What is Bus Rapid Transit?
Bus Rapid Transit is essentially a tram that uses bus lanes instead of train tracks. It offers the same great, transformative service that we see in European downtowns, but at a much lower cost, appropriate for a small city.
Halifax can become known as an exciting small city with big things happening and the first step is beautiful, first-class transit, whisking people past traffic right into the downtown and to anywhere they need to go. Great transit means freedom. Freedom boosts our economy.
A great city needs great public transit
The environmental benefits of having fewer people in cars are obvious. But its economic benefits are no less important. The less people drive, the less the city has to spend on maintaining roads. The less people spend on gas, the more they can spend within the local economy.
According to a report by Joe Cortright, nearly 73% of the price of gas and 86% of the price of a new car immediately leaves the local economy.
Great public transit has social benefits. Transit opens up access to jobs and services all over the region. It means that anyone who can’t afford a car can still get to work, school, and a doctor’s appointment.
However, transit only provides these benefits to a city if people choose transit. Empty buses don’t do anything for the environment or the economy. Likewise, unreliable, low-quality transit can’t get people to work in time for their shift to start or for class to begin.
Halifax has a serious problem with empty buses and unreliable, low-quality transit. That’s why Halifax Transit’s ridership has been stagnant since 2013, despite continuous increases in funding. The Moving Forward plan will improve this situation and is a welcome and long-overdue development. But it won’t provide a transformational change in the way people in Halifax use public transit.
Great transit is fast transit
What would transform the way people in Halifax use transit? The answer is speed.
People are busy. They won’t choose transit unless it respects their time, and that means transit has to be fast and reliable. That means shorter wait times for buses, so people never have to look at a schedule. Instead, they know their bus is only five or 10 minutes away. Think of a subway system that arrives every 3-5 minutes. Does anyone ever check when the next train is coming?
But fast, reliable transit also means transit that doesn’t get stuck in traffic. Right now, Halifax Transit gets stuck in traffic, unlike light rail or subways. But a bus, carrying 40 or 50 people, travelling in a dedicated bus-only lane can speed past traffic jams, making sure those transit riders get to work or to appointments in a way that respects their time.
To do this we are proposing a tool that has been used in many cities, with great results:
A Bus Rapid Transit System for Halifax
A BRT system provides a subway-like experience with buses, and at a fraction of the cost. The key is to provide a service that is just as reliable and comfortable.
BRT stations are elevated on level with the bus. Users pay the fare and enter through turnstiles, just like the experience of a subway. The door opens, people leave the bus, then others enter the bus. This causes the bus to wait shorter time at each station, and speeds up the journey.
The BRT system uses the existing road network to provide unhindered movement through the city. The buses never stop in traffic. When people who are riding the BRT system zoom through a sea of parked traffic, they will feel more important. This feeling is what will cause people to give up their cars and use transit.
BRT is not a new phenomenon. This has been used and proven successful by many cities worldwide.
BRT is an economic tool
In Eugene, a city of 160,000 people, BRT attracted $100 million worth of construction. In Cleveland, Ohio, it attracted $4-5 billion of investment.
The very important aspect is that it attracts the right kind of investment. You can build complete communities around good transit corridors in a way that is more walkable, more dense, and costs less to service than traditional suburbs.
Halifax Can Have a Great BRT System
This proposal suggests significant infrastructure improvements on several key corridors in HRM. The goal is to liberate people from the need to move around the city by car, and provide a viable transit option.
The proposal selected these corridors because they represent the fastest, most direct way to get to the urban core. They pass through vital neighbourhoods and places of employment.
With a system like this, anyone could get to work using the cheaper, more sustainable, and healthier option of public transit.
Clayton Park—Fairview—Bayers Road
Halifax has long planned to widen Bayers Road for cars, which would attract traffic and toxic fumes, pushing away home-buyers and businesses. It just makes more sense to build a bus lane that can move more people faster and attract new people and investment.
Clayton Park and Fairview have the highest transit ridership levels in Halifax, yet taking a bus downtown often takes three times longer than driving. It’s time to give these communities a first-class connection to the universities and downtown.
Herring Cove Road
Halifax plans to widen Herring Cove Road for traffic. Each bus on that road is packed to the brim with more than 60 people, so it would take roughly 60 cars to move as many people as one bus. If buses are moving people that much more efficiently, let’s get them out of traffic and give everyone an easy, reliable way to get downtown.
Many people in Spryfield cannot afford to own cars but need to regularly access social services on the peninsula. Wider roads benefit only some while a bus lane would benefit everyone.
If we are going to spend millions to widen roads, then it should go towards better transit.
Dartmouth: Woodside to Burnside
Dartmouth needs a fast North-South corridor to connect the downtown with major job centres like the Hospital, the NSCC, and Burnside. Despite the city’s narrow historic streets, sections have room for a bus lane, which would multiply the convenience of getting from the Bridge Terminal to the big destinations.
Two transit corridors on Portland Street and Mainstreet Dartmouth would connect the system to the biggest neighbourhoods and shopping centres. A mix of lower-cost measures, such as letting buses get past traffic at major intersections, would offer freedom to get anywhere in the city with ease.
The middle lane of the MacDonald Bridge would move more people per hour if it were a bus lane than it currently does. If our goal is to move the most people possible rather than the most cars, keeping the third lane for normal traffic is indefensible.
The third lane could, alternatively, be for buses and carpoolers. If the lane were for cars with three or more people only, it would still move more people, but at a small cost to the speed of buses.
Bedford: High-frequency light rail.
The Nova Scotia government is considering wasting a billion dollars to widen the 102 from Bedford onto the peninsula. All that money will just move the traffic bottleneck further onto the peninsula, because only so many cars can fit here.
If we have that kind of money to spend, let’s think about what kind of fantastic transit we could offer Bedford, the fastest growing community in Halifax. Good transit, unlike road widening, has been proven to generate significant economic returns and can offer a fast, easy way to get downtown for far more people.
A recent report found that putting commuter rail on the existing train tracks would “not be economically feasible.” The study, however, assumed the 102 would be widened and that each train would need 3 employees rather than 1. Worse, it didn’t account for the hundreds of homes that would be built near the stations.
We believe a commuter rail system which only runs during the morning and evening rush hour would still not be worth the cost on its own. Instead, it should be seen as a first step towards what the transit system really needs: all-day, high-frequency rail.
We should also choose train cars that could one day continue on streets as trams, to extend the reach of the service to where it is most needed.
Imagine one day having a one-seat trip on a comfortable train from Bedford down through Robie Street towards the universities without ever stopping in traffic.
Our BRT proposal has been completed in conjunction with The Little Easy: Fusion’s Pitch for a Great Youth City