A brand spanking new council will take their seats in city hall soon, and one of the early items on their agenda will be a report outlining the repercussions of 21 different amendments to Halifax Transit’s new plan, Moving Forward Together (MFT).
We last left the MFT plan in the spring, when our previous council had just approved the thing while at the same time submitting their long list of requested changes.
Since then, you’ve likely heard not a peep about our new transit plan. That’s because the plan itself is designed to unfurl ever so slowly, over the course of five years, with only two relatively minor changes scheduled for this year.
But with a new council taking control, the plan amendments report due back near the end of November, and a new city-wide transportation plan in the works, transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses has started making some noise again about the MFT.
Earlier this month, in a joint release with Halifax’s business improvement districts (including Main Street Dartmouth, Burnside, Quinpool, Spring Garden, North End and Downtown Halifax) It’s More Than Buses expressed “serious concerns that the plan does not take the necessary steps to significantly increase transit ridership. As well, the plan does not properly account for the needs of people using transit to travel within Dartmouth.”
IMTB has long lobbied for a north-south Dartmouth route, connecting Woodside and Burnside, and indeed, such a corridor would seem smart if Halifax were actually pursuing the “simplified, transfer-based system” that we declared we would back in January 2014.
Back then, staff at Halifax Transit seemed poised to revamp our route network, redrawing it to be a more rational, efficient use of resources, thereby increasing the opportunities for people to use transit to get around. It was exciting and scary, but the people had spoken, and they had asked for a major change. In their June 2014 report to council, Halifax Transit sounded like they were prepared to deliver it:
The transit network today reflects the thinking of a number of different (and at times conflicting) transit planning ideologies. As a result the network does not operate as a cohesive system, but rather a complex web of routes which do not always complement one another or integrate well…
The participants in the consultation process generally demonstrated that they understood the benefits of moving towards a simplified, transfer based network, and showed an overwhelming support for a move in this direction.
But just seven months later, staff tabled another report that reneged on the “simplified, transfer-based” principle. Somewhere along the way staffers had decided that instead of building a simpler, transfer-based network, they would instead simplify our current network, while adding in some more transfers. From an August 2014 staff report:
It has been determined through the drafting process that a network that is entirely transfer based is not the ideal transit service for Halifax. Although the system would be simplified and the number of overlapping routes would be significantly reduced, a number of constraints exist, including the size of the Municipality, the funnel-like nature of the road network, and the inability to achieve a high enough frequency to make travel times attractive for passengers. It was important for the process to draft and test this alternative to understand the implications; however, it was determined that this type of network would require a high number of transfers to complete trips, and overall, would not result in improved service for passengers.
Staff concluded, without presenting any details on the “draft and test” of the alternative, that Halifax was just too wonky for the “simplified, transfer based system” of their own, council-approved MFT principles. Because of our “funnel-like” road network, it seems, we are doomed to keep a “funnel-like” transit system, with large numbers of less frequent routes converging on transit sewers like Barrington Street.
And of course, Halifax is a bit wonky, isn’t it? Let’s face it, we have some geography at play here, what with harbours and peninsulas and whatnot. But IMTB thinks our geography needn’t keep us from a high frequency transit grid, and they brought in Darren Davis, of equally (or even more?) wonky Auckland, New Zealand, to talk about why not.
Davis helped oversee a major overhaul of Auckland’s bus route map, which transformed a very limited high-frequency network into a much bigger high-frequency network. This is what Auckland was able to do with their wonky geography:
Davis didn’t do any public events while in town, but he did meet with the business districts, HRM staff, and Dalhousie students. In a blog post about his Halifax visit, Davis explains the rationale behind Auckland’s transformation from their “spaghetti thrown at a map” legacy network, with 511 different routes, to their new connection-based network of 120 routes.
The sheer number and complexity of the system meant transit riders only understood the particular trips they used, not the routes in their area, let alone the whole network. Through ongoing “routicide” we are down to 360 routes and will end up with 120 routes in our New Network without any significant changes in coverage but very significant improvements in frequency, simplicity, legibility and, most importantly, usability.
So how does a connective route system reduce the number of routes but at the same time keep the same area of coverage? The best explanation of that is here, with a graphic originating with transit policy consultant Jarrett Walker, and adapted by Auckland Transport.
Halifax Transit’s MFT plan does create a system of corridor and local routes, which at first glance seems like it could function on a connective level, like Auckland and other cities are pursuing. But we’ve also kept several other layers of routes, in particular our peak-hour only routes, which will continue to overlap through our busiest corridors, and which will continue to draw resources away from the kind of frequency that could make a corridor and local route system work.
Many of our routes, even with five years worth of MFT changes, will still not be frequent enough to be used reliably to connect with the rest of the system.
Auckland’s simplified, maximum frequency network did come with a trade-off. They have reduced single-seat rides to their core during rush hour. Like Halifax, they were working with the same amount of money, operationally, so something had to go. Plus, like Halifax, they had space issues in their core. It no longer made sense to have all routes converge in the centre of the city.
When it came down to it, Davis describes a change in thinking about who Auckland’s ridership base was and should be, moving from focussing on commuters to focussing on all-purpose riders.
If the only goal of your transit system is to get people to work downtown during the peak, then by all means the one-seat ride system is the way to go. But, if the aim of the transit system is to enable access to the whole of the city for a whole range of different purposes, then a connective network is the way to go.
As is stands, the next five years of Moving Forward Together changes will will not give us a transformative high-frequency grid network, mostly because we have opted to leave our single-seat ride, peak hour commuter system intact.
That’s not to say that MFT won’t bring in some improvements. But back when this process started, it sounded like we were going to build something new and smart from the ground up. Instead we have tinkered with what we have. And starting next month, when council hears back about its 21 proposed amendments, the tinkering will continue, for better or for worse.