Saturday, May 7, 2011

Local politicians and transit officials got a first look at, and ride on, what could be the future of busing here in the Central Okanagan, on Friday.

A prototype of the new, Chinese-made, 23-seat Vicinity bus was displayed in West Kelowna.

The bus, half the size of the typical 40-seat bus used on most routes here is far more fuel efficient, smaller, easier to handle and is considered ideal for smaller “community” routes.

Local transit officials said Vicinity buses could also be used to augment existing routes that now use larger buses but do not require that much passenger capacity at certain times of the day.

“This (bus) is coming just at the right time,” said Mike Docherty, general manger of First Canada ULC, the company that operates the Kelowna Regional Transit System.

He said in addition to replacing the existing eight 24-seat community buses made by Ford that are used here now, the new Vicinity buses could be used to provide service to areas where service is needed but there is not enough demand for larger buses.

At between $250,000 and $280,000 per bus, the new, smaller vehicle is half the price of a larger 40-seat bus and only half the physical size.

Manuel Achadinha, president and CEO of B.C. Transit, said everywhere in the province where the Vicinity bus has been tested over the last year, it has won converts.

“This is the vehicle that will meet their needs,” he said referring to smaller, rural community transit systems, such as Quesnel, Prince George, Cowichan, Squamish and Victoria.

While B.C. Transit currently has just one prototype Vicinity bus, it has ordered 15 to be used around B.C. before more are ordered in future.

As to how many B.C. Transit will eventually get, Achadinha could not say.

That will depend on future funding and the needs of B.C. regional transit systems.

The new buses, however, are expected to be moved into existing rural and small community transit systems before the end of the year.

In addition to the 23 regular seats, the new buses, unlike the ones they will eventually replace, can hold another 16 people standing, accommodate wheelchairs and like their larger cousins, can “kneel” at the curb to allow wheel chairs to roll straight on board.

Inside, the floor is at two levels, with regular seating a few steps higher than the area for wheelchairs and seating for people with other mobility issues.

The arrival of the new bus was welcomed by Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart, West Kelowna Coun. Gord Milsom and acting Kelowna mayor Coun. Graeme James, all of whom pointed to the Vicinity as a vehicle that could help increase local ridership and local transit service.

In West Kelowna, where council is looking at cutting three little-used bus routes in the Bear Creek, Rose Valley and Smith Creek areas to help provide money for the new Bus Rapid Transit system between Westbank and UBCO, the new buses are seen as potentially helping other areas get bus service in future sooner given the reduced cost of providing and operating them compared with larger 40-seat regular buses.

“We want to make riding the bus an economic attraction,” said Milsom, adding his council also wants to the system to be “cleaner and greener.”

All three of those goals could be achieved with the Vicinity bus, he said.