The Moving Forward Together plan goes before council at Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, starting at 10am. On the eve of what promises to be a long, and hopefully lively discussion, I’m asking four questions about our new transit plan:
- Is Halifax Transit missing an opportunity to weigh in on the future of transit in Halifax?
- Are we doing it too slowly?
- Do we have enough frequency to make a transfer-based network work?
- Have we educated ourselves (and our politicians) enough about what transit can do for us?
Is Halifax Transit missing an opportunity to weigh in on the future of higher order transit in Halifax?
Ahsan Habib thinks Halifax Transit staff did an excellent job with the Moving Forward Together (MFT) plan, “from an operational point of view.” Reductions in service to some areas has been turned into increased frequency and express service where more people will use it. Staff are looking to increase ridership and Habib thinks they will do so.
But, says the director of the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC), there’s something important missing from MFT. “It’s simply an operational plan, not a strategic transit plan,” says Habib.
MFT is missing any indication of what the future holds for higher orders of transit in this city: things like rail or bus rapid transit. And these higher order systems will not just happen unless we plan for them in the long term, warns Habib.
“If there’s no indication of doing something farther, nothing will happen. We will all be satisfied that we have a transit plan. But it’s actually a short term service improvement operational plan.”
By example, Habib points to the long history of the commuter rail discussion in Halifax.
We have a history of 20 years of different feasibility studies. And in every one, the most recent included, the conclusion is that we don’t have enough density to support commuter rail. So my question is, what have we done to change that, starting when we got the first report, 20 years ago?
He makes a good point. We are focussed so much on feasibility when it comes to transit, that we completely lose sight of desirability. How do we want people to get from Sackville to downtown in 2026, a mere ten years away? Is it in buses stuck in traffic along the Bedford Highway, or do we have something better in mind? We can focus on enhancing the feasibility once we know what we want to happen.
“If we had drawn that potential rail line 20 years ago,” say Habib, “then maybe private developers would have started densifying.” Maybe, just maybe, posits Habib, instead of a condo development along Larry Uteck, we would have had something built along those future transit lines. And maybe, just maybe, that would have made commuter rail more feasible in 2016, in time for a federal government looking to spend some money on transit.
That’s a lot of maybes, but I do see one certainty among them: If we don’t plan for the things we want, we won’t get them.
One response to this concern is, of course, the upcoming Integrated Mobility Plan, wherein city staff promise to lay out an actual vision of how we will get around into the future. Habib is hopeful about the IMP, but wonders why Halifax Transit is not taking the opportunity of Moving Forward Together to put some ideas forward.
“I’m skeptical a bit of what the Integrated Mobility Plan can incorporate if there’s no stimulus, no ideas generated within the transit plan,” says Habib.
We’re on the cusp of entering the first phase of planning for the IMP. Now is the time we need to know what our transit professionals think we can do with our future. Do they think bus rapid transit along Portland Street is a good idea? Maybe they think the priority should be connecting Clayton Park or Bedford with higher order transit? What exactly are the higher order options? Do fast ferries or commuter rail make sense in the future of our transit network? Where would we put light rail if we ever had the opportunity to build it?
Sadly, the MFT plan doesn’t even ask, much less answer, these questions.
Are we doing it too slowly?
I have to say, one of the more surprising things about the MFT plan, from my layman’s perspective, is the length of time proposed for its implementation.
Here’s the timeline the plan lays out. It will take five years in total, with things starting out slowly this year, then ramping up in the last two years:
- adding a trip to the Route 330 Tantallon
- changes to Route 56, discontinuing service to Portland Hills Terminal and introducing a new connection to Bridge Terminal
- elimination and realignment of low ridership routes/route segments (Routes 402, School Specials)
- introduction of some additional express service (Route 186, 330)
- changes to several routes (Routes 6, 22, 7, 370)
- changes to routes in Clayton Park, Fairview, and Timberlea.
- coincides with the expansion of the Burnside Transit Centre.
- implementation in Spryfield and parts of the Halifax Peninsula.
- implementation of routes in Sackville and Bedford.
- introduction of the Wrights Cove Terminal, West Bedford Park & Ride and the Margeson Drive/Middle Sackville Park & Ride.
- implementation of routes in Dartmouth, Eastern Passage, and Cole Harbour.
Transit consultant and author of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker, says there can be risks with a slow implementation. “Some things are not best done gradually,” says Walker. “Root canals come to mind.”
“If you do it all at once you get the maximum benefit of the whole interconnected plan working right away,” says Walker. “If it’s a good network plan, it’s very interdependent. A network means that all the parts are working togehther, and if all the parts are working together, then the parts don’t work as well seperately.”
Walker consulted on a new bus route system for Houston which was implemented in one go, literally overnight.
Of course Walker also acknowledges that sometimes phased implementation is necessary when the resources simply aren’t there.
This indeed seems to be the case with Halifax’s new transit network.
The MFT plan was designed to work within Halifax Transit’s current resource envelope, meaning that planners would discontinue relatively expensive, low-ridership service and use the resources to beef up service with higher ridership potential. But the plan still hinged on the usual increases in resources that Halifax Transit would expect over the years.
“We typically grow by between 5 and 10 buses per year,” says Patricia Hughes, Halifax Transit’s acting manager of planning and scheduling, and the plan relies on 38 buses being put into service over the next five years.
Faster implementation, says Hughes, would require upfront investment, which means money from somewhere, either taxes, fares, or cuts to another budget item.
Ultimately this means that the MFT redesign is not fully revenue neutral as intended. Staff went only so far in re-allocating existing resources to make our routes more efficient. For the rest of what the plan demands, they are proposing to wait 5 years for the resources to trickle in.
But hey, it gets worse. It’s not just buses we’re short on. It’s people, too.
It turns out that it takes a huge amount of time for a scheduler to rework a bus route. “If we wanted to schedule all the work and have it ready to go all at once,” says Hughes, “it would probable take us more than three years.” No, that’s not a typo. Hughes estimates it would take current scheduling staff at least three years to do the scheduling work required in MFT.
When the Lacewood Terminal opened last year, roughly a dozen routes were impacted with minor changes, says Hughes, and the lead time on re-scheduling was eight to nine months.
I asked Hughes about Houston and their overnight implementation. “I have no idea how they could have possibly done it,” says Hughes, “other than they must have pulled in a huge amount of external resources.”
“The 5-year implementation seems like a long time, but we will be very, very busy preparing for those key milestone deadlines,” says Hughes. “It’s pretty aggressive relative to what we’ve done in the past in terms of schedule changes.”
Ahsan Habib agrees that the city is short staffed, and not just in the transit department, but in transportation planning in general. “Transportation planning is a big investment,” says Habib, dealing with highly technical, big ticket investments. “In transit, integrated mobility, and all the other pieces, we need a little more capacity-building just to plan and implement on those issues.”
Do we have enough frequency to make a transfer-based network work?
When Halifax Transit started the process of consulting the public about what they wanted in a transit network, many questions focussed on the trade-off between single-seat-ride service and transfer-based service. Single seat ride is exactly what it sounds like, you get on the bus near your house, and you get off the bus at your destination. No transfers, no terminals, no connections in between. It’s a sweet deal if it happens to work for you.
But the problem people have with single seat ride systems is that they tend to be wasteful, with lots of route duplication, and they tend to be confusing for anyone but a regular commuter to navigate. (Who knows where all those many numbered buses running along Barrington Street go?)
Transfer-based systems are more efficient (less duplication), and usually easier to navigate (simpler design). But transfer-based networks do require riders to transfer more often, and because of that, they demand frequency. When buses come frequently enough, transfers are less daunting.
In fact, when buses come frequently enough, schedules (for riders, anyway) become almost superfluous. Who needs to check when the bus comes if it comes every 10 minutes?
The MFT plan does promise improved frequency. Ten corridor routes will have guaranteed headways (the time between buses on a route) of 10 to 30 minutes in off-peak times, and five to 15 minutes in peak times, but in one direction only. While these standards are an improvement in many cases, I can’t help but wish that our planners had found a way to give us a bit more.
While five-, 10-, and even 15-minute headways sound great, the reality is that as a rider that uses the bus system for a variety of trips throughout the week, at various times of day, the best I can rely on for the corridor network as it is planned is 30-minute frequency.
If we could find the resources to reduce those headways in off-peak hours, then we could elevate our new corridor network into an all-day, frequent network.
“That is the ideal situation for sure,” says Patricia Hughes. “And I think that we can get really close to that with route 1, route 10, and route 5 on Portland. They’re coming so often that you don’t have to look at the schedule.”
But bumping our maximum all-day headway from 30 minutes to say, 20 minutes? That’s still not in the cards for Halifax.
“We struggled with that,” says Hughes. “We could do that if we were to take two off the list of corridor routes and make them local. For most of [the corridor routes] we could guarantee [20 minute headways], but not all of the 10 at this point.”
“We also need to maintain the other routes as well,” says Hughes. “There’s express service that’s out there now that’s doing really well and we don’t want to alienate those passengers and have them stop using transit.”
“What we’ve put forward is really a balance, where we’re increasing service a bit on the corridors for now, but it does acknowledge that we need to continue beefing up that frequency in response to ridership. If the route 9 coming from Spryfield is doing well, and we have some resources that year, we might add some to that. Maybe the following year it’s the one from Sackville…”
Have we educated ourselves (and our politicians) enough about what transit can do for us?
After years of work by transit planning staff, the MFT plan is now hitting it’s final phase: regional council. Councillors have ultimate control over what gets approved in this plan, and over the resources allocated to it. Do they, and for that matter, do we, as their constituents and the users of the system, understand it enough?
I’m going to let transit planning and policy consultant Jarrett Walker take this one:
Where we are starting with public transit in North America is communities where most people are primarily motorists. And generally in those communities I find that people ask for transit to function as though it were a road. They ask for transit to do things that transit actually doesn’t do well.
They’ll tell me for example, hey we have 10,000 jobs out in this area, why don’t we have service? And I have to say, well, that would justify a road, but if you want transit, it matters how the 10,000 jobs are configured. If they’re close together, if they’re in bigger buildings along a single path, we may be able to do that. If they’re all scattered about in business parks, there’s no way that transit can get an attractive service to all of those things.
So there are a lot of issues where people aren’t even aware of the extent to which they live in places which have been designed for the car, and the extent to which making transit work requires thinking differently about your community.
In Halifax, transit is going to succeed in some places more than others, just as it does everywhere else. But it takes a while for people to start understanding just how that works. Like why is it that transit is going to carry so many more people around the Halifax peninsula than it’s going to carry in some of the outlying suburban towns? And how do we describe that in a way that doesn’t sound like we just disapprove of those towns, or don’t value them or something? The fact is there’s some geometry about why transit succeeds in certain places rather than others.
It’s just geometrically obvious that transit is going to work better in some places than others. And so that’s the kind of thing that people need help thinking about.
Everyone’s first impulse is, it should go everywhere, it should be for everyone. But it doesn’t work everywhere. It works in certain types of land use situations rather than others. And that means that the mix of transit versus cars and other things is naturally going to be different in different parts of your municipality. And that has to not seem unfair, it has to be just understandable as a consequence of the different development patterns.