Features | From Pivot Magazine

This small town uses Uber for public transit—and it’s working

How Innisfil, Ont., became a ride-hailing, crypto-trading innovation hub

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portrait of Mayor Lynn Dollin of Innisfil, Ontario at the local libraryInnisfil mayor Lynn Dollin (Photography by Derek Shapton)

About a decade ago, Innisfil, Ont., almost disappeared. Surrounding towns kept chipping away at the municipality and, in a particularly devastating move in 2010, neighbouring Barrie swallowed 2,300 hectares of the town’s land—including the then-mayor’s house. The annexations killed morale among residents, who worried their beloved hometown was withering away. It got so bad that the town considered changing its name. “We didn’t know whether we’d exist or not,” says Lynn Dollin, Innisfil’s current mayor.

It could have wiped itself off the map, but instead Innisfil decided to invest in new resources, such as building a community centre to bring people into the middle of town, as well as some radical ideas, at least for a small locale of about 37,000 residents. In 2017, Innisfil introduced a novel form of public transit, subsidizing Uber rides instead of buses. On top of that, residents can now pay their property taxes in Bitcoin. The town has also built its own cellphone towers and created an Idea Lab where people can use 3D printers and green screens.

This formerly sleepy summer destination has quickly become a case study in municipal innovation, with cities from across the world calling for advice. Pivot spoke to Dollin about how Innisfil has become one of North America’s most talked-about towns.

What spurred city planners and politicians in Innisfil to think outside the box?

2010 was a traumatic time for us. We had trouble attracting people, and land was getting carved out. We’re about nine different urban centres with a lot of farmland and open roads, so we were having a bit of an identity crisis. A consultant we hired that year told us we needed a new name to get a fresh start, which we didn’t want to do. In 2015, we developed a new strategic plan with three tenets: connect, grow and sustain. We wanted to build something we could be proud of.

“Our motto is: fail fast and move on. It takes a brave council to say yes to ideas that no one else has tried.”

How do you go from that to becoming this innovative town?

A decade ago we built a library that we call the Idea Lab, which has a 3D printer, laser cutters, a green-screen room and a full recording studio. Then, last year, our chief administrative officer realized that he had passed the same person every day on his drive to work. He stopped to ask her where she was going and she said she had to walk an hour to work every day. When he got to the office, he challenged the team to come up with an idea of how to get people like him, who pass people on the street every day, to help others get to work. That’s when we came up with the on-demand transit idea. 

How does it work?

People use the Uber app like they normally would. But we have several fixed-fee destinations, like the health-care centre and the library, where you just push a button that says “Innisfil transit” and you can ride for between $4 and $6 depending on the destination. Because we’re so big, that can be a 30-km ride. You can also go anywhere else and get a discount off the fare. We subsidize the rides by about $7 per rider. Other municipalities tell us they spend $33 per rider subsidizing traditional bus routes.

Was there any pushback from residents?

It took an effort on our part to ensure we communicated this well, and we also had to offer the service to people who don’t have a computer or a smartphone. They can call into the town office and pre-book a ride. But it went well. We made 90,000 rides last year and our transit system has a 70-per-cent approval rating. I challenge you to find any transit that gets that kind of approval. 

Why offer residents the option to pay property taxes in Bitcoin?

We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Let’s start accepting Bitcoin.” Coinberry, a cryptocurrency trading platform, approached us because of the reputation we developed of not being afraid to try new things. They said they were looking for a municipality to be the first to accept property taxes in cryptocurrency. Our initial response was, “Why not?”

Has anyone paid with crypto?

One seasonal resident who deals in Bitcoin did, but no one else so far. That’s okay—it’s low-risk, easy to set up and we don’t hold any crypto ourselves. It gets converted to Canadian currency and deposited into our account. 

What other technologies are you thinking of incorporating?

We’re on Lake Simcoe, and in the winter a lot of ice fishers come up with all these trucks and trailers. We get a lot of traffic complaints from people who live near the lakeshore. We’re partnering with Rover Parking, a company that connects unused parking spots with people who need parking. We’re hoping that seasonal residents, who keep their driveways empty from Thanksgiving to the May long weekend, will rent out their spaces and help keep the trucks and trailers off the road.

How does a town reinvent itself like Innisfil has?

Our staff has come up with ways to save time and be more efficient. And they can do that because they’re not afraid to fail. Our motto is: fail fast and then move on to something else. That’s given the staff the freedom to try new things and understand that it might not work—and that’s okay. You also need a brave council to say yes to ideas that haven’t been tried by anyone else.

How’s morale these days?

Much better. We’re working hard to create an atmosphere where we invest in businesses, good ideas and entrepreneurs. Wherever I go in Canada or the U.S., there’s always someone who recognizes Innisfil in a positive way.