Colour me impressed.

Halifax city councillors have voted to get a second opinion on the city’s new bus route plan, Moving Forward Together. Though it’s already been approved and the five-year implementation plan is underway, most of the heavy changes aren’t scheduled until 2018 and beyond, so there’s time to rework it. (In fact, the lengthy implementation schedule means we’ll be hashing out this plan until the spring of 2020, as council has the opportunity to make changes when Halifax Transit’s annual service plan comes up for approval each year.)

In the spring, councillors had submitted a long list of specific change requests, but most agreed to set aside their lists (nearly all of which had already been rejected by Halifax Transit planners) and instead asked staff to report on hiring a consultant to review the whole darn thing.

Waye Mason brought the amendment forward and it was approved unanimously. Here it is, as spoken at council on December 6th:

And further, request a staff report regarding engaging a consultant to review the corridor routes in the Moving Forward Together plan and provide advice for modification that may be warranted in the 2018-19 service year. This review will incorporate any relevant information available at that time, including outcomes of the Integrated Mobility Plan, updates on the bus rapid transit pilot proposal, commuter rail proposal, transit priority measure implementation, including any approved direction for Bayer’s Road and Gottingen Street, Mumford Road terminal site selection, updated ridership data and travel time mapping.

Transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses had been pushing for an outside review of the MFT plan for awhile now, and I think it’s fair to say this motion might not have been made or approved without their work.

But why, as new councillor Richard Zurawski asked, if we have professional transit planners already working at Halifax Transit, do we need outside advice on the transit plan they spent the last two years creating?

Mason had his own good reasons: there’s a new transportation plan due in six months which could change the lay of the land for transit in Halifax, and there’s still plenty of discontent over the plan, reflected in the number of proposed changes coming from councillors and a steady stream of statements being released by It’s More Than Buses. And then there’s also the impending data that we’ll be getting from DalTrac’s trip survey project, and Halifax Transit’s new automated passenger counters (more on that next week.)

I have my own reason for relishing an outside perspective on Moving Forward Together.

Since the beginning of their planning process, Halifax Transit planners have hamstrung themselves with the idea that Halifax can’t have a transfer-based network, even though a “simplified transfer-based network” is one of the four declared pillars of the entire Moving Forward Together plan. Just seven months after presenting those pillars to council, in August 2014, transit staff stated that a transfer-based system was not doable thanks to the “funnel-like nature of the road network, and the inability to achieve a high enough frequency to make travel times attractive for passengers.”

From that point on, the very good people at Halifax Transit have been working under the assumption that we can’t really transform our route system from an inefficient single-seat ride network to a more efficient transfer-based one. And so, essentially, they haven’t. Even the best and brightest planners will generally not achieve what they don’t set out to do. And that seems to be what’s happened here.

So a fresh set of eyes — a new perspective on what’s possible with Halifax’s wonky web of streets — could be a game changer, in the same way that the whole Moving Forward Together plan could have been a game changer until August 2014. If, as It’s More Than Buses has asked, we can get an “international caliber expert in transit network redesign” to review MFT, the idea that we can’t have a transfer-based system might just get challenged. And this could be a great opportunity not only for Halifax bus riders, but also for transit planners. They might get to be part of a transformative route re-design after all.

Of course, there is the question of the consultant. In his second good point of the day, Councillor Zuwarski pointed out that “very often the choice of consultant determines what type of report you are going to get.” We can either bring in someone to confirm what we’ve done, or to challenge it.

It’s not clear yet what process will be used to select a transit network consultant, but my fingers are crossed that anyone but Halifax Transit’s current leadership be on the selection committee. They are qualified, good people, but I just don’t see how they can conduct an effective search for someone to challenge their own hard work.

Also, Halifax Transit leadership has been notoriously cheap in the resources they demand for transit. (They’ve barely made a peep about transit priority on our streets, and they’ve refused to even ask council for the resources to implement the new MFT plan in a timely way.) So I fear that with HT leadership in charge, we may be looking at a bargain basement review of our transit network, by some planner equally timid about the trade-offs necessary to transform our system.

It’s More Than Buses has brought at least two major international experts on transit network design to Halifax. Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives was here in 2011, and Darren Davis, who oversaw the massive redesign of Auckland’s route network, was here just a few months ago.

Although Dartmouth councillor Tony Mancini stated that the city would be precluded from hiring anyone suggested by It’s More Than Buses, I’ve reviewed procurement rules and can’t find any basis for his claim. It seems that a public recommendation from a group like It’s More Than Buses does not disqualify a contender, though conviction of a criminal offence and/or offering a gratuity to an official or employee of HRM would. (There’s no word on whether Walker or Davis took anyone out for drinks while in town, but my guess is they’re in the clear.)

Either way, I will be asking Santa for a consultant with the experience, credibility, and creativity to help Moving Forward Together live up to all of its original four principles, even if it means paying for it.

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