Ride-hailing services will not solve Halifax traffic problems

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the role of ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and whether or not they will ever come to Halifax.

There are a lot of valid reasons why introducing ride-hailing services could be attractive in Halifax. Currently, the taxi industry holds an effective monopoly on ad-hoc door-to-door trips and ride-hailing can provide competition in a market that has traditionally been dominated by a few companies. Consumer choice here may be a good thing. But, understandably there is some concern, both from the taxi industry and elsewhere, that these services provide ‘unfair’ competition because they are not subject to the same regulations (i.e.: taxi licencing, fare metering, etc….). These are valid concerns as well.

There are also major concerns about accessibility in ride-hailing services. Since these services rely almost exclusively on privately-owned vehicles, there’s no guarantee that they will be accessible to people with mobility challenges.

But the proponents of companies such as Uber and Lyft often like to cite the consumer convenience benefits – in particular, shorter travel times, and reducing traffic congestion – as reasons to introduce these services into new markets.

That is wrong.

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Uber, Lyft, or any other ride-hailing service will make travel times shorter or reduce traffic congestion. In reality, planning and designing for these services will make travel times longer, and make traffic worse. Expert public transit consultant Jarrett Walker has gone so far as to call ride-hailing as an existential threat to liveable cities.

That’s because there are two important interrelated variables in people’s travel patterns that ride-hailing services don’t change: geometry and capacity.

Let’s illustrate these:

The shortest distance from any ‘Point A’ to any ‘Point B’ is always a straight line.


‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ along a straight line

However, in an urban transportation network, we don’t have the luxury of drawing straight lines from every single possible ‘Point A’ to every single possible ‘Point B’. Instead, we have road networks that are designed to move numerous people along standardized paths. The geometry of road networks is dictated by a number of factors. Density, landscape, population, etc… all determine how and where roads are laid out.


‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ through a typical grid road network


Because there’s only finite space for roads in a given area, road networks have a limited capacity. Since space is at a premium, a particular focus has to be given to how that space is used. Privately-owned vehicles are a extremely wasteful since they require much more space to move a single person through the road network than a public transit vehicle such as a bus, or streetcar.

Since only a limited number of privately-owned vehicles can move through a road network before it becomes saturated, the capacity of a road network is much lower using privately-owned vehicles than it would be using transit. When we have multiple people trying to get from multiple ‘Point As’ to multiple ‘Point Bs’ all at the same time, these road networks become congested with traffic.


Multiple ‘Point As’ to multiple ‘Point Bs’ causing road network congestion

So, how do ride-hailing services solve this problem?

They don’t.

Ride-hailing services rely on privately-owned vehicles to move people. If every single person who drove to work during the morning rush hour instead used an Uber or Lyft to get there, there would be the exact same number of vehicles on the road.


Planning and designing for ride-sharing is no different that planning and designing for cars. While there may be some consumer conveniences that makes these services seemingly attractive to use, they are fundamentally incompatible with goals of reducing traffic, road network congestion, and numbers of trips in privately-owned vehicles.

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How much do we care about Transit in Halifax?

The way we clear snow should reflect how much we care about our transit system.

These are all photos taken Tuesday morning, approximately 48 hours after receiving 30cm of snow this past weekend.


And then of course….quinpool_road

Halifax currently has a service standard where all bus stops should be clear 48 hours after a weather event and only after sidewalks have been cleared. Clearly there are a number of problems with this service standard. Even though all of these  stops are considered “cleared”, they are not friendly to transit uses.

A typical bus is 40 feet long. Articulated buses in Halifax are 60 feet long with two sets of rear doors. Yet, these stops have maybe 10 feet cleared of snow where riders can board and alight buses. Small snow clearings make the use of rear doors on buses impossible, thereby causing delays for everyone as it now takes twice as long to get everyone off and on a bus.

Each of these stops are also marked as wheelchair accessible, yet snow banks protrude into the road, preventing buses from fully pulling over to the curb and being able to operate their kneeling functions and wheelchair ramps.

These images show that we care enough about transit to clear snow, but we don’t care enough to do it well or consistently.

So what would it take to make user-friendly bus stops?

First, we need high traffic stops clear within 24 hours. That includes terminals, downtown streets, and stops at major intersections. 48 hours after a weather event means two days without access to transit service. That is in addition to the weather events themselves, which in Canada, can last a long time. We can also start by having crews ready, preparing and clearing stops pro-actively during weather events if it is safe to do so.

Second, we need bus stops cleared at the same time as sidewalks. Sooner or later, all transit users are pedestrians and having access to bus stops cleared at the same time as sidewalks ensures that once passengers get off a bus, they have a place to go safely. In practice, many operators do this already, even though it is not in the service standard (and they have our thanks!).

Third, we need 60 feet of ‘to-the-curb’ clearance at all bus stops. 60 feet gives enough room for a full articulated bus to operate all three sets of doors and will maximize efficiency in boarding and alighting passengers. 60 feet of’to-the-curb’ clearance will also ensure that there is plenty of room to operate wheelchair ramps and kneeling functions of buses.

There are examples of well-cleared stops in Halifax. Here’s one:


Ultimately, Halifax Transit is a $100 million system. An easy way to show that we really do care about the system is to make sure that stops are well-cleared, are user-friendly, and are accessible.

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2017 – Will it be a major year for Halifax Transit?

3 JAN 2017 – UPDATE: Halifax transportation advocate Ben Wedge pointed out an important consideration with regard to all-door boarding on transit vehicles. See his comments from an email below.

As 2016 wraps up, we take a look at some of the exciting projects that Halifax Transit is working on that we can look forward to in 2017.

Automated Stop Announcements

Last month, automated stop announcements became “the voice” of Halifax Transit buses. While only a certain number of buses and routes are currently equipped with this feature as part of a pilot project, this year, Halifax Transit plans on equipping all buses and all routes.

Have a look at this video from a Halifax Transit rider:

Automated announcements are a major step toward making transit more accessible and easier to use. For people with visual or hearing impairments, they can now use transit without having to rely on asking for assistance. For newcomers and visitors, they can know which stop they are arriving at without having to guess. A simple, but effective, way of making transit more convenient is to take the guess-work out of it.

Fare-box Management

This year, we could be saying goodbye to tickets, passes, change, and transfers in order to make way for things like smart-cards, and mobile payments. The fare box tends to be a major choke point in transit systems (think of how many times you’ve had to wait as the person getting on the bus in front of you fumbles for change or tickets). Multiply this delay by the number passengers and stops on a given route, and simply paying a fare becomes a major reason why buses are slow.

In 2016, Halifax Transit issued a Request for Proposals for a fare management solution, and a contract will very likely be issued soon. This will open the door to innovations such as swipe cards or tap cards, and preloaded passes, which will speed up the fare payment process and reduce delays along transit routes.

Take a look at Vancouver’s Compass Card:

In addition, it also will allow for all door boarding. Imagine, instead of everyone waiting to get on the bus at the front, both, or all three doors on buses can be used, speeding up the time it takes to get passengers on and off the bus.


2017 also promises to be an exciting year with transit infrastructure. With the Integrated Mobility Plan, which will shape how people move around the region in the coming years, being finalized, a number of interesting opportunities emerge for transit.

Some of the new infrastructure, such as the various transit priority measures, new buses and new terminals, will be very noticeable. There’s also an ongoing discussion on commuter rail, a new refresh of the Halifax Ferry Terminal that will continue throughout 2017.  But something that isn’t as ‘flashy’ that is being developed, is use of real-time vehicle location data in information-technology projects. As more data is gathered, it opens up possibilities to improve the overall usability of transit, including using that data to improve stop spacing, stop-designs and travel time throughout the system.

Network Redesign

The Moving Forward Together Plan was finally adopted by Halifax Regional Council. This year, Halifax will see the first of the changes to transit routes. In addition to that, council requested staff report on bringing in an outside expert to review the corridor routes as more and more of these other projects are completed. Corridor routes are designed to be the ‘backbone’ of the network, so getting these right will be critical to the success of Moving Forward Together.

Corridor routes won’t change until at least 2018. But this year, we can expect to see less duplication as service starts to change.

With so many changes happening, it’s looking like there will be a lot of potential this year. As all of the pieces above start to take shape, we may start to see a major shift in the way transit is thought about in Halifax.

Update from Ben Wedge:

“All door boarding is the policy at many agencies without electronic fare boxes and has been for years. All you need for all door boarding is a team of fare inspectors. Then anyone with a valid pass or transfer can board by the door they want, only those who need to purchase a fare need board at the front. 

With that said, electronic fare boxes can further enhance all door boarding by allowing passengers to purchase a pass at the back of the bus.”