Gwen Coish director of operations of Bancroft Community Transit has been organizing transportation for Bancroft and surrounding communities since the organization’s inception in 2009. After 10 years of being in the rural transportation business for recreational and medical purposes Coish says transportation service is critical to people's livelihoods in rural communities. /VANESSA BALINTEC Staff

A closer look into Bancroft Community Transit

By Vanessa Balintec

With a population of about 4000 Bancroft has its own volunteer-driven transit system that connects people to towns and cities for both recreational and medical reasons. Despite all the odds they exist. But how do they do it?

“In 2001 it was identified as a gap there was a gap in transportation for young clientele” said Bancroft Community Transit director of operations Gwen Coish. “So a group of people got together did a grant application and BCT came to fruition.”

When the transit system began in 2009 a small group of volunteers organized rides from the town to neighbouring cities to give residents access to medical appointments. Today Bancroft Community Transit has 50 volunteer drivers and a small humble office filled with letters from their clients thanking them for their work operated by an all-women team who organize trips daily. More than just medical the organization has branched into work placements legal appointments day care and necessities of life.

“We provided over 45000 rides last year which is approximately 110 to 115 rides a day” said Coish. “And that’s just medical transportation.”

Today BCT has 25 volunteer drivers in Bancroft and another 25 in Belleville. Volunteers are known to drive out to the closest city Peterborough to Toronto for SickKids and as far as Ottawa for any specialized appointments. To pay for this service BCT charges its clients unless covered by Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program and requires at least one-day advance notice for a booking and a two-day notice for weekends.

“I’ve been driving for BCT for about 10 years now” said 59-year-old Bancroft resident and medical BCT volunteer driver Bob Funk. “I enjoy the driving and I enjoy the people. I signed up for Bancroft Transit and have been fairly happy ever since. You go through life and you make your money and you do your time but at the end of the day you’ve got to be a little bit beneficial to others as well.”

From all the drives Funk has done he’s been able to see first-hand the value this service provides to people – whether it’s transportation or providing a shoulder to lean on.

“It’s sometimes easy to talk to a driver they don’t really know as opposed to a family member” said Funk. “I’ve had people who spill all we listen and we talk to them. We’re not trained in that way but sometimes you’re just kind of natural at that kind of thing. I drove a lady once and she stared out the window the whole way. You never know you’ve got to see how the client is. I never ask I never question.”

The small organization serves multiple towns and cities and with two wheelchair accessible vans and three shuttle vans proves expensive to operate and organize. According to Coish the bulk of their funding is reserved for the medical side of the operation. Without support from fundraisers local governments and upper-level grants and tax write-offs the organization wouldn’t be able to support itself let alone provide public transportation.

According to Coish their public transit projects cost about $105000 a year. While municipal support from participating communities Bancroft Highlands East Maynooth and Wollaston is crucial to keeping the organization funded there are often gaps in the budget when grants run out.

“As far as public transit it doesn’t make money” said Coish. “So to say we’re providing a service that would support itself … without the gas tax dollars it would fold. We wouldn’t be able to provide it. Just finding the funds and the sources to make up that shortfall is a forever thing.”

To help fund its service BCT launches their ATV ride and York River races every year. Although successful community fundraisers and events their latest social enterprise Wattle & Daub Café helps bring in extra revenue for the organization while providing a pivotal meeting hub for members of the community.

“Funds raised go towards first of all maintaining the building and our staff and the excess go to transportation” said Coish. “So every time you buy a cup of coffee or a muffin you’re supporting the transit.”

Since 2017 Bancroft has transitioned into the public transit space connecting people from Highlands East Maynooth and Wollaston to Bancroft through their shuttle routes. The public transit routes often emerge out of a need for one community to have access to something found in another. In Wilberforce a Scotiabank branch closed about two years ago creating a need for people to travel to Bancroft and do their banking.

“My concern was we don’t want to drive people out of town all the time” said Kathleen Rogers administrator for Monmouth Township Non-Profit Housing Corporation. “So I expressed that to Gwen and I said ‘Can we just get people around locally so they can go to the post office and go to the grocery store?’ And she said not a problem!”

Currently according to Rogers BCT comes into Wilberforce four times a month: providing local community transit every second and fourth Friday and to get people into Bancroft every first and third Friday. Although Rogers says people in Highlands East were excited about the local program the problem has been usage.

“We’re trying to figure out what people want” said Rogers. “And we figured for five bucks a trip around town I think that’s a pretty decent fee they’ll pick you up from home take you to lunch take you to the post office take you to the grocery store take you to the pharmacy and take you back home again. You just get all your errands done. I’m not sure why it’s not getting used – we always had transportation issues. They kinda got this in place but of course they aren’t going to continue funding it if it doesn’t get used.”

Coish says as long as they’re needed they’re happy to help.

“This service will be re-evaluated after the first year which will be November 2019” said Coish. “Once we have reviewed our stats we can make a better determination of how to proceed for 2020.”

A recent community transportation grant of $500000 this year will go toward providing a five-day service connecting Highlands East Maynooth and Wollaston to Bancroft a big leap that will give residents opportunities to go to neighbouring towns more than once or twice a week.

“It’s exciting because it’s going to get them flowing” said Coish who hopes the endeavours in public transit can help ease the load on medical transportation. “This is just going to increase we hope people’s ability to get out and about and spend time in this community.”

Although their service is needed throughout the town and its surrounding areas many nearby communities go without transit systems despite interest within the population to have one. A big hurdle is municipal government support.

“I think sometimes they have maybe other priorities and they don’t feel that transportation is a priority” said Coish. “So they don’t see the value of having a completely supported service in every municipality being able to contribute to and make it flow that much easier. Because it’s a lot of work.”

Although some places may be reluctant to invest in a transit system Coish says it takes time to develop relationships and move into different areas.

“Looking at the bigger picture again we see a couple areas we want to build up and I’m working on that right now just in partnership with other organizations” said Coish “If Haliburton is looking to create a transit commission for sure however we can help. We’re as close as the nearest phone if they want to invite us to come in and give advice or tell them how we do things we’re here absolutely.”

Although running a non-profit transportation system is hard Coish says she knows it’s needed in the Bancroft community.

“When we get those little letters or those little notes or those little phone calls or those little comments we know that they’re heartfelt and sometimes we just need that reassurance” said Coish. “Some of the people are completely reliant on us. It’s more than just a transportation service – it really is a life line. We’re extremely grateful and honoured to be doing this.”