Recapping SHIFT in Transit 2017

This past weekend, the folks from It’s More Than Buses had an opportunity to attend SHIFT, and annual conference hosted by students at the Dalhousie School of Planning. This year’s theme, SHIFT in Transit, focused on the need for a broader discussion on how people move into, out of, and around cities.

On Thursday evening, the conference opened with the 15th annual Carmichael Lecture, where Andreas Rohl, former director of the Bicycle Programme in Copenhagen, Denmark discussed a new vision for urban transportation.

“Transit is about connecting people to opportunity”

On Saturday, the first full day of the conference, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business council in Boston, and MassDOT board member, opened the morning keynote session with a simple message on transit equity.

If transit is not connecting people to opportunity, then it has failed. Too often transit is about cutting ribbons on shiny new projects that this very necessity – how many people are connected to how many opportunities – is missed. And, when transit fails, it’s society’s most vulnerable people, the poor and the marginalized, that bear the burden first.

Transit must give people choices. That means that transit needs to bring people to jobs, education, healthcare, etc… and do so quickly, frequently, and reliably. When transit does this, an individual can have the basic opportunities they need to succeed. When it doesn’t, a person’s options are limited by where they can get to. That means they can’t get a job unless they have a car. They can’t go to school if they can’t walk. Most importantly, Tibbits-Nutt delivered a word of caution for all transit agencies saying, “if transit is bad enough, people will find another way”.

Politicians support transit, but have different ideas of what transit is

Mayor Mike Savage had a chance to deliver remarks to conference attendees and to moderate a panel discussion with six, yes SIX, city councillors –David Hendsbee (District 2), Sam Austin (District 5), Tony Mancini (District 6), Waye Mason (District 7), Richard Zurowski (District 12), and Lisa Blackburn (District 14) – as well as provincial MLA Lisa Roberts (Halifax Needham) and federal MP Andy Fillmore (Halifax).

What was clear is that everyone can agree that transit it’s a good thing. But what was less clear from the panel, was what exactly it meant to make transit better. The conference heard everything from building commuter rail to making sure that there’s wifi and cup holders on buses.

Transit in Halifax is changing

Afternoon sessions featured presentations from Halifax Regional Municipality staff, as well as accessibility advocate Paul Vienneau. The theme of the afternoon was the “major” changes that have taken place in Halifax regarding public transit and transportation. Notable changes that have occurred are the introduction of real-time GPS tracking, and the construction of new terminals which according to Halifax Transit Director Dave Regae, wasn’t even on people’s radar 10 years ago. In addition, automated stop announcements and low-floor buses have made transit more accessible.

Gerry Post, another accessibility advocate, made a cameo appearance at the conference and sparked an interesting discussion with Vienneau about their experiences with getting around the city in a wheel chair. They highlighted the need for a fully accessible taxi fleet, as well as simple changes to street design that permit rolling up sidewalks. The quote of the session came from Vienneau, who said, “if we shovel the ramp before the stairs, we can all get up. Everybody benefits.”

Learning from major changes in other cities

The afternoon keynote session went to Kurt Luhrsen, Vice President of Planning at Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, who presented the nine “lessons learned” from Houston’s transit network system re-imagining. The session presented an interesting contrast to Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan and specifically how Houston has focused on the concept of trade-offs. Transit can’t be everything to everyone, and with limited resources, its important for decision makers to understand how the choice to have transit serve one particular purpose can have dramatic repercussions on other purposes.

The primary example that has been detailed over and over again is coverage vs. ridership. Do we allocate transit resources to servicing a large geographic area, or a large number of people? (Shameless plug – our Sunday workshop aimed to capture this)

Frequency and Travel Time

Sunday featured our workshop, as well as the closing Keynote by David Bragdon, director of TransitCenter, a New York based public transit advocacy, research and education foundation. Bragdon’s message recapped the major themes of the weekend – that transit is about connecting people to opportunity, that transit means different things to different people, that no one uses only one mode of transit (everybody at some point walks, drives, bikes, or takes the bus/train), and that if transit is bad enough, people will find another way.

Bragdon offered simple solutions to improve public transit. First and foremost, frequency and travel time matter to people. To get more people onto transit, improve those two things. Second, connect people to where they need to go, not just to downtown. As cities, employment and opportunity patterns change, transit needs to evolve to service these. Last, be willing to reach out to people and adapt to their needs. For transit agencies, planners and advocates, this means not only hosting community events, but also showing up at others’ community events and listening to peoples’ needs and being responsive.

To close off, the Bragdon, the presenters and the conference organizers emphasized that transit is “not about one particular mode, because cities don’t just have drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders, they have people and transit needs to understand and learn from them.”

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