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.