Halifax Transit Plan – what trips are possible?

It’s tough to evaluate Halifax Transit’s newest Moving Forward Together plan.

On Friday, Halifax Transit released a big, complex bus network proposal. The regional Transportation Standing Committee will review the proposal on Thursday, Mar. 26 at 1 p.m.

So, how do we evaluate a big network? One big question: can lots of people easily take transit to key destinations? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell how many people have convenient transit options from a 190 page report.

Instead, what if there were maps of the proposed network like the transit heat map below? This map shows how many places you can reach by transit in one hour, from Alderney Landing. It’s from a site called Transit Heat Map, and shows options for our existing network. Jarrett Walker, transit professional and author, calls these maps of freedom. This kind of info is critical to understanding and evaluating the plan.

Heat Map

Heat maps show how far people can travel from different locations in a set amount of time. They are clear maps of travel options and the freedom to travel by transit.

Please email, tweet or call your Councillor or a member of the Transportation Standing Committee: ask them to direct Halifax Transit to provide clear info on estimated travel times and job access under the Moving Forward Plan. This info will help residents understand their potential travel options. Without clear ways to visualize travel options, it will be difficult to make good choices about the tradeoffs between different network options. Better info will result in better decisions and a better transit network.

Halifax Transit started their network revision with a broad, public conversation on what residents want in their transit network. We want to continue this conversation, but to do that we need more info and clearer info about how the network will function. The plan has lots of measures to evaluate individual routes, but fails to answer the big questions: How many riders will be able to get to what destinations? And in how much time? How many travel options will the plan provide? How many new riders will it attract? If we can’t answer these questions, how can we judge success?

Most people will want info on big basic questions: how quickly and easily can they travel by bus? How many jobs or services can they reach quickly via transit? Businesses and institutions will want to see if transit connects them to employees and customers. Taxpayers and environmentalists will both want to see transit service that attracts lots of new riders, meaning more revenue, less congestion and fewer emissions.

But, it is very hard to evaluate a complex transit network without having a clear picture of what trips would be easy, and what trips would be difficult. So, we are asking Halifax Transit to provide the following info for their network proposal:

  • Estimated number of jobs accessible from different origin points via a reasonable transit ride. For example, how many jobs could a resident of Spryfield, Clayton Park West, Mulgrave Park, West Bedford or Colby Village access within a 30 minute transit ride? We don’t need to see every possible origin, but we need to see a representative selection of origins from across HRM.
  • Visual transit ‘heat maps’ that show how far people can travel from different origins, like our example above. Heat maps will easily show where people can travel. This will help show what gaps exist in the network and if the network will be attractive to riders.

We are confident that with the right information, our big concerns can be addressed through smart discussions and further revisions. Our big concerns are:

  • Many riders will not have an easy, one transfer trip to CFB Halifax, the Irving Shipyard, Burnside, Main Street Dartmouth and Bayers Lake. There are thousands of jobs that may not be conveniently accessible by transit. Again, the plan is complex and we don’t have the metrics to really judge who can travel where. Travel time estimates and heat maps will help identify gaps.
  • There are still lots of routes overlapping on Robie, Spring Garden, Barrington and Lacewood Drive. This overlap could be deployed elsewhere to improve frequencies, to offer better local routes, or to improve crosstown service.
  • There are few routes or convenient connections for people travelling within their neighbourhoods, such as people travelling from within Sackville to jobs on Sackville Drive, or people travelling along Dunbrack Street in Fairview/ Clayton Park.

We are pleased to see plans for quicker installation of transit priority measures, which will increase the speed and reliability of critical routes. We are also glad to see that Halifax Transit has made changes based directly on public feedback. However, we don’t feel these changes fully explain or consider the tradeoffs involved. Once again, travel time estimates and transit heat maps will help show what trips are convenient or difficult based on different route choices.

We hope to work with Council and Halifax Transit to improve the network. The first step is to get the right info and present it clearly. Halifax Transit started this redesign process by talking about values and tradeoffs: ridership or coverage; transfers or single seat; new service or improved service. This redesign is a chance to continue those exciting conversations, and to use those conversations to build a better transit network. With the right information and smart choices, we can find win-wins that provide everyone with more travel choices.

Show us the travel options.

The new Halifax Transit plan is a big, complex document. It’s 190 pages. There are dozens of routes. Have you found a simple explanation of people’s travel options?

To judge this plan effectively, residents need to see how the whole network provides different travel options, from lots of origins. The current plan doesn’t show that. However, clear visuals – like the image above – would go a long way to showing where residents can travel using the new network. They’d also identify gaps in the plan, places where not many people can easily travel.

We’re asking Halifax Transit to provide the Transportation Standing Committee with this type of info before any further discussions happen on the network. It’s critical that residents and Councillors have the right info before discussing any changes to the plan.

Please email the Councillors sitting on the Transportation Standing Committee, and ask them to direct Halifax Transit to provide clear visuals that show travel options. Its the easiest way to see how effective the plan is.

Transit can help HRM have more good news budgets

A few days ago, HRM passed what many Councillors called a ‘good news’ budget for 2016/2017. The budget reduced tax rates, improved some services and increased capital spending. This is the kind of budget many residents want to see all the time.

If we want to keep having good news budgets, we need to spend our money wisely. Because it’s a big expense, smart spending on transit has a big role to play in keeping costs under control. This year, HRM is budgeting $114 million dollars for Halifax Transit. Fares should cover $35 million in total expenses, while a subsidy from area tax rates covers about $78 million, or most of the shortfall. Reducing the subsidy could provide more money for other municipal services – like parks, police and fire – or for tax cuts.

There are only two ways to reduce the subsidy – raise more revenue from fares, or decrease operating costs. Running fast, reliable transit is a great way to both raise revenue and decrease operating costs. Let’s improve and pass Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Plan, and then focus on speeding up the popular core routes that are the backbone of the plan.

Revenue and Operating Costs

Raising revenue is pretty straight forward. Either attract more riders, or charge more per rider. Since we think fares should stay reasonable, we want to attract more riders to Halifax Transit, not increase fares. Clearly a fast trip will get more people to choose the bus, boosting fare revenue.

Decreasing operating costs is a bit more complex, but, as usual, Jarret Walker provides a good starting point. There are maintenance costs, fuel costs, fleet and depreciation costs, administrative costs and building costs. By far, though, the biggest cost is labour, which accounts for $72 million out of Halifax Transit’s $114 million budget (63%). Most labour costs are for bus drivers (no drivers, no transit).

Since we think bus drivers should make good wages, we don’t want to cut their salaries. What we do want to do is use their time more efficiently. We want to get more service out of their time, if you will. The cost to operate Halifax Transit service is, near as makes no difference, $110 per hour (pg. 21 of the budget presentation). We should use these hours well. One way to make the most of driver’s wages, is to help buses run faster. But how? And why? 

The simple why: if a bus runs faster, it will complete its route faster. With its route complete, the bus can turnaround and run the route in the other direction. The same bus, running twice as fast, can run the same route length twice as often. Same number of drivers, same number of buses, same length of route, doubled speed: double the number of departures. That means better bus service, and higher capacity.

This idea holds true for all transit, whether ferries, buses, streetcars, subways or other rail. What you need to remember, is that if you increase the speed by 25% but hold route length constant, you either need 25% fewer buses and drivers, or you can provide 25% more departures (more frequent service).

The more complicated why: cycle time and delay, again explained by Jarrett Walker.

The full why: mind numbing mathematics and statistics. Best to skip (I can’t explain it anyways).

Increasing Transit Speeds 

The best way to increase transit speed is to have buses moving more often. On many bus routes, buses spend about half their time stopped at traffic lights or at bus stops. As our friends at Planifax discovered, the busiest route in Halifax spends just over 50% of the time moving. About 25% of running time is spent at bus stops, letting passengers on. This is known as dwell time.

Any reduction in dwell time, the time spent at stops, makes trips quicker and makes operations more efficient.

Reducing dwell time is about getting people on the bus quicker, which can mean:

  • Low floor buses, allowing quick boarding (got them on most routes)
  • Raised platforms, letting people board quickly (not yet)
  • Quicker fare collection (tap cards are coming soon!)
  • All door boarding, which means shorter lines

One way to spend less time at stops is here (low floor buses), one (tap cards) is on the way, while another (all door boarding) could happen with a policy change requiring proof of payment, and/ or by putting tap card readers at all doors.

Although these all seem like small things, they matter on very busy routes. Routes serving the hospitals and universities often have dozens of people getting on at each stop. Quick boarding is essential. And if you still think dwell time is trivial, the Montreal Metro cars open their doors a split second before the trains fully stop at a station, just to reduce dwell time. Montreal also uses floor markings on its platforms so people don’t block the doors of incoming trains and slow boarding. The busier the route, the more important it is to reduce dwell time.

Stopping less: Tap cards will make boarding quicker, which means we should be able to cut down on the number of stops on a route. Halifax Transit stops, especially on busy sections of Barrington, Spring Garden and Robie, are closer than ideal. This is partly to deal with how many people board at each stop. What’s a sure way to cut down on the time spent at bus stops? Stop less often. The trade-off is longer walking distances, but we need to look at this option.

Skipping the Red Lights: Signal Priority: Another way to speed up buses is to let them skip red lights. Transit signal priority holds or turns lights green for buses, reducing delays significantly and increasing speed. Once again, we can speed up our transit, and provide better service with the same number of drivers and buses.

Raising Fare Revenue by Attracting Riders

We’ve covered ways to use our budget efficiently, so we now turn to attracting riders. Actually, we’ve already talked about that – speed and reliability aren’t just efficient, they are popular. Speeding up service and providing reliable service are great ways to attract new riders. Add in frequent service (a bus every fifteen minutes or better) and you have a lot of the ingredients for popular transit routes.

The takeaway is clear. Fast routes use our transit dollars more effectively. Fast routes attract more riders, and cost less to operate. Speed is a win, win for riders and taxpayers. Let’s pass Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Plan, and then focus on speeding up the popular core routes that are the backbone of this plan. We’ll see more good news for commuters and more good news budgets.






HRM Centre Plan Kickoff

The Centre Plan – a review and big rewrite of the rules for development in Halifax and Dartmouth – kicks off on March 21st. The goal will be to make our community vibrant, attractive and green. It will be about creating opportunities for more people to live, work, learn and play in the core of our city.

This is a big opportunity to link land use planning and transportation planning. A new transit network is needed, one that is fast, frequent and reliable, to support the dense communities envisioned by the Centre Plan. The good news is Halifax Transit should release the next draft of a new transit network shortly. This network will direct more service to busy, high quality routes – the kind of routes needed to support vibrant, dense communities.

Its More than Buses is excited to see the Centre Plan progressing. As urban planner Brent Toderian likes to say: “The best transportation plan is a good land use plan.”