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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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York grads launch bus service to Ontario parks

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Alex Berlyand, left, and Boris Issaev

What happens when the only way to access Ontario’s most beautiful natural sites requires you to pollute? York University alumni Alex Berlyand and Boris Issaev work every day to answer that very question.

The outdoor enthusiasts have created Parkbus, a not-for-profit network of transportation that connects Toronto to Ontario provincial parks through a system of express buses.

“Not only do we help people get to Algonquin Park, we also allow people to connect via ferry to all kinds of outdoor places in the province,” says Berlyand.

Berlyand, now in his late 20s, developed a passion for the outdoors from a very early age. He was only five years old when his family moved from Ukraine to Israel, which he describes as his first real home. 

Growing up in Haifa, his family spent weekends exploring the country through hiking trails, which taught him to appreciate the value of his natural surroundings.

“My parents could never spend a weekend just sitting at home in front of the TV,” he recalls. “Hiking up the mountains, walking, climbing – it’s what led me to love the outdoors so much.”

In 2001, Berlyand and his family moved to Canada, arriving just as a snowstorm was underway.

“I’d only seen snow in very small portions on rare occasions, so arriving in Toronto where everything was white and cold was a pretty terrible shock,” he said.

Slowly, he grew to appreciate many of the province’s parks and outdoor spaces, and wanted to share those experiences with others.

Issaev, also in his late 20s, moved to Toronto directly from Russia. While studying computer science at York, he spent a semester in France and noticed how easy it was to reach outdoor destinations by public transit.

It was this exchange experience that helped Issaev conceive of the idea for Parkbus. After easily travelling across France without a car to hiking trails and campsites, he realized how few options there were in Canada for people trying to get to places like Algonquin without a car.

After connecting with fellow York grad Berlyand on Facebook, the two started travelling together and worked on Issaev’s plan.

“It’s funny, because Boris and I went to Newtonbrook High School together, but we were not friends at the time,” Berlyand says.

“Then years later, it was one of those situations where you have someone on Facebook and you’re not even sure how you have them there. I started noticing that he was travelling many places, and I was planning on doing a hiking trail at a provincial park, so we started chatting and nature-climbing together. That’s when he discussed the idea of the project with me.”

Looking back, the pair had very few resources to launch their not-for-profit.

“We started as just two guys with an idea,” Berlyand recalls. “But we knew that a place like Canada, which had so many parks to explore, would need a good transportation network to get there.”

Without tremendous capital or experience, the pair conducted research at Mountain Equipment Co-op and launched a pilot project connecting Toronto to Algonquin in the summer of 2010. Soon after, Transportation Option, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable tourism and transportation in Ontario, adopted Parkbus under its umbrella.

“It was a challenge to really bring all these partners together, and to serve as middle men between large organizations like Ontario Parks as well as bus providers, equipment providers and a bus company,” says Berlyand. “But we are incredibly grateful for their support.”

The following year, they launched 10 weekend trips to Algonquin Park and secured a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. They also received support from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which allowed them to send buses to Grundy Lake and Killarney Provincial Parks in addition to their buses to Algonquin and Bruce Peninsula.

“This is really helping us grow over the next few years,” says Berlyand. “We’re expanding to new destinations and offering far more dates and flexibility.”

Though they don’t offer tours, the buses are staffed by volunteers who assist with pickups and drop-offs and help answer passengers’ questions.

“I feel like going back to my childhood. Growing up and travelling to all these places and hiking helped form my perspective,” says Berlyand. “Being outside generally makes people more active and is something everyone should do more often. We have such a beautiful backyard, so many beautiful parks in Ontario where we can go hiking, take canoe trips. Once I started going, I realized how amazing it could be, and that there are many people here who have never been able to go.”

Over time, Berlyand and Issaev realized that their services were helpful for people in very different demographics.

“We originally thought Parkbus would be mostly appealing to young backpackers,” says Berlyand. “But it’s not just young people. We have had families who live in downtown Toronto who didn’t have cars join us, and we even had an 80-year-old.”

Berlyand says Parkbus has also attracted a number of international tourists.

“There’s a growing number of people discovering Parkbus from Germany or the U.K. who have heard of the park but don’t know how to get to Algonquin. There is really nothing else for them to use.”

Despite their successes, Berlyand says starting a grassroots initiative has been an uphill battle. The key, he says, is to never stop pushing for what you feel is a worthwhile project or initiative.

“From the start, we had a strong belief in our idea and knew it had potential,” he says. “It boiled down to just calling people up, e-mailing them, arranging lots of meetings, being persistent. If you have a good idea, then people will see it as a good idea and will be able to help you down the road.”

Looking forward, the pair hopes Parkbus can someday become a self-sustainable, wide-scale transportation network that offers an environmentally friendly way of getting people to these outdoor destinations.

“We hope to reduce the ecological footprint and educate people about a greener way to travel,” he says. The two also hope to build a more extensive network connecting Algonquin Park and other destinations to Ottawa and Toronto.

For more information, visit www.parkbus.ca.

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