Boris Issaev and Alex Berlyand run Parkbus, an express bus service that connects downtown Toronto to several different Ontario Parks. The only service of its kind, Boris and Alex started Parkbus in 2009 when they realized that alternative means of transportation to Ontario Parks were needed. Now in its third year, Parkbus continues to expand and attract new passengers. Spacing sat down with Boris and Alex to discuss the rationale behind Parkbus.
Spacing: Where did this idea for an express bus service to Ontario Parks originate?
Boris: We came up with the concept in late 2009 when I was doing my regular job which was completely unrelated in anyway to this sector. I’m an enthusiastic backpacker and camper but I found it difficult to get to Provincial parks. As an immigrant to Canada, I didn’t have access to a car. So, the main motivation was to offer up an alternative and give people without automobile access, an opportunity to enjoy Ontario Parks.
Spacing: Parkbus is not a tour operator, your main objective is to provide express bus service linking downtown Toronto to provincial parks, correct?
Boris: We’re strictly a transportation service meant to improve access to provincial parks. You can book your tickets in advance, board the bus in downtown Toronto and it will take you directly to Algonquin, Killarney, Bruce Peninsula, or Grundy Lake Provincial Parks. There are several stops the bus makes when it gets to any given park — campgrounds, back country access points where you can either rent a canoe or go backpacking, etc…
Spacing: Where did you get the bus?
Alex: We partnered with a very reliable company based in Muskoka called Hammond Transportation. They’re intimately familiar with the Parks we service.
Spacing: What does it take to make Parkbus operational?
Alex: On a weekly basis, we figure out how many passengers we have, whose going to accompany them and which busses to send. We have to answer phone calls that come in. We have people calling us from as far away as Europe asking questions about Algonquin and other parks. They want to know where to go and what to do. While we’re not a tour operator, we still provide that information because we have the experience of going to these places ourselves.
Spacing: Do you have volunteers who help you out?
Alex: There is a strong focus on volunteers this year because we expanded our schedule and added more parks. Last year, our busses only went up on Thursday and returned Sunday. We changed that this year to include Monday and Friday travel options. It was important that somebody accompany passengers. Our volunteers are there to advise and make suggestions. They also make sure people know where to find return busses.
Boris: Half of our passengers are first time visitors to Ontario Parks. Ride-along volunteers provide value as ambassadors who can answer questions and distribute information. Our volunteers also try to make it fun. They run our on-board raffle with prizes generously provided by sponsors like Mountain Equipment Co-op.
Spacing: Do you feel that Parkbus performs an very important public service?
Alex: We started it because we felt it needed to exist. We’ve both travelled to other countries and relied on similar services. Unfortunately, there are many landmarks and destinations in North America that are accessible only by car. It’s sad because it’s possible to live an entirely car-free life in downtown Toronto relying on public transportation or cycling. Parkbus is a service designed for those people.
Boris: A few years ago I went to school in Grenoble, France on a one year exchange. I was able to visit French national parks without ever getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. We are much more constrained in Canada by comparison.
Spacing: Are you concerned about inexperienced campers heading out to Ontario Parks via Parkbus?
Alex: Yes but we work with Park Authorities to help educate new campers. Ontario Parks has a program called “Learn to Camp.” It provides instruction on proper park use, what to do in case of a bear sighting, and what to do with your food. Our volunteers are there to help out too. We do everything we can to make sure people are informed about proper camping.
Boris: Most of our passengers have some experience but those that don’t have the option of “soft introductions” to the outdoors such as lodges and campgrounds.
Spacing: Do you think there are any potential environmental consequences caused by too many people visiting provincial parks?
Boris: We view Parkbus as a more environmentally friendly service. Algonquin, Killarney and many of other parks are extremely popular during the peak summer months and Parkbus offers an opportunity to shift some people away from automobile use. The new people we bring to the park have a much smaller environmental footprint. Parkbus travelers bring less equipment and gear. They’re minimalists for logistical reasons.
Spacing: Some people think of themselves exclusively as city people and others as nature lovers. Do you think a service like Parkbus, offering a convenient connection between city and nature, helps break down arbitrary psychological divisions?
Alex: Personally, I never felt like I was much of a city person but I think it’s important to have the option of experiencing both city and wilderness. There are many great events happening in Toronto in the summer but it’s also important to have the opportunity to escape and find respite in your own campsite. You have to give yourself an opportunity to escape the city once and while.
Boris: I think Parkbus helps blur the line between city and nature a little bit. It’s funny because some of the craziest outdoorsmen, who go to craziest outdoor locations, are urbanites. I consider myself both a city lover and a nature lover. I love what cities have to offer but, at the same time, I can’t imagine myself being without the wilderness.
Photo by Parkbus