That’s the word from Discover Niagara Shuttle, which has completed its first full summer and taken 24,000 riders along the 14-mile route, along the lower Niagara River corridor, from Niagara Falls to Old Fort Niagara.
The free shuttle was unveiled in May as a way to improve the experience for visitors coming to Niagara Falls, make it easier for them to travel outside of the city and extend their stays, but it has also proved to be a handy way for locals to discover their own backyard.
The shuttle service – in conjunction with demolition of the Robert Moses Parkway and the soon-to-open Niagara Falls Train Station and Underground Railroad Museum – is “going to be a game changer for this region,” said Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which is part of the National Park Service and aims to protect and promote the history from Niagara Falls to Youngstown.
Riders on the shuttle are not just leaving Niagara Falls to explore, but are also coming into Niagara Falls, said Capen, who spearheaded the project.
Campers from Four Mile Creek in Youngstown and boaters from Toronto, who had traveled across Lake Ontario, are getting on the shuttle at Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown to travel to Niagara Falls, she said.
“I met some sailors from Toronto who took the shuttle because it is easier for them to leave their boat in Youngstown and then hop on the shuttle,” Capen said. “They were going to Old Fort Niagara for the first time. The diversity of audiences it’s reaching is one of the most insightful parts of the program. I’m not sure if we were expecting that.”
Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said the historic site has observed a steady growth of people using the shuttle.
“Not only is the shuttle bringing visitors to the Fort, it is also circulating visitors through the communities north of Niagara Falls. Both Lewiston and Youngstown appear to be benefiting from the service,” Emerson said.
He said riders also have a chance to view the “very scenic” lower Niagara River region along the route, which he said, “turns Niagara Falls into a multi-dimensional destination.”
The route takes visitors from Old Main Street, Third and Old Falls Street, the Niagara USA Visitor’s Center and the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center to the Aquarium of Niagara and Whirlpool State Park and then beyond the city to the Castellani Art Museum and Power Vista at Niagara University to the Lewiston waterfront and Center Street and then on to the village of Youngstown and Old Fort Niagara.
With the hot, humid weather this summer, the air-conditioned shuttle with free Wi-Fi proved to be a pleasant way to travel and avoid some of the gridlock at busier locations, Capen said.
“As a pilot program you really don’t know what to expect,” said Capen. “I looked at the ridership numbers before Labor Day weekend and we were up to almost 24,000 riders.” Riders may have been counted twice as they hop on and off again, Capen acknowledged, but she called the numbers “very strong.”
“We have pretty high numbers when you consider that we haven’t done a formal advertising campaign,” she said.
The biggest ridership involved tourists going to Lewiston and Youngstown, which connects visitors who want to ride the jet boats, or just have lunch at the Silo.
You can’t really tell if visitors would have driven there themselves, she said, but for those riders she spoke to on the shuttle, like the boaters from Toronto, it was certainly a factor.
“There’s a great deal of potential for growth,” Capen noted. “We certainly are learning as we are going, but the numbers demonstrate a need for this shuttle and the economic impact.”
She said for next year they will be looking at where they have low ridership and may make adjustments.
Capen said they would also like to give a comprehensive overview of the area and are working on producing a video and putting video screens on the bus so people can preview sites. She said they would also like to have docents that hop on the trolley and give a historical background of the areas people are exploring and what makes this area special.
The plan for next year is still in the works, but Capen said the Heritage Area officials are looking at charging a nominal fee to ride the shuttle. Heritage Area officials would also like to add more sites to the shuttle route next year and also add benches and shelters. Capen would like to link up with the Niagara Falls Train Station and the Underground Railroad Museum, which the Heritage Area has been working to establish.
They are also exploring routes to Lockport and Tonawanda. She said additional funding would be needed to go to new sites, as well as continue beyond the pilot program.
“We have funding for two years, but are looking at the third year and beyond – how we sustain and build it,” Capen said.
And with the demolition of the Robert Moses Parkway, the shuttle will have to go down Main Street and Capen expects that will be an incentive to businesses that want to invest in the area.
The shuttle is a two-year pilot program, which started on May 26, and is funded by $500,000 from the New York Power Authority, $400,000 from New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and $100,000 from the State of New York secured by Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, D-Lewiston. The Niagara Tourism and Convention Corps and Niagara Falls National Heritage Area each supplied $100,000 and the USA Niagara Development Corp. provided $120,000 and Niagara University supplied $30,000.
The shuttle, a fleet of four vehicles, continues daily through Oct. 19 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission to the shuttle is free, but tickets are required to board. They can be obtained online at www.discoverniagara.org, the Discover Niagara app and at several stops along the site and area hotels.