Boris Issaev fills us in on the story behind Parkbus, a bus service in Ontario that gets people from the city to the great outdoors. He co-founded Parkbus with Alex Berlyand in 2010.
Hard to believe, but it was less than four years ago when I clicked “send,” and fired off an email to MEC with our idea for a bus that would run between Toronto and Algonquin Provincial Park. That email snowballed into a bus network that’s now used by thousands of passengers in Toronto and Ottawa, and is run by dozens of volunteers in collaboration with Ontario Parks and Parks Canada.
My family and I moved to Toronto when I was 12. Our first years in the city were car-free, so I had to spend hot and smoggy summers in the city. It was only when I turned 18 and started driving that Ontario truly became “Mine to Discover.” Later on, I experienced France’s excellent rural transit system, and used shuttle buses inside US national parks. These experiences helped me conceptualize a city-to-park bus network, connecting urban Ontarians to the key parks in the province.
Alex Berlyand, my classmate and backpacking partner, was also all too familiar with the challenges of car-free existence. He’d visited dozens of parks in Ontario and out west, and often resorted to hitchhiking by the side of the road. He had travelled extensively around the world, and it seemed like North America was the only place where not having a car was a real obstacle to getting to the great outdoors.
In November 2009, Alex and I were drinking tea in front of a campfire on Algonquin’s Highland Backpacking Trail. We shared our frustrations and ideas around transportation, and decided to persuade a local bus company to run a few trips to the park. We needed something to back up our vision, though, so we approached MEC to ask if we could spend a day or two in their Toronto store to survey the shoppers and figure out if the demand for city-to park transit was there.
From campfires to boardrooms
MEC’s initial help with the project, along with the enthusiastic support from Ontario Parks, led Alex and I to a whirlwind of meetings across Ontario, all while working our 9–5 jobs. A pivotal moment was when we met with the founder of the Ontario Biketrain program, Justin Lafontaine, who guided us into the world of tourism and non-profits.
In July 2010, we ran the first ever Parkbus – a 9-passenger white van driven by us and rented at a premium as we were both under 25 at the time. We didn’t charge our first passengers either, as it was just a proof of concept at a time when we had no idea that Parkbus could also become our job.
There have been many milestones for Parkbus since then, including joining Transportation Options, a non-profit specializing in sustainable tourism and transportation; receiving funding both from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism Culture and Sport, and the Ontario Trillium Foundation; and having Parks Canada join the program. Our destinations have grown to five parks, and Ottawa is our new hub in 2013. MEC’s support has grown as Parkbus became its collaborative partner in Toronto and Ottawa, offering passengers affordable equipment rentals and quality gear for sale, and providing marketing support.
Finding our next campsite
Looking back at how it all started, it’s hard to believe we’ve made it this far. Time and again, it proves that pursuing a good idea is never a waste, and challenges can become opportunities with the right mindset. Four years ago we never would have thought Parkbus could get to where it is now, with all its partners, media coverage, passengers and destinations. More than ever, we see how necessary a service like this is to so many people who live in the city.
Our focus remains the same: to have a sustainable transportation network between cities and outdoor destinations in our backyard. We’d like to think that Parkbus is part of the solution to today’s disconnect from nature, and a step towards offering the kind of access that other places have. We work hard to make it more than just a bus service too, with on-board programming, an informational website, and volunteers that know and love the great outdoors. The project continues to evolve each year, as we look for new parks and cities to expand to.