Maps Matter

Before the weekend, Halifax Transit’s acting director Dave Reage made some unfortunate remarks about transit maps to the Coast‘s Jacob Boon:

“Even now, I use Google Transit most often if I want to figure out where I’m going,” says Dave Reage. The acting director of Halifax Transit calls paper maps somewhat of a dinosaur. “The digital tools are far more powerful than a map would ever be.”

[. . .]

“I would wager too, though, that probably most of your regular riders don’t ever use a map because they know where they’re going,” says Reage.

The idea seems to be that maps don’t matter, since most people can just use Google Transit and most people who ride the bus already know where they’re going.

It’s hard to tell if that’s exactly what Raage meant. But whether he meant it or not it’s an idea that deserves some pushback. We think great transit should be for everyone, not just people with expensive data plans and broadband at home.

But also, suppose it’s true that regular riders don’t use maps because they know where they’re going. What about new riders? Don’t we want more people taking transit? And even for regular riders, don’t we want to make it easier for them to take new trips they’re not already familiar with? Maps — good, clear, simple maps — are essential for making it easier for people to take the bus for the first time.

IMTB’s Sean Gillis had this response to Reage’s comments:

The fact the new transit map is still mostly illegible speaks to two major problems with how we look at transit:

1) Many think it should take nearly everyone to Downtown Halifax without a transfer.

2) We still haven’t decided which routes are really priorities. Some routes – 1, 10, 7, etc. – should jump out on the map because they offer more service than other routes. Until we sort out our core routes, this will be a problem way beyond the transit map.

The same mediocre effort is shown in many transit decisions, big and small: the new bus stop signs don’t tell you what direction the bus goes in; no schedule information or route maps at 99% of shelters; a lack of shelters and concrete pads; picking a poor location for the Lacewood Terminal; the generally brutal experience of transferring at Mumford (good luck with that signage).

We can’t have a Metro system like a big city, but go to Montreal and see how carefully they use signage, maps and colour in their stations to guide riders to the right trains, especially when transferring. On the trains route maps are everywhere, showing connections to the commuter rail system. In the Metro stations and at bus terminals there are maps everywhere, helping you find your platform and explain where buses go. It is a very large system, but incredibly easy to navigate for the casual rider. We have much to learn from other cities in their approach to branding and wayfinding.




Halifax Transit Plan – More info and more crosstowns, please

So, how do we evaluate a big, complicated transit 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.

Halifax’s Transit’s new plan doesn’t answer the key question: where can people easily travel to using transit? We ask that Halifax Transit provide information about how many people can access key regional destinations on the proposed transit network and to provide estimates of travel times and increases in ridership. Until we have that type of information, the plan is just not ready, yet.

The backbone of the plan is Halifax Transit’s proposed ten corridor routes. They go to Sackville, Bedford, Spryfield, Halifax, Eastern Passage, Burnside, and Dartmouth. Ideally, these routes should form a frequent, transfer-based network, where short wait times make it easy to transfer from one route to another in several directions.

That route structure would give many people easy access to jobs, schools, shops, and services all over the region, which is why in the fall of 2013 the public asked Halifax Transit for a transfer-based network. Residents want quicker trips to major destinations across the region on much simpler routes.

However, Moving Forward proposes tradeoffs that pull back from a strong transfer-based network. It would give many areas a no-transfer ride to Downtown Halifax during rush hour. This could be useful, but there are downsides to consider. First, the new plan has too many routes focused on Downtown Halifax; overlapping routes are buses that could be used elsewhere. Second, there are few crosstown routes, which would help people from across HRM quickly reach key destinations like Bayers Lake, Burnside, Mainstreet Dartmouth, Downtown Dartmouth and Woodside. Crosstown routes are especially important for people working part time or working shifts. Third, the northern end of Barrington Street has been left off the corridors entirely, limiting access to Mulgrave Park, CFB Halifax, and the Irving Shipyards.

Maybe Halifax Transit chose the right trade-offs. But without more information, neither you nor the public can know. We need to know the answers to questions like these: On the new network, about how long will people take to get from Spryfield to Bayers Lake at 7:45 in the morning? How long will people take to get from Mic Mac Mall back to Eastern Passage at 9:00 at night? From Mill Cove, how many locations can a bus rider get to in less than 45 minutes?

So we are asking Regional Council not to vote on the Moving Forward Together plan — at least not yet. It’s just not ready yet. Instead, please direct Halifax Transit to provide clear information on estimated travel times and access to jobs on the proposed network. We know getting this data will be labour-intensive and may take a lot of time. But the stakes for the corridor routes are high. They will be the backbone of HRM’s transit system and will shape the system’s growth for decades. Let’s take the time to get the network right.

Blame low density for low bus ridership

A headline in today’s Coast suggest we Blame Halifax Transit for low bus ridership. The reality is much simpler: there is not enough density in many areas to justify bus service. If we choose to run bus service in areas with very low density and very low demand, we are choosing not to run bus service where it would be useful to many more people. If you want high quality transit, you should choose a neighbourhood that is dense enough to support high quality transit.

The diagram below, from transit consultant Jarrett Walker sums up the issue.

Human Transit - density

When fewer people can walk to a bus stop, there are fewer people to ride the bus. It doesn’t matter how close or far a neighbourhood is from downtown: if it has few houses, there are few potential riders.

Bus service is expensive to run (one hour of Halifax Transit service costs on average $100 per hour). So if only 4 people an hour ride the bus, the expense is $25 per rider. If 40 people an hour ride the bus, the expense is $2.50 per rider.

But transit is a critical service – don’t people deserve bus service? Yes, transit is critical, especially for people with low incomes and people who can’t drive. But the transit budget is limited, so we have to make choices. By choosing to run buses to York Redoubt we are choosing not to run buses that do much more useful things, like: 

  • Provide more service on routes that are so overcrowded they routinely leave passengers behind.
  • Provide crosstown services so many more shift workers can easily travel to locations like Main Street Dartmouth, Burnside, Bayers Lake, CFB Halifax and MicMac Mall.
  • Provide higher frequency on busy routes so transit is more convenient and more appealing.
  • Provide new services to other areas that also lack transit.

Beyond the transit budget, our overall resources are limited. By choosing to run transit in areas with exceptionally low ridership, we are choosing not to spend resources on other city services like:

  • Fire and police
  • Parks and recreation
  • Basic maintenance of roads and buildings
  • Libraries and schools
  • Bike trails and new sidewalks
  • Affordable housing
  • Energy efficiency and green infrastructure

People absolutely need travel options for their basic needs. But, expensive fixed route service is a very poor fit in areas with few riders. We have to consider the trade-offs inherent in trying to provide fixed-route service everywhere. In some cases the costs dramatically outweigh the benefits.

Some employers don’t trust Halifax Transit

CBC news had a fascinating article today about businesses refusing to hire people who only use Halifax Transit. Some businesses feel that the bus is simply not reliable enough. This article hits a number of critical points about quality transit service, especially service for people working shifts or people who don’t make a lot of money.

  1. There is a real need for quality service outside rush hour.
  2. Many people need to travel crosstown, instead of downtown. This issue is not addressed in Halifax Transit’s network plan.
  3. Transit isn’t reliable if it’s stuck in traffic.

First, more people are working shifts outside the 9-5 workday. Many people need quality service throughout the day and into the evening. Too many transit decisions, however, overestimate the importance of rush hour service aimed at the 9-5 professional. There is an obvious demand for more service during rush hour, but focusing too heavily on rush hour service means less service at other times.

Second, more people need to travel crosstown. This includes people heading to Burnside, Bayers Lake, Woodside, Main Street Dartmouth, Innovation Drive and Dartmouth Crossing.  Many people working in the service industry or retail – people who often don’t make a lot of money – need to get to these locations. People who often don’t own cars often work in places that are difficult to service with transit, and are poorly served by crosstown routes.

Third, buses are late and slow because they are caught in traffic. Because the same bus often runs several routes, this even affects routes that don’t run near chokepoints like the Bridges or the rotary. If we are going to have a reliable transit system we need to spend money to upgrade roads like Bayers Road so that there are bus lanes. There is no way to run a reliable schedule with buses caught in traffic.

We feel that issue two in particular is not addressed through Halifax Transit’s latest network plan. There is not enough crosstown service, which is critical to people heading from suburb to suburb. Good crosstown routing allows people to transfer to reach many more destinations. When service is frequent people can transfer quickly to routes heading into the city, out of the city and across the city.

Every transit network makes trade-offs between crosstown routes and routes heading downtown. Every transit network makes trade-offs between peak hour service and all day service. These trade-offs have huge consequences on where and when people can travel. They impact who benefits the most from transit. We absolutely need to redesign our transit network, but we have to get it right. The current network lacks enough crosstown routes: are we comfortable with the consequences? We don’t think we have enough info on what the transit does to even start the discussion.