InstaBlog: Small City Buses Done Right in Charlottetown, PE

While staying in Charlottetown, the capital and primary city of Canada's Prince Edward Island, one of the things I knew I had to do was check out the local bus system. And honestly, for a small city of around 40,000 people, I have to admit I was mightily impressed. Charlottetown transit offers a number of important lessons on how to build effective transit in all sorts of smaller and often less-urban places.

A bus in downtown Charlottetown

Of course, when I say transit "system," in this case, I really mean a single route. While the local operator, T3 ("Take Transit Today") offers a handful of highly limited local routes similar to many small US bus systems, its secret lies in its primary route, the #1 along University Ave, which offers frequent service from the Confederation Centre downtown out to the Charlottetown Mall. For most of the day on weekdays, Route 1 runs every 15 minutes—just frequent enough to allow for easy, show-up-and-go service. Better still, because the route is only half an hour long, two buses can offer clockface service from each terminal (that is, buses leave the terminals at the same times every hour), making riding easy. Service also continues comparatively late into the evening, with a bus every half hour from 7-10:30PM.

A map of T3's bus services.

By the standards of even many large US transit systems, this level of service and freedom is revelatory. And as a result, the system is not merely a social service for the poor, but simply a fact of live, serving all types of riders on all types of trips. Ridership feels amazingly strong and amazingly diverse for such a small place. Better still, the route manages to carry people across a variety of urban textures, as well. While downtown Charlottetown is a small, traditionally urban (and thus tremendously walkable) place, much of the city spread out into the standard North American sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions. Even here, however, transit use is strong, leading to a healthy pedestrian presence on the ground that you can feel, even when crossing deeply off-putting arterial roads.

While downtown Charlottetown is wonderfullly urban and walkable (left), much of the city is full of auto-centric sprawl and strip malls (right)

Part of this, of course, is thanks to the University of Prince Edward Island. UPEI sits right in the middle of University Ave, its campus an island in the middle of automotive sprawl. Students and visitors, however, make great use of the bus service, traveling up and down the city where they want and need to go, without needing to worry about a car. This has been deliberately encouraged by UPEI, which has a deal with T3 to make buses free for everyone with a university ID. This is a tremendous model, one that many colleges and universities should follow rather than starting their own limited, expensive shuttle service. It not only better integrates the school into its environment, it lets the institution organically give back to its community.

For a small city, the bus system in Charlottetown is well used, by all types of people.

For other riders, the service remains easy. Enclosed shelters with benches are common at most large stops. The route is easy to understand, and the schedule a breeze. And while payment is cash-only, the fare of $2 CAD is amazingly seamless for operations, as it only requires a toonie.

An interesting aside, in a pattern that will be somewhat familiar to US readers, T3 is subsidized by both the City of Charlottetown and by the Canadian Federal Government—but not by the Province of Prince Edward Island. It goes to show how important a federal lifeline for transit operations can be, and how desperately needed it is in the US—especially for cities in places with transit- and urban-hostile state governments. (Edit: Further research has made it clear that while the municipal bus service began without provincial subsidy, in recent years PEI has begun to subsidize both rural bus routes and other costs for urban operations.)

Left: Enclosed bus shelters with seats are common in Charlottetown.
Right: Toonies for bus fare make payment a breeze.

Of course, the system isn't perfect, and there are issues. Off-hour and weekend service aren't great, and service on the other lines is comparatively minimal. Given the tight running time of the route, schedule reliability can be a question mark. There is no real-time bus tracking or on-board announcements, and learning about the system online or at stations is difficult. And of course, many of the places it connects are not incredibly walkable.

Still, for a small city bus service, transit in Charlottetown is remarkably effective. It shows that cities can mix low-frequency coverage service with high-quality service on their core lines. More importantly, it also shows that high-quality, frequent service can drive ridership even in deeply imperfect urban environments, spurring all types of people to forgo their cars for greener, more pro-city and pro-social modes of transportation. And that alone is a lesson well worth spreading.

Left: An elevated overview of downtown Charlottetown.
Right: The Confederation Centre in downtown Charlottetown.
See more Blog or Social Media posts.
Based on a Twitter thread and Instagram post.