by Scott Edgar

If you’ve looked at Halifax Transit’s proposed redesign, you might have noticed one big change to your commute. Right now, you might only need to take one bus to go from home to work (or school) and back again. But on the redesigned network, you’re going to have to transfer. To a lot of people in Halifax, that seems like terrible news.

In fact, it’s good news. The move to a transfer-based network means Halifax Transit is eliminating a lot of the redundant routes from the current system, and redeploying all those buses onto fewer routes where buses run a lot more often. The result is a transit system that’s simpler and easier to use. And more importantly, a system that’s faster.

That said, thinking about the benefits of a transfer-based system also highlights one of the worst weaknesses of Halifax Transit’s plan — the low midday frequencies on some its core routes.

Shorter wait time, shorter travel times

Here’s how the transfer-based network is going to mean shorter trips. The key is to remember that, when you’re taking the bus, your total travel time includes the time you spend waiting for the bus. That doesn’t just mean the time you spend standing on the curb. It also includes the time you spend killing 10 or 15 minutes before you even head out to the bus stop, because you know your bus isn’t coming for another 20 minutes. All of that time is part of the time it costs to take transit. And that’s the time a transfer-based network can cut.

Here’s one example. On Halifax Transit’s current system, someone going from the Lacewood terminal to Dal or SMU can take the 18. But during rush hour, that bus only runs once every half hour, so average wait times for it will be just over 15 minutes.

Scott Edgar
Scott Edgar

On Halifax Transit’s proposed redesign, that same trip will still only take one bus — the corridor route 4. But at rush hour, that bus will run every ten minutes, so the average wait time will be about five minutes — a full 10 minutes less than the current system. Do that as a round trip commute, and Halifax Transit’s proposal saves you, on average, more than an hour and a half every week.

But that’s an easy example, since it doesn’t involve any transfers. So how does Halifax Transit’s proposal do for the people who are going to have to transfer?

Here’s another example. Suppose you want to get from MSVU to Dal or SMU. On the current system, you only need one bus — the 18. Since that bus only runs every 30 minutes, your average wait time will be about 15 minutes.

But on Halifax Transit’s proposal, that same trip will take two buses. You’d need to get on the corridor route 8, and then transfer to the corridor route 4 at the bottom of Lady Hammond Dr. But during rush hour, the 4 runs every 10 minutes and the 8 runs every 15. So your average wait times will be five minutes for the 4 and eight minutes for the 8. Add those wait times up, and your total average wait time is still less than on the current system. Your total trip time got shorter by a couple of minutes.

That’s the deal with a transfer-based network. For the price of a transfer, you get a shorter trip.

Midday frequencies

At the same time, Halifax Transit’s proposed transfer-based network has one glaring weakness — low midday frequencies on at least four of its 10 proposed corridor routes.

The corridors form the backbone of the transfer-based network. They’re long routes that run along main streets, connecting communities to businesses, hospitals, schools, universities, and shopping. About 175,000 people live within a leisurely seven minute walk of where these 10 routes will go, giving 60 percent of Halifax’s urban population easy access to the transfer-based network. All 10 corridor routes have rush hour frequencies of 10-15 minutes or better. That means short waits and short travel times.

But at least four of the corridors drop to low-frequency service in the middle of the day, with buses running every 20 minutes, or in the case of the proposed route 8, every 30 minutes.

So suppose you want to go from MSVU to Dal, but this time, you need to go in the middle of the day. You’ll still take the corridor route 8 and transfer to the corridor route 4. But your average wait time for 8 will be 15 minutes. And since the 4 drops to 20 minute frequencies at midday, your average wait for it will be ten minutes. Now you’re looking at an average total wait time of 25 minutes — ten minutes longer than on the current system.

With midday wait times that long, how many people are going to choose transit over their cars?

The low midday frequencies on corridor routes are a serious weakness of Halifax Transit’s proposal. Despite the fact that these routes will serve more than 60 percent of the region’s urban population, Halifax Transit’s proposal devotes only 50 percent of its resources to them.

But low midday frequencies are also an obvious opportunity to improve the plan dramatically. Halifax Transit needs to put more service on its corridors — enough service to ensure that all 10 corridors have 15 minute frequencies (or better), all day, every day.

That would turn the corridor routes into a complete network where riders never needed to look at a bus schedule, because they’d always know their bus is just a few minutes away. A network that convenient to use — a short walk away from 175,000 people — could transform the way Halifax uses public transit. It’s the network Halifax needs.

Scott Edgar is a member of the It’s More Than Buses advocacy group.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. I’ve been trying to figure out how the new routes from Cole Harbour/Mt Edward constitute a transfer-based system. Instead of feeder buses from the ‘burbs that connect to the perfectly sane #159 express from Portland Hills terminal to Scotia Square and then to other buses to head to the universities/hospitals, the #159 is now replaced by FOUR routes that start in the suburbs, become express to Scotia Square, and the meander up to the universities/hospitals DURING RUSH HOUR. This is pure insanity. Instead of one bus that runs every 10 minutes on a clear route, you will have four routes that arrive in unknown intervals that can get caught up in traffic on either side of the pre-existing route. How does this make sense? I thought the point was to have fewer buses running the main corridors, not more?

    To see for yourself, check out the routes replacing the 159… http://maketransitbetter.ca/about-the-plan/your-community/dartmouth-eastern-passage

  2. This seems to be all premised on the assumption that average wait time is half of the frequency interval. Couldn’t the current system (or any system) be improved with just a better system for bus arrival prediction? I appreciate the move to a more rapid style of transit where schedules are not needed but GPS tracking makes a nice accompaniment and gives riders (waiters) peace of mind.

    1. They’ve been working on that since 1982. Aka Go Time. After literally decades and decades of promises, they are now saying they will have that capability within a year.

      Which is what they said in 1982.

      Metro Transit is accountable to no one, least of all their customers, and it shows in every (unilateral) decision they make, and in the pretend “consultation” process run by a PR firm that they are engaged in now.

      1. While GOTIME , GPS, and other «hi-tech» bits and pieces wld be NICE for SOME riders, the BIG problem is the huge fleet of «Articulated» Busses which with Halifax’s Rider Loads, and Nova Scotia’s antagonistic climate are totally ridiculous, traffic-jammers, and a gigantic waste of capital.
        They work fine in Vancouver where they have almost NO snow or ice, and where they are deployed on straight, level routes with HUMONGOUS rider loads (UBC, for example). Scott’s ideas are CORRECT, and, if ever properly implemented will make a HUGE improvement to efficiency and ridership. NOW, if only we cld get rid of the ridiculous FARES mess. A TOONIE-for-ALL please and thank you!

      1. What a bureaucratic nightmare Metro Transit is. No access to our own public data? Actively fighting against the public in their efforts to make the system more accessible and more usable? I wish I could say I was surprised.

        Until we have an elected, citizen led board with power over Metro Transit, expect the incompetence to continue unabated. City Hall is an ineffective bulwark against their impudence

      2. I was under the impression that calling Go Time just read the schedule to the user over the phone and was not actually GPS. Currently I use an app called Transit 360, it isn’t perfect but it is close to as good as it could get with the schedule as an input (as opposed to GPS data). I know it is just the schedule because often the apps says the bus has come and gone when it clearly has not and it doesn’t have the ability to predict late buses.
        That is the ticket, rapid service so one does not need a schedule and GPS data to know where the next bus is. Toronto has it in a pretty good app called Rocket Man (I think).