The aptly named Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen Street.
The aptly named Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen Street.

The season for thinking about transit is upon us. In March, Halifax Transit will bring its Moving Forward Together (MFT) plan back to council. It will be the biggest thing to happen to our bus network in decades, and we all need to stand up and pay attention. As Sean Gillis of transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses told me recently, referring to buses: “Even if you don’t personally ride them, you have to care. They’re too much of the budget, and there’s too many people depending on them.”

This week I’m starting the conversation small, asking you to consider the lowly bus stop, and why we have so many of them.

Halifax Transit has about 2,300 bus stops on about 520 kilometres of roads with bus routes. That makes for an average of about 225 metres between stops, meaning that many distances can be much shorter than that. The range starts as low as 95 metres, and goes up to 2.6 kilometres on more rural routes.

You know those times when you’ve barely found a seat before your bus pulls into its next stop? Well, 95 metres is barely enough time to find a seat.

But why does something as seemingly inconsequential as the distance between two bus stops matter? In short: accessibility and speed. The closer-packed your stops are, the easier to access your bus system is. But what you make up on accessibility, you lose on speed. Bus routes jammed with stops every 150 metres run slower than routes with more generously spaced stops. Transit planners walk a line between keeping walking distances low enough to be attractive to riders, and keeping routes fast enough to be attractive to riders.

In Halifax, we seem to have invested heavily on the short distances between stops, at the expense of speed. Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street have been called ‘transit sewers’ for the sheer volume of bus routes they host, and the stop distances are often less than 150 metres, rarely going above 200 meters.

Transit consulting guru Jarrett Walker recommends 400 metres between stops as a guidelines. When It’s More Than Buses (IMTB) came out with their version of a revised route system back in September 2014, they based their plan on bus stops being roughly 500 metres apart. That’s a big difference from our current system. Although Halifax Transit guidelines suggest a minimum of 250 metres between stops, the reality is an average distance of only 225 metres.

Gillis and IMTB focused their plan on making buses faster, which meant reducing the length and complexity of routes, but also extending the distance that people would have to walk to get to a stop.

Gillis wants to see us focus on fast transit, and sees things like bus stop spacing as a missed opportunity. He supports much of the changes in the MFT plan, such as designating 10 corridor routes and focussing service on them. “That’s wonderful,” says Gillis. “We’re not going to argue with that. But in a lot of ways it’s still the same type of service we have now. Lots and lots of stops, stuck in traffic, and not really trying to be high performance.”

It’s possible that with slightly fewer stops, we might also get better quality stops.

Gillis also thinks things like all-door boarding and raised platforms at stops are potential ways to speed up our buses. Imagine people queuing up at two doors instead of one, and walking or rolling directly on the bus from a raised platform at the stop. “When you look at some of the busy stops,” says Gillis, “that does start to make a huge difference. If you’ve got 25 people getting on at a stop, if they take a minute and a half now, there’s the time savings to be had. On every single bus.”

It’s unlikely that Halifax Transit’s MFT plan will include changes to our stop spacing, though it’s possible that such adjustments could come later, says Patricia Hughes, acting manager of planning and scheduling at Halifax Transit.

“I think that will be something that we will work on as part of the implementation plan and determine how much finessing we can do as part of the roll out,” says Hughes.

When I spoke with her, Hughes made an excellent point about stop spacing, one I’ve read from Jarrett Walker as well. When it comes to making sure people can walk to the bus stop, says Hughes, “it depends on how the roads are.”

It’s another case of transit planners being essentially at the mercy of the road network and development planners in any given city. In a new suburban neighbourhood, full of cul de sacs and lacking pedestrian pathways, the catchment for every bus stop is ridiculously small. But in a denser area with a grid of streets and pedestrian pathways, each stop is accessible to much larger number of possible riders.

As Jarret Walker points out on his Human Transit blog,

Street network determines walking distance. Walking distance determines, in part, how far apart the stops can be. Stop spacing determines operating speed. So yes, the nature of the local street network actually affects how fast the transit line can run!

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. The only way my comment is relevant is that it IS about buses. This may be my only spot to say this:
    In wintertime, we all board buses dressed to the hilt for protection and comfort in the cold. Often we get on a bus where the bus driver is in a short-sleeved cotton shirt and has the heat jacked up to the sky. These mostly male drivers seem like very nice people. However, by the time I get off the bus, my thoughts about them are very dark with my imagination is running wild. Is this just something to accept? Is it a lack of judgement or courtesy? It sure interrupts my concentration on being a good citizen.

    1. Your observation is both correct and worthy of a solution…. some ergonomic wizard probably knows the correct adjustment to the interior temperature for a bus that would be better for the passengers and not unduly impact the bus driver’s comfort… the driver needs to be thinking about driving and not about staying warmer. Perhaps a localized heating solution for the driver?

  2. Better use of the bus transfer process should be used on those streets where multiple buses travel a common route into the city. Why have so many buses stopping at the same bus stops? Optimizing the transfer process will perhaps increase the number of transfers required for a trip; but it will also decrease the run time for a given route. Erica has provided sound logic to support increasing the spacing between individual bus stops and coupled with a better transfer system concept the bus system should speed up and become somewhat more sustainable in the process.

    1. The way I would put it is population density (and a bunch of other factors like street layout, etc) affect the distances which are used as guidelines. I noticed BC transit set its bus stop spacing guidelines according to land use/density… 200 m metres for central business district, and 300 m for suburban areas, for example.

  3. I used to ride public transit all the time, but never in HRM because the service is frustrating poor. Before I bought a car I preferred to walk for 60 minutes (or any amount of time) across the peninsula than to wait at a bus stop somewhere. I think a lot of tweaks could help with efficiency, if transit staff is keen or at least willing to improve service. I have no idea if they are.

    I think the big picture transit planning in HRM still lags behind other cities of similar size. I also still think there is potential for a commuter rail service from Halifax through Bedford and maybe as far as Truro, operating on the existing lines with investment in infrastructure being necessary regardless.

  4. Their new transit route plan is getting rid of the #18 route. Why ANYONE would think that getting rid of the route that joins together the universities is a good thing is beyond me. It will cause problems for students across the city.

    Getting rid of that bus also makes my getting from Clayton Park/Fairview to MSVU much more difficult….as far as I can figure my current <15 minute trip turns into a 45 minute trip with at least one bus change, and maybe two. I specifically bought a house where I did so that I could bus to work instead of drive, and I do. Except if it turns into a 45 minute trip I won't. It also makes it considerably harder for me to go to SMU and Dal. Overall the new routing is a complete disaster as far as I'm concerned. In the big picture, if I can't personally use the bus, why oh why would I support tax dollars being spent on it?

  5. I used to drive everywhere.
    After having surgery on my foot, I had to wear a cast for 4 weeks. My car has a manual transmission so my insurance company wouldn’t let me drive. It was the best thing that ever happened…I discovered the buses! What joy to not be continually trying to find a parking spot or to continually trying to avoid getting a parking ticket. Even when I have guests at my house we hop on the bus!

    I would not want to see these proposed changes take place. . I sometimes have difficulty walking long distances due to having a series of surgeries on my foot. The bus stops are quite a distance apart for many bus passengers. Pretty much every time I take a bus there is a senior on with a walker.. Who cares about faster speeds. This is a small city with a lot of traffic. The buses couldn’t go faster if they wanted to. Please don’t sacrifice bus stops for speed which is unattainable.

    1. The buses could go faster if we had rush hour/peak period bus lanes or the like on roads like Windsor, Oxford, Spring Garden, Quinpool, Bayers, the bridges, etc. It would back up car traffic, but that would potentially be a really good thing for transit as the buses would move much faster, stay on schedule, and attract more riders. Combine this with a perhaps the reduction in the number of stops in a few strategic areas (such as on Coburg next to Dalhousie and Inglis next to Saint Mary’s, where there is a stop at least every 100 m).

  6. Thanks–I’m really enjoying your transit articles. I take the bus often, so they’re complementing my experience nicely.

  7. Although I largely agree with the proposals made by IMTB and others trying to improve transit, I wonder about the true accessibility of a revamped network with stops spaced further apart. My “within walking distance” to a stop is far greater than my partner’s – someone who has to walk with a cane. Among all these proposals I often see the word “accessibility” come up, but haven’t seen much to indicate that accessibility to all Haligonians regardless of mobility or other disability concerns is truly a priority when it comes to transit planning.

    1. As someone who strongly supports much more “subwayish” (few routes, very high frequency on those routes, transit priority so they stay on time and go quickly, and — very high spacing between stops), what I’ve always believed was twofold on this – one short-term and one long-term. In the short-term, we just suck it up and accept that we’re going to have to provide a lot more Access-a-Bus style service. This is the only equitable to take regular transit and move it further away from someone with accessibility needs — you must make up the difference somehow. I believe that these kind of fewer, better routes, will lead to much higher ridership in the long run, but it’s clearly very harsh to take a bus stop away from someone who thought they had an accessible place to live due their proximity to a bus stop.

      However, in the long run, the answer is clearly that we should be building our most accessible buildings along the major routes! In Toronto, if you have limited mobility, but you live half a block from an accessible subway station, the world’s your oyster! I think we should simply never build a seniors’ residence more than 100m from a frequently-serviced bus stop, for example. Let’s get low-income housing, and housing geared to mobility or age along good, high quality transit. Then the two will become self-reinforcing, rather than currently in conflict with each other.

  8. You can’t reconsider distance between stops without looking at routes, because the total walking distance to a stop is distance to the route plus distance to the stop. More evenly spaced routes could have fewer stops, but with our current concentration of routes on a few main streets, more frequent stops are necessary to keep total walking distances reasonable.

    A quick and simple solution to high density stops is express buses that only make a few stops. We already have a few of these, at limited hours, but could have many more. Imagine, for example, a bus running all day between Portland Hills and Lacewood terminals, stopping only at Penhorn, Alderney, Bridge, North Street, Mumford, and Joseph Howe. Rather than try and make all buses provide both cross town and local service, have routes do one or the other.

    1. I agree with Tim’s point about the cross-town routes and separating them from “feeder” routes. Ottawa has a transitway, which makes this kind of thing easier, but its a no-brainer.

  9. Would surely like to see less smoking in the shelters and at these stops. Seems nobody wants to take ownership of the smoke-free places act enforcement.

    1. This is a major issue for me as I have asthma. The new Dartmouth terminal was supposed to be totally smoke free, but that is obviously not the case. It is particularly bad on cold days when a lung full of smoke triggers a major reaction for me. Metro Transit will not enforce it, neither will HRM or the Province.

  10. Thanks for a thoughtful, well-researched and clearly written article. You’re a wonderful addition to the Halifax Examiner team.