It’s 7 a.m. on Carlton Street. Among the streetcars and the suits, groups of young people wearing bulky backpacks and hardy footwear line the sidewalk facing the Holiday Inn.
Bleary-eyed but excited, they are the inaugural riders of Parkbus, a first-of-its-kind service in Toronto that, from the end of June through September, will provide direct transport from various points in the downtown core to Algonquin, Killarney and Grundy Lake provincial parks and Bruce Peninsula national park.
The coach pulls up and Parkbus co-founders Boris Issaev, 26, and Alex Berlyand, 27, scurry to load packs and paddles. There’s a quick second stop at Bloor and Dufferin (though it didn’t happen this morning, there’s typically a third stop at York Mills subway station) and 35 passengers — plus two dogs — are bound for Algonquin.
“I didn’t camp until I turned 18 and started driving,” Issaev explains over the drone of the motor. “After I got a car and started getting away from the city, I realized what I’d been missing.”
Following a successful pilot season with trips to Algonquin last summer, they’ve expanded service and are expecting about 700 riders this season. Their core mandate: to make camping accessible to Torontonians without cars.
“We don’t aim to become a tour operator. We’re about providing access,” Berlyand clarifies.
Funded by the province, Parks Canada and the private sector, Parkbus, currently a project of Transportation Options, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable tourism and transport, costs riders $40 each way.
Most of Friday’s crowd are in their twenties, but Issaev and Berlyand expect passengers to include seniors and families as the season progresses.
At an Orillia pit stop, P.E.I. native Jane Wells, 44, who is en route to a canoe trip at Canoe Lake with her partner, explains that, as someone without a licence, discovering Parkbus online was a relief.
“I’ve been in Toronto for 15 years and have never gotten this far out of the city. … I’ve been researching how to get somewhere I could camp and hike, where at the other end I wouldn’t be reliant on being picked up by a car. This is the first transit I’ve found,” she says. (It should be noted that, while all other gear is permitted, there isn’t space on the bus for canoes or kayaks.)
The initiative comes at a critical moment for provincial and national parks in Ontario. Overall visitation at Canada’s national parks have declined by 4%, or 500,000 people, between 2006 and 2011. This, coupled with wider demographic changes, have forced Parks Canada and Ontario Parks to take a hard look at who’s coming and who isn’t.