Let’s Talk About Transit Trade-Offs

Last week, we saw Halifax Regional Council vote to implement the Moving Forward Together Plan, which will shape Halifax Transit’s network for the next five years.

One of the major decisions that came from Council was to request a staff report on bringing in an outside consultant to review the corridor routes after the first year of implementation- a move that we strongly advocated for. While the move doesn’t completely redesign Moving Forward Together, it does give Staff and Council options for the future.

One of the reasons we strongly advocated for having an outside expert is the way in which discussions around transit in the region has taken place. When the first Moving Forward Together draft plan was released over 18 months ago, four principles were identified as the pillars to shaping the future transit network. These principles are:

  1. Increase resources allocated to high ridership services
  2. Build a simplified transfer based system
  3. Invest in service quality and reliability
  4. Give transit increased priority in the transportation network

These are good, sound principles. However, much of the public discourse that took place when they were presented in 2014 was centred on individual routes rather than on these fundamental principles. Effectively, public concerns (“I’m losing my bus stop” or “My route is being changed”), though legitimate, tanked what was a good starting point of transit discussion. What was unfortunate was that we were left without any justification of how the draft network, the proposed changes, or the status quo would actually make transit better and ultimately Council, staff and the public opted to push for maintaining the status-quo, which is the system they knew.

When the final plan was presented to regional council earlier this year, it was clear that the proposed new network resembled minor tweaks to the current system rather than a substantial change to the transit network. Council had an opportunity to correct this in April, except it too chose to engage in a route by route debate when it requested staff to report on 23 proposed changes to the plan. Again, most of these requests dealt with individual routes rather than the values and principles of the plan. Even though the majority of those were rejected, what was left was a plan with routes that have been tinkered and tweaked so much, that it’s more reflective of a fear of losing the status quo than the actual principles of Moving Forward Together.

Instead of focusing on individual routes, what can drastically alter the discourse of public transit in Halifax is talking about trade-offs. Good transit planning is always about understanding and accepting that there are trade-offs. With limited resources, there are only so many people and only so many places can be served effectively and efficiently by public transit. But, before discussing which route goes where, what we first should be focusing on is how much of the limited resources do we want dedicated to doing one thing over another.

With that in mind, here are some major transit trade-offs:

Coverage Services vs. Ridership Services

  • Coverage service is designed to provide a basic level of service to as many neighbourhoods as possible.
  • Ridership service is designed to attract a large number of riders.

Transfer Based Network vs. Direct (Single Seat) Network

  • Transfer based networks are able to move people to and from places more efficiently, but require transfers to do so, which can be inconvenient depending on distance travelled and route frequency.
  • Direct (Single Seat) networks are able to move people to and from places without having to get on and off different vehicles.

Route Length vs. Route Frequency

  • Longer routes can serve more people along the line, but require more resources to remain frequent. Double the route length, double the number of vehicles required to keep the frequency the same.
  • Shorter routes are more frequent and are not as prone to delays, but will require transfers to go longer distances.

Peak Service vs. All Day Service

  • Peak service can handle large influxes of riders at the same time. But vehicles cannot be used throughout the day in other places.
  • All day service is more consistent and easier to understand, but vehicles may have capacity issues at peak times.

Each of these trade-offs form the major choices as to how resources are allocated across a transit system. They are mutually exclusive, but not mutually incompatible. For example, it’s possible to have a transit network with 70% ridership service and 30% coverage service, with a mix of transfer-based, high-frequency, all day service routes and peak-hour only, direct service routes. But the parameters of this system must first be clearly defined and then must be adhered to.

Ultimately, the Moving Forward Together Plan didn’t do that. Which is why we’re optimistic to see that Halifax Regional Council will have the opportunity to correct the process when staff reports back by having the conversation on trade-offs before the plan is fully implemented.

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One thought on “Let’s Talk About Transit Trade-Offs

  1. “Transfer based networks are able to move people to and from places more efficiently, but require transfers to do so, which can be inconvenient depending on distance travelled and route frequency.”

    And depending on the location, nature, and facilities or amenities at the transfer points.

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