a self-characterized out-of-the-box thinker, an idea. “How can we use Remix and get a little bit more engaging and a little bit more freedom for the students?” he wondered. “Because with yarn, you’re pretty much locked down. With Remix, you have the ability to put a route in silly places or wherever.” To play, in other words, and experiment.

In May, Rob and BT urban planner Ivan Balaban brought Remix to the ninth grade geography students at Dr. Frank J. Hayden secondary school. The challenge was to create three routes with a budget of $3 million or less and to have the highest population coverage. After only a 5-minute tutorial to show them how to start a route, the students were off and running.

remix map screenshot
A few options for Burlington’s new, $3 million dollar transit network.

remix map screenshot

One group plotted how to bus to Mexico City, and others designed bus service to their favorite places. “They said, ‘We live here, school is here, and the mall is here’ and drew routes for those things,” Rob said.

Some of the students wanted to know how to check the reach of their proposed routes. They used the Jane feature and explored population and socioeconomic data to locate the most dense areas of the city.

By framing the game with a goal of serving the most people, the students intrinsically understood the point of transit planning: helping people get places.

“They were asking, how does this affect this group, and what is its reach?” Rob said. “They were getting pretty technical, without having that planning knowledge. They were getting into real discussions and real-life questions about how does this affect people, how does this work, and so forth.”

Evaluating population densities around the proposed transit lines

At the end of the hour, the students shared their finished maps. The ones who had managed to reach the most potential riders learned another lesson about funding. Rob told one group that although their proposed route system reached 80,000, it was over the $3 million budget. The students said, “Well, it’s only $3.1…”, which prompted a discussion about funding constraints.

The exercise was a success, and the teachers will continue working with the students. “It really engaged them,” Rob said. “It really was exposure into what transit development is.”

He added, “They actually created some really, really neat routes.”

Improving collaboration internally and externally

Remix’s ability to help people visualize possibilities — and to discover improvements through play — is well known among planning staff who use the platform. The surprise for Rob was that Remix improves communication within the agency too.

To address customer concerns, Rob uses Remix to see exactly what is going on. For example, if someone says route 21 is slow, he maps it to see its frequency and alternatives. Remix allows him to imagine “what happens if we change the route a little here or there, and put it on a 15-minute frequency.”

With Remix, Rob is able to have a more informed conversation with the planner. “It does two things: We have a discussion about the case, and I am better able to talk to customers’ concerns,” Rob said. “Not just ‘hey, what about the 21, but ‘here’s my idea for the 21.’”

remix regional connection screenshot
Understanding regional transit connection opportunities to the north and south of Burlington

The software was easy for Rob to learn; in fact, easier than other programs. “It’s great to see the effects of how we connect to our neighboring cities, Hamilton and Oakville, how we can incorporate routes there, and inside of our city, and meet the needs of our seniors, without actually spending the money,” he says. “It was probably a day of clicking.”

Helping people within and outside the agency understand how transit works is vital, especially as Burlington Transit develops the best transportation network to meet the needs of its growing city. Exploring with Remix has connected staff with the ideas and input of students and the community.

“The ability to do outreach and to have people play with the routes — it’s amazing.”

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