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.

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2 thoughts on “Blame low density for low bus ridership

  1. While the population may be less, currently North of Kinsac often has more passengers than the rest of Beaver Bank. So you will lose riders on this run.

  2. I undersyand what you are saying, but I don’t think Metro Transit does. Their budget has come out and there have been 8 million dollars approved for the Lacewood Terminal. It is finished and more than 8 million was spent, and other than it looking nice it does nothing more than it did when it was on corner of Lacewood and Willet Sts. Metro transit has promised new routes, but none. They have said it would be easier and better for Halifax, as for wait times they are the same, busses show up or don’t. Metro Transit has recently put up departure boards at each bay at the new Lacewood Terminal. This does nothing other than make it look nicer. Metro Transit seems to be blowing money to look good but provide no better service. Better service is what people want; and Metro Transit is not giving it, just trying to look like they are.

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