Trips by Transit goers on their way somewhere spectacular. Photo by Braden Lamoureux, courtesy of Trips by Transit.

When it comes to living without a car, there’s the challenge of getting around the city, and then there’s the challenge of getting out of the city. In a province like Nova Scotia, not having access to a vehicle can rob you of some amazing experiences in our forests and along our coasts.

That’s where Parkbus comes in.

Originally conceived in Toronto to give car-free city dwellers a way to get Algonquin Park, Parkbus is exactly what the name says, and it is slowly, ever so slowly, coming to Halifax. Last fall the group ran one busload from Halifax to Kejimkujik National Park for a single day trip. This year, they will run two such trips, on September 23 and October 14.

“This Parkbus thing was meant to be hey, let’s just run some buses to Algonquin Park. It wasn’t meant to be something that would expand elsewhere,” says co-founder Boris Issaev. Now, Parkbus is across Canada, and as far away as Mexico. “It’s quite surreal that this very, very simple idea has not been explored too much in many parts of the world.”

In Ontario, unlike Nova Scotia, you can actually take regional buses all over the gosh darn place. But those buses usually land you in nearby towns, not national parks. The nearest bus-worthy town to Algonquin is 2 hours away, leaving car-free campers out of luck.

“Up to recently that’s the pattern you found across the country,” says Issaev. “Even Banff, the Calgary to Banff route operated, but it couldn’t go to trailheads and campgrounds.” Parkbus takes travellers right into parks, depositing them where they can hike, bike, or canoe in for the rest of their trip.

Parkbus is a not-for-profit organization, and sometimes routes or specific trips are subsidized. Parks Canada and MEC helped sponsor last year’s test run to Keji, and this summer a major bank and MEC sponsored a program to bring thousands of Torontonians on the half-hour ride to Rouge National Urban Park, for free.

This year, the Halifax-Keji trips will go unsubsidized, and move from a school bus to a coach, putting the cost of a return day trip in the $50 range. (You are welcome to stay the three weeks between trips in the wilds of Keji, says Issaev, but he’s betting you won’t.)

Last fall’s $30-35 trips sold out within days, says Issaev. He is hoping that was a glimpse of potential demand, but Parkbus is not blanketing the province with routes yet.

“The challenge is that Halifax is a fairly small city,” says Issaev, “which makes us a little bit cautious to start a lot of things at once. This is why we are doing it super slow… We don’t want to schedule a bunch of things and end up with a bunch of empty buses.”

Issaev says that Parkbus is committed to running routes that cover costs, to ensure long term financial viability, but the organization is also thinking about access, and makes some trips and tickets available to marginalized groups.

“We don’t want to depend on subsidization and grants because they might or might not come along, and if you have a model that pays for itself you generally are able to do more,” says Issaev. Currently he says demand in Vancouver is so high that Parkbus is having trouble keeping up.

“Hopefully the demand we saw last year will come back this year,“ says Issaev, “and grow and help us do more cool things.”

While Parkbus creates recreation routes that don’t currently exist, local group Trips by Transit makes lemonade out of our existing transit routes. Using nothing more than some bus tickets and a really, really good attitude, Trips by Transit prove that it’s not impossible, with a little planning and the willingness (and ability) to walk, to get to lakes, beaches and trails in Halifax without a car.

Trips by Transit has been leading trips around Halifax for the past two years. Starting out as a strictly voluntary group with a Facebook page, they have since registered as a not-for-profit organization and are employing two people this summer.

The group does the research on what buses to take, and serve as guides for getting there and back. As many as 50 participants have joined them on hikes out to such spectacular places as Herring Cove Provincial Park Reserve, just a 10-minute walk away from route 20. Costs for participants range from free to a couple of bucks, on top of transit fare.

“We are working with what we have locally, what is being provided to us,” says Trips by Transit executive director Meredith Baldwin. In addition to accessibility and low cost, taking transit “adds a little bit of unknown,” says Baldwin, which she assures me is a good thing, most of the time.

Many of the destinations involve a 20-minute walk to and from the bus, explains Baldwin. Some, like the recently retired trip to Crystal Crescent via the now defunct route 402, could take as long as 30 minutes of walking from the bus stop.

“Rainbow Haven is kind of in the same situation as Crystal Crescent,” says Baldwin. “It is doable by bus, but you have to walk about 30 minutes on regular streets. Outside of our trips, I don’t think a lot of people would think, oh, I can take the bus to this place and then walk for 30 minutes on the side of the road to get to a beach.”

What’s more, many people might not even be aware that Rainbow Haven is a 30 minute walk from a bus stop, since Google Maps doesn’t seem to believe in multi-modal trips:

Baldwin says that Trips by Transit is now gearing up to announce a new project in September, “committing to more than we’ve done in the past.” In addition, they have started a conversation with Halifax Transit about possible promotions.

“They are excited about the number of people who follow us and our ability to tell people about routes,” says Baldwin.

My longtime dream has been for Halifax Transit to invest some person hours in running a beach bus on Saturdays and Sundays. (A weekend McNab’s Island ferry service would also do.) At the same time, I know there are more pressing issues to be fixed in our transit system, such as building an all-day, high-frequency grid.

Initiatives like Parkbus and Trips by Transit take the sting out of the lack of recreational opportunities for the car-free among us. They are popping up because there is a demand. Let’s hope we use them enough to keep them around for awhile.

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  1. A high-frequency grid and trips to the beach are not competitors. If we eliminated overlap and ran buses to the load levels set by the service standard (aka lopped off the fat) we’d have the spare capacity to at least do a Thursday-Sunday service to a couple of beaches in the summer.

    1. I agree with you to a point. We wouldn’t need an expanded fleet for a weekend beach bus, but the labour and fuel costs are not exactly negligible. Of course, it could prove to be a busy weekend service, and would likely easily get 25 riders per hour, once people were aware of it.
      I’m sad to say I think I’ve downplayed the idea in my conclusion here simply because I don’t think HT would be able to take it on right now, even if they were willing.

      1. airc… maybe I have this wrong?… they needed to get provincial approval to expand the area of service to go to the airport. Wouldn’t they need to do the same to go to the beaches?

  2. What about hitch-hiking?

    I’ve always thought the solution to these problems of carless folks getting out of the city would be to have a designated hitch-hiking station at each on-ramp to the highway where you could register for rides and have some accountability between driversf/hikers via some sort of Uber-like administrative system.

    1. Neat idea. There are some toll roads/bridges that have spawned semi-organized hitchhike commuting in places, because the tolls only apply to single occupancy vehicles, so it’s a win-win for riders and drivers. And they have designated spots, etc.

  3. Tim this is nothing new. It existed in the Maritimes in the 1950s and 60s with local bus lines like SMT in Moncton offering it as a regular service on weekends.

    1. You mean to say that SMT brought people straight into National Parks in the 50’s? That’s neat. And surprising. I guess as the sheer number of personal vehicles grew that killed the business model. If vehicles per capita ever starts to actually go down in NS, the business model will probably work again. Unfortunately, in order for vehicles per capita to go down, people will need such services already in place. I’d consider that a solid argument in favour of subsidization.