A successful, common-sense training program that teaches high schoolers how to ride the bus is set to expand to other communities, after helping thousands of Kingston-area youth take control of their own mobility, generating new ridership for the local transit authority, and entrenching lifelong habits that will deliver continuing emission reductions.
Get on the Bus traces back to a local initiative in 2012, when the city introduced free bus passes for students up to age 14. “We knew we had to train,” Dan Hendry, who was working as the Limestone District School Board’s sustainable initiatives coordinator at the time, told The Energy Mix in an interview last month. “We didn’t know exactly know how at the time, but we knew we had to do it.”
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More than a decade later, “what’s become known as the Kingston Model has developed into a permanent program that sees youth up to age 21 ride for free and every Grade 9 student in the region learn about taking the bus—often from Hendry himself,” TV Ontario reports. “And teachers and kids ride for free for school trips.”
The program has had a powerful impact on ridership: bus trips by youth increased from 28,000 in 2012 to 600,000 in 2016. “As you learn it, you use it, you normalize it,” Hendry told TVO. “What I find is that students teach each other.”
There’s still time to sign up for the Get on the Bus launch webinar today, June 12, at 1 PM Eastern.
The provincial broadcaster cites a 2017 study by students at the University of Waterloo that showed Kingston Grade 12 students using transit three times more than Grade 9s, suggesting that early experience was translating into a steady habit.
“The free Kingston Transit High School Bus Pass program has benefited our community in many ways,” Mayor Bryan Paterson said in a testimonial video. “It has opened up opportunities for students, freed up parents’ time, and increased youth patronage of local businesses. By providing all high school students with equitable access to jobs, extracurriculars, shopping, and more, the bus pass not only benefits the students but increases youth engagement in our community.”
Now, a handful of Ontario transit systems want to follow Kingston’s example. “With worries about traffic congestion, climate change, and the so-called transit death spiral ever-growing in the province, it seems a good time to make riding the bus cool again with teens,” TVO writes.
Back to Basics
The actual training focuses on the basics of transit ridership—how to understand the routes, request a stop, load a bike into the front rack, and follow bus riding etiquette. “We show them the opportunities where they might not be connecting—for volunteering, a job they want, a trip downtown, meeting a friend they haven’t seen, and the environmental package and climate action,” he told The Mix. “We talk about electrification of buses. We talk about the operating cost of a car, which in Canada is usually around $10,000 to $13,000 per year. We really try to paint a picture to a 14-year-old who can’t drive yet that this will give them all those things if they choose to learn it together, and that’s a pivotal point of intervention.”
The impact of that approach is in the numbers. When trainers in the Kingston program ask a group of 35 or 40 students how many of them have ridden a bus, usually five to seven of them raise their hands, Hendry said.
“So we tell everyone else, ‘look around. I can give you your pass, the apps, and the basic health and safety information. But the students around you already use it. You can teach each other.’ And then they use it en masse. What’s important is giving them the runway, the opportunity, and the social connection to see the value in using it themselves and using it together, especially early on in Grade 9.”
‘A Narrative About Freedom’
In the end, the simple takeaways from the orientation deliver a much deeper message.
“When we call it training, I don’t think we’re doing it justice,” he said. “It’s a narrative. It’s about freedom. It’s about opportunity. It’s about seeing themselves in it and using it.”
Hendry added that his own family’s experience showed how the program and its benefits extend beyond each individual student.
“We went through it this year with our daughter, who’s 14,” he said. “The transition isn’t just for the student to go to high school. It’s a family transition. In Grade 8, they’re the biggest fish in that small pond. In Grade 9, they’re a smaller fish in a bigger pond. It’s also the moment when the parents are accepting that their child is growing up and getting more autonomy in their decision-making, and that change in culture happens in Grade 9.”
The Kingston initiative won a Sustainable Communities Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2018, then gained more profile when Hendry delivered a well-received TEDx talk in 2019, then appeared in the Climate Reality Project’s 24 Hours of Reality program. After years fielding hundreds of calls from groups that want to bring repeat Kingston’s success in their own communities, Hendry lined up funding to launch Get on the Bus, anchored by the Toronto-based Small Change Fund.
(Lots of disclosures to get through here: Hendry and The Energy Mix Publisher Mitchell Beer appeared together in the same TEDx lineup, and The Mix is also a project of the Small Change Fund.)
“Now there are daytime hours that I can dedicate to this,” Hendry said. “But it’s not my program—I’m the storyteller, but it’s our program. The schools see it as theirs. The kids see it as theirs. It’s the cities, the councillors, the school trustees. It’s our program.”