Our Response to Halifax Transit’s 2016/17 Budget Proposal

Halifax desperately needs a more aggressive plan to provide many more residents with fast, frequent and reliable transit service. Sadly, Halifax Transit’s preliminary budget for next year doesn’t provide us with that plan. The status quo reigns: a five year roll out of the new network (the Moving Forward Together Plan) and modest expansion of standard bus service this year.

The proposed budget falls dramatically short on two pivotal projects: quick implementation of a new, more effective transit network; and infrastructure plans to get buses moving past traffic.

At budget deliberations, several Councillors identified the big problem with our transit system – it takes way too long to get anywhere. So, predictably, most people choose other ways to travel.

There are a few reasons why our transit is so slow. Our buses take twisty routes and don’t come often enough: a new transit network is needed now to start addressing this. Halifax Transit, however, is still planning for a five-year roll out of the new network. Our buses also travel slowly and get jammed in traffic: new infrastructure like transit lanes, turn lanes, special traffic lights and transit right-of-ways are needed. So far, Halifax Transit’s response has been to increase the scheduled run times on congested routes. So transit is actually getting slower. It’s unsurprising that ridership dropped 1.5%, since transit travel times have been increasing. Slow transit is unattractive transit.

This budget does propose a new turn lane for buses on Windmill Road! This is great, but we can’t even suggest this is only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic – it’s not even that. One transit turn lane is ridiculously short of even the basic infrastructure needed to keep transit running on time. There is no indication that anything much bigger is being planned. Once again, slow transit is unattractive transit. Slow transit is also expensive to operate, as driver salaries are a big chunk of costs.  

The federal government is planning to spend billions on urban transit. So far, Halifax has budgeted for one turn lane. We desperately need leadership on plans to provide quality transit – fast, frequent, reliable and user friendly. It’s More than Buses suggests we start, right now, by:

  • Improving and implementing the Moving Forward Plan, immediately in the next year.
  • Reduce the number of stops on core routes to speed up service.
  • Increasing frequency on corridor routes to fifteen minutes, all day.
  • Investing in amenities that speed up boarding and service. This could include raised platforms at stops, all door boarding and new payment methods.
  • Regularly tracking and reporting transit speeds and delays, by route.
  • Reviewing vehicle options for rail to Bedford, with the goal to identify a service that would need only one operator per vehicle. Vehicles with one operator would drive down operating costs and increase financial feasibility.
  • Creating an integrated transportation and land use plan, that would consider the long term costs and impacts of investments in all transportation modes.
  • Considering transit priority – lanes, transit signals, etc. – at the conceptual stages of all road construction.

Reliable Transit

Everyday, people have places they need to go, on time. Everyday, people riding Halifax Transit wonder if they’ll get where they need to go, on time. There are ways to keep transit moving – transit priority. So far, Halifax hasn’t tried very hard. Without transit priority, our system is slow, unreliable and unpopular.

When transit runs late, it plays havoc with people’s schedules. Traffic is the biggest culprit slowing down transit; vehicle caught in transit easily fall behind schedule. Traffic isn’t entirely predictable – some days are worse than others.On Thursday an intersection could be a 2 minute delay, but on Friday it’s a 6 minute delay. It’s hard to build unpredictability into a reliable schedule. Technology to track vehicles helps a bit, but knowing where your ride is won’t get it moving.

Transit priority is the most effective way to increase reliability. Regardless of the vehicle – bus, light rail, streetcars or big trains – they need a clear path free from traffic to run quickly and on time. This is what transit priority provides.

Like many things, there’s a spectrum of transit priority options to choose from. The Cadillac is a separate, dedicated right-of-way, meaning tracks or roads only for transit. Subways, commuter rail and Ottawa’s busway are all examples. Dedicated right-of-ways let transit move lots of transit vehicles and huge numbers of people, quickly and reliably.

The Honda Civic of transit priority – reliable and reasonably priced – would be dedicated transit lanes on roads or highways. Transit bypasses most traffic, but can still be slowed down by traffic lights, by vehicles turning or by clueless tourists caught in the wrong lane. Transit lanes dramatically increase transit’s speed and reliability over standard bus or streetcar service.

Standard bus service in Halifax runs entirely in mixed traffic, using the same congested lanes as all other traffic. This is the Hyundai Pony of transit – slow, unreliable and frustrating. Transit gets no priority over other vehicles, so accidents or traffic jams slow transit and throws routes off schedule.

All but a handful of Halifax Transit services are bus routes running entirely in mixed traffic (the MetroLink buses and ferries are exceptions). Ninety percent of riders use routes that run in mixed traffic, and for most people there isn’t a better transit option. Busy routes to the hospitals, universities, downtown Halifax and Dartmouth and the shipyards get no transit priority and are routinely caught in traffic. People living in Clayton Park, Spryfield, Bedford, the Halifax Peninsula and most of Dartmouth (ok, almost all of HRM) have no options but bus routes running in mixed traffic. Service that’s slow and sometimes late: no wonder lots of people choose not to ride Halifax Transit. Ridership was down 1.5% last year, so we aren’t even heading in the right direction.

If Halifax really wants more people riding transit, we need to get serious about transit priority that keeps people moving quickly and reliably. We need much more than what’s currently proposed (there’s one measly turn lane so far in this year’s budget). We need to invest in permanent, dedicated infrastructure to keep transit moving. We have to look at major corridors – on-street and off-street – that can start moving lots of people, quickly and reliably. We need to give transit space to skip traffic and get people moving.

Investing in fast, frequent and reliable transit won’t be cheap or easy, but the timing is perfect. The new federal government has committed billion for urban transit. Now is the time to decide what projects can transform our system. Now is the time for bold proposals that will move tens of thousands of new riders every day.

Giving transit significant priority over traffic could transform our city. Getting transit past traffic would speed commutes, improve reliability and attract new riders. Faster service is not only more popular, but it’s also cheaper to operate. More revenue, lower costs, fewer cars on the road and less emissions: win, win, win, win. It’s well past time that Halifax makes transit priority a serious priority.

Sean Gillis

Dartmouth four-pad arena not accessible by bus

HRM Council voted a couple of days ago to approve a massive new four-pad arena in Dartmouth. That’s great news! Except Council approved it without any discussion of how anyone who’s not driving a car will get to it.

The location is very inaccessible by transit. On weekends, the closest bus will be a full kilometer away. Weekdays aren’t much better. That nearly guarantees that parents will have to chauffeur kids to practice. And families that can’t afford a car have been told that this arena isn’t for them.

Dartmouth deserves great transit. But great transit starts with with smart decisions about where to locate major destinations like this arena.