Last night, Halifax council opted to defer a decision on a long list of changes to the Moving Forward Together transit plan until its meeting on December 6th.

The plan, which was actually already approved in the spring, was before councillors Tuesday as they considered a staff report rejecting nearly all of the 23 changes proposed by councillors back in April.

After the status quo report hit the web last week, transit advocates It’s More Than Buses came out stronger than ever in opposition to the MFT plan, asking councillors to reject the whole thing and bring in an “international caliber expert in transit network redesign” to help rework it:

Halifax Transit continues to ignore international best practice in network design, and essentially asks Council and the public to trust them. There is, however, a dramatically better approach for Halifax then what Halifax Transit is proposing.

That “better approach” involves what IMTB calls a connective network, and what Halifax Transit used to call a “simplified, transfer-based network,” before it decided to renege on the idea, while somehow keeping it as one of the four foundational principles of this whole darn MFT thing.

Councillor Lorelei Nicholl captured public sentiment about the MFT plan when she noted that her constituents expected something more “innovative,” especially considering that they were giving up their current, well-known (and even sometimes beloved) route system.

And this is an important point that gets overlooked: Halifax Transit is about to expend a lot of citizen good will on this overhaul. People get testy about change. Even if it does work, there will be complaints. And if people sense that these major changes have not really achieved a new level of bus service for the city, they are going to be very disappointed.

So will this new council ask to revisit MFT on December 6th, or will it just invest its time in negotiating support for councillors’ own pet adjustments to the plan? Based on the tone of discussion on Tuesday, it seems like we’re in for the latter.

Several councillors commented that while they were getting emails urging them to scrap the plan and bring in fresh eyes, the plan itself was actually already approved, and therefore not really on the table. But the 21 proposed amendments just rejected by Halifax Transit staff? Those are still very much on the table. It’s a darn shame, too, because as much as I like democracy in action, I don’t think our transit routes should be negotiated by our political reps in a council meeting, no matter how long and boring it is.

There are plenty of requests that deserved the rejection they got from staff, like those to keep some of our woefully under-utilized routes intact. Re-allocating resources to high-ridership services has been a principle of the plan from the get-go, and that means losing some of our weaker coverage routes, like the 15 out to Purcell’s Cove and the 402 along the Sambro Loop.

Other rejected items were a little more eyebrow-raising.

On behalf of a Dartmouth-based coalition who worked with IMTB, Councillor Tony Mancini asked for a single corridor route to run north-south across Dartmouth from Woodside to Burnside. The corridor routes, you might recall, are our highest frequency routes, and would be natural candidates for transit priority measures and stop amenities.

If you are interested in building a high-frequency grid for the urban centre, a north-south corridor for Dartmouth would certainly seem to make sense. The MFT plan, however, links the rest of the city to Burnside via route 3 Crosstown, a route that starts out at the Lacewood terminal in Clayton Park, then crosses the McDonald Bridge and heads north to Burnside (this is the #52 bus in the current system).

Mancini’s pitch was for the 3 Crosstown to stop at the Bridge Terminal (thereby making it a shorter, more reliable route) and to have the new route 6, which starts in Woodside, continue north to Burnside. This would give Dartmouth a crosstown route, and shorten the Burnside corridor route, thereby potentially increasing its reliability.

Halifax Transit’s answer to this request was a no, based on the fact that they would rather stick with “established travel patterns.” That is, the travel patterns established by the current route system, which provides a long single seat ride from Bayer’s Lake to Burnside on the 52 Crosstown, but requires anyone travelling from Alderney or Pleasant Street to transfer onto the 52 at the Bridge Terminal in order to get to Burnside.

The decision on the Dartmouth crosstown corridor epitomizes where the MFT fails to be “innovative.” It’s almost as if staff had added a fifth principle to their list, way back in 2014, to not change anything that worked under the current system. It seems like a nice idea, except when you realize that it’s in direct conflict with the idea of building a simplified, transfer-based system.

Redrawing the route map is bound to be disruptive. But if we try to do it while at the same time maintaining the status quo for users, then the quality of the new plan will suffer.

Of course, one of the ways that staff themselves have been hobbled is in the absence of any data other than how people use our current route system. The information they need to properly revamp the plan — the travel habits and needs of all Haligonians — is still being collected by DalTrac. (You can contribute to it here.)

Councillor Waye Mason is confident that the MFT will be a work in progress, that we’ll be making major overhauls to it as we proceed, based on our new 15-year transportation plan, and our as-yet-unwritten plans for commuter rail and/or bus rapid transit.

While I believe these initiatives could be transformative, I’m skeptical that they would trigger, say, another redrawing of our corridor routes. Likely, once these corridor routes are created, they will remain for awhile. Changes might come in the form of investments in frequency or traffic priority, but not in the route map itself.

If councillors want to see changes to this route map, they will either be negotiating them on December 6th, or instructing Halifax Transit go get some help, and see how MFT measures up to global standards in transit design.

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  1. Erica,

    Section 6 of Administrative Order One requires the Transportation Standing Committee to “review and oversee specific strategic planning directions related to Transit Services coming from… the… Accessibility Plan.”

    And yet, I can find no discussion in the the report of barriers to accessibility, accessibility in general, or service to people who have disabilities. Absent any indication to the contrary, the plan seems to assume that people with mobility challenges must continue to rely on the third-class, discriminatory service provided by the Access-a-Bus, which requires seven days’ advance notice to book.

    Service to people with disabilities is not a matter of charity to be dispensed by government officials when the spirit moves them. It is a human right guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in greater detail by the UN Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Canada has ratified.

    People with disabilities don’t want the separate, grossly unequal service provided by the Access-a-Bus. They want to use public transportation on the same basis as all other citizens of our community. Since modern city buses are all fully accessible—you can’t buy them any other way—this should be a fairly simple matter to build into a new Transit Policy. The Administrative Order out of which the new policy grows requires consideration of this issue, but there is no indication it received any consideration.

    What gives? Am I missing something?

    This would be an excellent topic for a future Transportation column. There are all kinds of people knowledgable about this topic that I could put you in touch with.

    Parker Donham

    1. Excellent point, I haven’t heard much about accessibility since they announced they were close getting to 100% accessible vehicles. But there’s more to consider than just the vehicies. I will move this to the top of the list!

  2. I’ve always assumed that the main point of the 52 Crosstown taking such a long route was that it connected the transit garage to four major terminals (Highfield, Bridge, Mumford, and Lacewood) so that bus drivers have an easy way to get to the start of their shift.

    And I think a connective network works better with a transit authority that proactively educates the population (not just regular users) on how to use it. Halifax Transit has never, ever been good at this.

    1. A mind-meld! As I approached the end of this piece, and before reading your comment, my thoughts were very similar to yours on necessary transit education in general – and more specifically on this current planning-in-flux situation – that public service announcements be created and widely distributed explaining (separately) the current system and, additionally, the 5-Ws of change(s) under consideration. Damn it, why are Maritime governments at all levels so poor at voluntarily communicating with the public? I think it’s a reflection of antiquated thinking – that once elected, once ensconced, an arrogant, entitled form of tunnel vision envelopes and infects, i.e. “You’ll know/get it when we’re ready.” Yes, Halifax Transit and City Hall, please begin publicly communicating with the public, often and comprehensively. You’ve never had more available, even free avenues in which to do it.

    2. Route 52 is a perfect example of how bad the routes are. Almost the entire route is shared with various other routes. It provides half-hearted service to parts of Burnside, and while sections of it are the fastest way to get between two points (Bridge and Mumford), other sections of it are the slowest way to get between two points (Highfield and Lacewood).

      This is why the system is so hard to use – planning any trip requires figuring out not just which bus goes where, but which of the many possible choices is optimal, taking into account that no routes seem to connect, and any route that crosses a bridge or goes down Barrington may be delayed (and since almost every Dartmouth route does that during rush hour, good luck getting anywhere in Dartmouth). Then there’s the odd scheduling. Route 16 is a relatively direct Bridge – Highfield – Lacewood run, but with very little evening service, no Saturday night service, and no service at all on Sunday.

      Less duplication, more direct routes, and regular scheduling would be no more expensive, provide better coverage, and be easier to use.