Scott Edgar of It’s More Than Buses at the open house presenting Halifax Transit’s current Bus Rapid Transit proposal, on Monday, February 12th in Halifax. Photo: Erica Butler

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.

Dedicated Right-of-Way
Bus-only lanes make for faster travel and ensure that buses are never delayed due to mixed traffic congestion.

Busway Alignment
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

Intersection Treatments
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.

Platform-level Boarding
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.

Ottawa’s rapid transit map looks very much like a subway map. Ottawa busways are major transit only corridors.

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.

Bring on the BRT

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:

Wyse Road reimagined, with BRT and bike lanes (From

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.”

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  1. A different experience: Some years ago I was visiting a house in Jersey City where the backyard, not far from the Hudson River, faced the skyscrapers of NYC including the “twin towers”. When I and two others decided to try to catch the Easter Parade in New York, the more savey one took us a few blocks away and we stood on a corner and waited. A van drove up and stopped and we got in. There were no markings on it that I remember. A few blocks later it stopped again and a group of working men (overalls, etc.) squeezed in. We got to the waterfront and within a short period of time were on a ferry crossing and landing somewhere behind the twin towers. This may have been a couple of years before the towers came down.

    This neighbourhood was fine but a bit rough. The van could very well have been illegal and a quick way to make some money and maybe somebody was getting a special handshake. We have shuttle buses here that seem to make enough money to stay in business. Does anybody think that in addition to going off to Cape Breton or the airport we could allow similar conveyances to get us places within HRM with less hassle than using transfers for connections that aren’t necessarily in sync? I don’t mean that they would replace Halifax Transit; just bolster it like the private liquor stores that have popped up.

    Just wondering. Please keep rail talk filed under “fantasy”. Movable ferry landings, as described above, seem feasible. And please stop stop splitting up the transportation family everytime there’s a holiday! Buses, ferries, whatever, must stick together 365 days a year.

  2. The proposal meets the definition of bus rapid transit supported by CUTA (Canadian Urban Transit Association):

    BRT has several important features, many of which are extensions of more conventional transit concepts.
    Running ways. There are three types of BRT travel lanes:
    • Exclusive busways generally not used by other traffic, located either in the median or boulevard of an existing road, or in a separate corridor
    • Dedicated lanes for transit or high-occupancy vehicles on existing roads, possibly with transit signal priority to maintain schedules and service intervals
    • Mixed traffic lanes where dedicated facilities are not needed to guarantee reliability, and where isolated delay points are addressed through queue jumps or signal priority measures

  3. The president of the bus driver’s union has indicated that they were not consulted for this work. Rather, the consultants host “one houses” where partially educated citizens can vote on whether they like the concept or not. With respect to Gottingen Street, the bus drivers think they are hitting a nail with a sledge hammer, and that improvements could be achieved with much less obtrusive measures that Metro Transit’s preferred option (i.e., which prohibits parking on either side of Gottingen Street all day).

    this is what the North End Business Association is proposing.

    1. NO to staff proposal to eliminate parking and loading all day and NO to dedicated bus lane as proposed

    2. YES to a 6 Month Trial Period of no parking or loading on west side (southbound )only from 7 to 9 am “peak” and no parking or loading on east side ( northbound) only from 4 to 6 p.m.peak
    with better enforcement of both sides including towing with support from NEBA and more areas of 30 minute parking from Cogswell to Uniacke as well as some designated loading areas in each block.

    3 . Related Studies:
    – a data gathering study of parking needs and options (parking mitigation as proposed by staff)
    – a data gathering study of car and bus use by residents and merchants supported by NEBA
    -direction from Council for staff to pursue options for the bridge ramp bus use and determination if changes to ramp at the bridge if needed along with the input of Ken Wilson of the union
    -a study by transit of redundancy of bus routes to alleviate the bus traffic on Gottingen long term and a study of how to improve local bus use on Gottingen
    – monitoring and data gathering of traffic and bus timing for the six month period

    Improving our bus system is very important, but not the cost of hamstringing commercial streets like Gottingen, which is finally seeing growth after decades of decline.

  4. Ausca is certainly right about HRM squandering a valuable transportation resource.Unlike rail service, where the tracks and stations must be decided up front and cannot be changed, ferry routes are flexible to set up and can be scaled to usage. New York set up a number of ferry “terminals” by using moored covered barges at various locations. The barges could be moved if the commuting public’s desires suggested another location worked better. In a similar vein, one can charter ( lease) smaller or larger ships depending on the number of passengers.. So the costs of operation can be “right-sized”

    In the end, I suspect that BRT and the much lauded transportation priority corridors will another failed HRM transportation experiment. Before building anything permanent, HRM needs to conduct some trials and experiments to see if there really is an appetite for mass transit that would support the massive construction costs. Use cones and create dedicated bus lanes and if driving in becomes difficult, maybe ridership will grow. Experiments with cones gives HRM a way to test if their routes are really the right ones.

  5. I don’t understand Halifax’s obsession with commuter rail. Is it that we wannabe in the league of “world class” big cities that have subways and rail networks?

    We have one (1) rail line that starts in Windsor Junction, travels around one side of the harbour then goes around the back of the downtown to dump its passengers at the south end where they will have to walk or connect to a bus to go to most popular downtown destinations, if it hasn’t dropped them off to do that earlier. It will be held hostage by CN who will always prioritize their freight, as they do to VIA on the Ocean Limited.

    The harbour is ours, almost never freezes (1817 notwithstanding) can pick up/drop off passengers right at the centre of the downtown as well as any number of places around the Bedford basin, including Burnside and Eastern Passage (an area that has a growing population). Both the rail and ferry need to realign bus routes to feed them, and both need parking areas. Both could pull cars off the road (but if ferry services to more destinations than rail can reach should have a greater effect).

    The usual excuse for ignoring extended ferry services take the form of “we studied in a few years back and it found it expensive”. Hard to understand how ferries would be so much more expensive than commuter rail, except for building ferry terminals in locations the train can’t reach. “It’s too expensive” is frequently used by supposedly unbiased promoters to deflect alternatives to their preferred option. I wonder if that’s what’s happening in Halifax?

    We are a maritime city with the distinction of the longest continuing operating ferry service in North America. In the 26o something odd years over which the Halifax Dartmouth ferry has been running we have added only one other service, and that only runs at peak hours.

    I respectfully suggest that we may be squandering a valuable transportation resource.

  6. I have just completed the BRT survey. You can’t call this plan a BRT plan.
    Are you trying to repeat the nightmare of the Chebucto Rd widening?

    It failed because the CN bridge is a choke point.
    Bayer Rd will fail for many reasons including the CN bridge choke point. on Bayers Rd.

    You are going to remove all the residential affordable housing on Bayers Rd even though this BRT plan will fail??

    How very hypocritical to remove affordable housing on Bayers Rd for a project that will fail. Tolls on the western roads will work better. Promoting telecommuting will work best.

  7. >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.”

    Snow clearing is near the top of complaints we hear every time we suggest reducing the number of stops on the corridor routes, which would speed the routes up. People have no desire to trudge through snow (and many people can’t!). As we saw with Sweden’s gender-equity analysis of their budget, clearing snow properly is not just for people with disabilities – the inadequate snow clearing actually de-prioritizes women in our transportation system as women take more transit trips than men. So, if our snow clearing practices are a barrier to properly reforming to a transfer-based network, let’s get the shovels out.

    1. The Swedish climate,particularly in Stockholm is nothing like the climate of HRM .
      Average annual snowfall at Shearwater is 176 cm and rainfall is 1254 mm.
      Stockholm has a miserly 528mm of annual precipitation. And who can forget ‘White Juan’ in 2004 and the winter storm of last February.
      In mid February 1817 Halifax Harbour was frozen to Maughers Beach for more than 2 days with people walking from Dartmouth across to Halifax.
      Nova Scotia is an isthmus and if you left the harbour and headed east you would end up at the port of Bordeaux.
      Our weather is unique.

  8. A rapid transit system linking 3 public housing projects in old Dartmouth and 2 on Gottingen as well as Gordon B Isnor Manor on Cornwallis.
    Great news.