Citizens gathered Monday afternoon and evening to look at preliminary sketches of what a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network might look like for Halifax. Or did they? The citizens were there, but I’m not entirely sure what they were looking at amounts to BRT.
Here’s how the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an organization dedicated to “sustainable and equitable transportation” who have developed a certification system for BRT networks, defines BRT:
There are five essential features that define BRT. These features most significantly result in a faster trip for passengers and make traveling on transit more reliable and more convenient.
Bus-only lanes make for faster travel and ensure that buses are never delayed due to mixed traffic congestion.
Center of roadway or bus-only corridor keeps buses away from the busy curbside where cars are parking, standing, and turning
Off-board Fare Collection
Fare payment at the station, instead of on the bus, eliminates the delay caused by passengers waiting to pay on board
Prohibiting turns for traffic across the bus lane reduces delays caused to buses by turning traffic. Prohibiting such turns is the most important measure for moving buses through intersections — more important even than signal priority.
The station should be at level with the bus for quick and easy boarding. This also makes it fully accessible for wheelchairs, disabled passengers, strollers, and carts with minimal delays.
For the ITDP, bus rapid transit is basically subway-level service, delivered above ground. The example that most Canadians would be familiar with would be Ottawa’s busway system, currently on its way to being converted to light rail after decades in operation.
But the four proposed routes on display Monday are not busways. “Not in the Ottawa sense,” says Halifax Transit’s Erin Blay, adding “that’s not to say that could never happen.”
(As an aside: Blay is often the face of Halifax Transit at public meetings, and you can see why. She can listen to loads of suggestions, criticisms, and complaints without appearing to take things personally or lose patience — a highly useful skill for a transit planner in Halifax.)
Instead, Halifax Transit BRT proposals seems to be for four souped-up express routes to overlay our current system. The four routes would use combinations of dedicated lanes, parking restrictions, and other transit priority measures to help make trips faster, along with raised platform stations where riders pre-pay for their tickets and walk or roll directly on to the bus.
It really sounds like a slightly fancier version of the MetroLink, a commuter express service which was described as a BRT project back in 2005 when it was launched.
This proposed BRT network would overlay the conventional system, and would operate along with it, mixing with slower buses and regular traffic, depending on location.
That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of good in this proposal. Any transit priority measure that works for BRT would also work for conventional bus using the same streets. Let’s face it, bus lanes on Joseph Howe Drive, Portland Street, and Lacewood Drive would make an enormous difference to the overall efficiency of the main bus network, with our without an added layer of “BRT” express routes.
That elusive expert opinion
“We’re hoping that those routes for a BRT network aren’t set in stone,” says Scott Edgar of transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses, noting that they appear to be based on Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan corridor routes, which are due for review by an outside expert as per a council request back in June, 2017.
But according to HRM communications, Halifax Transit will not even start advertising for said expert help until the BRT study, as well as the Mumford terminal replacement and transit priorities corridor studies, are finished, due to the wording of the motion approved by council in June 2017. (Yes, the tradition of putting the cart before the horse is alive and well in Halifax.)
The display boards at Monday’s session indicated that the four proposed routes are the product of current ridership numbers, though one of the consultants present assured me that future land use plans also came into play. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how they impacted the routes. Large parts of the regional centre are untouched by the proposed network. Conspicuously absent is a line into the northern part of the Halifax peninsula. There’s also no line across Dartmouth to Burnside. Considering the “in process” planning for a future Wright’s Cove terminal (behind the McDonalds on Windmill Road) and the recent transit jump lane upgrades to Windmill Road, it’s downright odd not to see a proposed BRT link along that route, possibly connecting riders all the way to Sackville.
“The kind of BRT that HRM needs is a transit system that ensures that people living in downtown Dartmouth and the Halifax Peninsula don’t need to own cars,” says Edgar.
Back in June 2016, IMTB got together with Fusion Halifax to pitch their ideas of what a BRT network might look like. Here’s the map they came up with, which specifically delineates where actual BRT lanes will run, versus simply routes with additional transit priority measures in place:
And here’s what they thought BRT could do to a street like Wyse Road, which is completely off the map on this current ‘BRT’ proposal:
Edgar also points out that following current ridership numbers can only get you so far. “If Halifax Transit is thinking about building a kind of public transit that’s qualitatively different than anything Halifax has had before, they should be thinking about where they want to grow the ridership, not just where the ridership is now,” he says. “Where does the city want to develop? That’s where the rapid transit should go.”
Overlapping commuter rail?
While its downright heartening to see a faster link proposed to Mount Saint Vincent University, it’s curious that a portion of the route overlaps the rail line currently being considered for a commuter rail corridor. (VIA Rail is supposed to get back to HRM in May about how much access to those tracks CN is willing to sell.) This could be an indication that the passenger rail system being considered will be even more limited in scope than what a BRT line would provide.
Getting to the BRT
It was interesting to note that when IMTB issued it’s wish list for components to make up BRT in Halifax, snow clearing made the list. IMTB is calling for “improved snow clearing so that all sidewalks on the bus rapid transit network are cleared to bare pavement as quickly as the adjacent street.”
You can weigh in on this proposal now at shapeyourcity.ca.