OC Night Bus, Geoff LMC (CC BY-NC 2.0)
OC Night Bus, Geoff LMC (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Every New Year’s Eve, Halifax Transit pulls a late shift.

To help revelers get home safely, the city’s transit workers extend services on 31 routes plus the Alderney Ferry by about 2 hours, to between 2am and 3am.

The service is appreciated, says Glen Bannon, manager of transit operations, even if we don’t know exactly how popular it is.

Halifax Transit normally uses fare boxes to gauge ridership, but on New Year’s Eve the fare boxes shut down at 6pm, to encourage people to leave their cars safely stowed at home for the duration of the festivities. So outside of anecdotal evidence – there are definitely lots of happy people taking the bus on New Year’s Eve – we don’t have any hard ridership numbers to show for the effort.

The ferries are a different story. Thanks to Transport Canada guidelines requiring accurate passenger counts on vessels at all times, we know that late-night, free New Year’s Eve ferry service is popular. Exactly 474 people caught a late-night boat this year, up 66 per cent from last year, possibly due to increased frequency. (Over 1600 rode the ferry from 6pm onwards.) Some of the busiest trips happened in 2010, when NYE fell on a Friday. That year the ferry carried 290 at 12:15am, and another 281 at 12:45am, practically rush-hour numbers.

“This type of service offers a very clear benefit,” says Glen Bannon. Feedback from police and transit supervisors says traffic is lighter on peninsula thanks to the service. The same is true of other free ferry events, like Canada Day, Natal Day, or for the Holiday Parade of Lights.

But the New Year’s Eve service isn’t just about reducing traffic at exceptionally busy times. It’s about safety. The service extension is offered in support of MADD Halifax, whose volunteers collect donations at ferry terminals. “The message is drink or party responsibly, however you want to put it,” says Bannon. “We are linking that message with the means to get home.”

The inevitable question is: What would it take to provide that means on other nights of the year, when downtown is also packed with partiers (and the workers that serve them), even if not on the scale of New Year’s Eve?

Without numbers it’s difficult to say how feasible it might be to create late-night service, even if just on weekends, for Halifax Transit. But we do know other cities do it.

Edmonton ran a pilot program in 2012 providing late night service on Fridays and Saturdays out of its entertainment district. Then this fall they launched Late Night Owl Service, featuring five routes that run till 3am, seven days a week.

Vancouver runs the Night Bus, with 12 routes running various frequencies well into the wee hours, and Toronto has the Blue Night Network, an overnight network of bus and streetcar routes.

TTC revised Blue Night May 2015

Back in 2009, the Halifax Student Alliance requested a late night transit pilot from city council. The HSA believed that too many students were stranded at work or study when the transit system shut down for the night.

The year before that, in a report on the Mayor’s Roundtable on Violence, Dal criminologist Donald Clairmont recommended that the city beef up late night transportation opportunities with better taxi availability and “the possibility of a late night bus service, perhaps with onboard security.” The recommendation was echoed later in the report, focussing on students:

Based on students’ views about the inefficiency of public transit options in the evenings, the municipality may want to consider re-adjusting night-time schedules for Metro Transit, at least within the peninsula, on weekends. Given the high proportions of student “walkers” living in the South End, which happens to be the area where most complaints of drunk and disorderly behaviour and a good number of the assaults occur, it is possible that such a transportation policy could lower the incidences of such conduct while students make their way home after a night of Downtown recreation or work. Adding more public transit options at night provides safe alternatives, not only for students, but for all residents of Halifax. Perhaps, given the importance of the so-called “night-time economy” to HRM and Nova Scotia, a system of free transportation could be prudently implemented after midnight, along the line of FRED (i.e. free rides everywhere Downtown) which was initiated to facilitate the movement of tourists; it should be noted that HRM already provides subsidized bus passes for students and others.

City councillors never did authorize a pilot to test out late night service in Halifax. They passed along the Halifax Student Alliance request to Halifax Transit and the Board of Police Commissioners, but with no instructions for further action.

It’s great that we can enjoy the safety and convenience of extended hours (and free service) on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps it’s time to put some resources into seeing what those extra two hours could mean for the rest of the year.

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  1. I love the model that Bergen, Norway uses. There is a central nightlife area. At two designated times (I think it’s 1:30am and 3:00am, but it’s all a bit fuzzy…), 5 or six “get me home safe” bus routes leave from a central location in the middle of that nightlife area. Because all the buses leave simultaneously, there’s a rush to pay up and leave the bars at about 1:15, and again at about 2:45. With many other fellow socialites doing the same thing, it helps remind even the foggy-headed that they might want to pull themselves together and get going. The system has lots of benefits:
    * Safety while waiting for the bus – everyone waits in the same area, and there are a couple of bus supervisors just *around*.
    * Social encouragement to take the bus – if it’s something everyone’s doing together, it’s the definition of “normalised”.
    * Simplicity – it didn’t matter where you’re going, or when – there’s one place to catch any bus, and one time. Everyone comes to know that if you go to the square at 1:30, there are always buses there.
    * Reliability – It’s bad enough getting to a stop and wondering whether you’ve missed your bus (or it might have gone early) – that’s only multiplied when it may be the last bus of the night. However, with this, there’s no real intention to pick up people mid-route – this is a “get home from the downtown bars” system, and that only.

    I could see a system where, say, 6 buses depart from a single block of Barrington at the same time, going north, at 1:00. They all stop at a single spot on Gottigen at 1:10. Then, they all head off, express-style, to their various destinations – one to Spryfield, one to Fairview/Clayton Park, one to Bedford & Sackville, one to North Dartmouth, one along Main Street to Preston, one along Portland Street to Cole Harbour… Repeat at 2:00am. They could be circuitous routes once they’re in their service areas, because at that point of the night, people aren’t looking for fast – they’re looking for safe, cheap and easy.

  2. What about the early-morning work-force? The article was good and the comments for the most part – thoughtful – but there are many carless folks right now who have to pay dearly for a cab or scramble to beg a ride to get from one “city” to the other when they have to be at work by 6:00 am or earlier and the MacDonald Bridge is closed!
    Steve Hart

  3. The biggest issue that I see regarding ANY transit decision is the fact that we don’t have numbers. The fare boxes is only one step up from nothing since they won’t account for every Dal student and anyone with a monthly pass.

    When we get a system that counts every rider, every time we will be able to do great things, until then we have to “trust” that Metro Transit is doing the best they can, which is not something that they have earned from me in the recent past.

  4. As a parent of (now former) teenagers and young twenty-somethings we would have welcomed late night bus and ferry service. Certainly in those days, and I doubt things have changed, the shows didn’t really get underway until about the time the ferries stopped running. Much money spent on cab fare could have been saved had public transit been available.

  5. The Halifax transit service is planned around the suburban 9:00 – 5:00 commute with a view to reducing the number of cars coming onto the Peninsula during those hours (making the car commute easier for those who won’t switch to transit). This leaves the growing number of people doing shift work and those with wages too low to afford a car in a predicament. On some bus routes service even stops at 8:00 PM. HalifaxTransit is now marching resolutely backwards.by proposing to reduce its geographic coverage, Cities that considered doing this 30 or more years ago, as the car was taking over, are glad they didn’t.. .

  6. Given that a huge number of transit users have monthly or even annual passes these days (think students, most daily commuters), how in the name of all that is wonderful can they still be using farebox totals to determine numbers? No wonder they can’t get it right. They have no clue how many people are on the buses!

  7. I went to Carleton in Ottawa and the late night buses from downtown to various transit way stops were terrific if you were out on a Friday or Saturday. I believe the last bus(es) left at 2:30am from downtown and could get you within a reasonable walk of your residence almost anywhere you lived.

    I live in Cole Harbour now and the $35-40 cab ride is a huge turn off. Having a bus going from DT to Portland Hills (same with Clayton Park, Bedford, etc.) at 1am, 2am and 3am would be awesome.

  8. Also, I am very glad to see Erica’s writing here, Tim. I am more likely to see it here than in Metro, so I hope this provides significant exposure.

  9. This at least warrants a pilot program to test it out. Perhaps the time to push for it is now, as an election is looming. In the run up to the last municipal election, there was a free bus service for those frequently voting seniors. Maybe we could try a different demographic and a different issue this time around.

  10. What about applying a concept similar to Happy Hour to increasing bus ridership?
    After (for example) 11:00, the bus fare goes down to $1. The reduced fare could be applied to any additional hours the bus runs to (say 2:00AM). That way, the buses still make money (anybody know the profit margin on the current fare of $2.50?), late nighters don’t get stranded and less cars are on the road (well, maybe this is an outcome…).

    1. I don’t think where the fare is set would have much of an effect. Compared to the overall costs of going out, whether the bus fare is $0 or $4 hardly makes a difference, and people working and studying late who rely on the bus will already have passes. Having the service at all should encourage its use, because a $0 and a $4 bus ride are very appealing alternatives to a $40 cab ride or a two-hour walk.

      1. Not that $4 is a king’s ransom, but it is certainly enough to dissuade people from using the bus. As a young Haligonian who has done reasonably well, I’m still pinching pennies. I use the bus quite a bit these days, but that’s only because I’m currently in a position where I have access to a highly discounted student bus pass. If I were paying the usual rates or $4 per ride, I wouldn’t be using the bus if I could ever avoid it. With youth unemployment high, the relative cost of something isn’t the key issue: rather, it’s the income of the people who are expected to pay. In practice, what I’m referring to is that people only have so much. They might go out and drop $40, $50, $60+ at the bars, but that doesn’t mean they have more money to spare from a finite total monthly budget. If you’ve already had a few too many and reprioritized your spending toward more booze/drugs/etc for the night, when it’s time to go home, i think many folks find that they suddenly want to spend as little as possible. And so they stagger home through otherwise quiet neighbourhood. Again, my point is that the incomes of many are both low and finite, and so any added expense can be an undue burden. To take a line from the delightful American signer/songwriter Greg Brown, “time ain’t money if all ya got is time.”

    2. There is no “profit margin” for transit. Compared to other municipalities, Halifax Transit does exceptionally well* by earning 60-something percent of operating costs via the farebox. (I can’t remember the exact latest number but it’s something in that ballpark.) The rest of the budget is provided by the city.

      *Exceptionally well is a loaded phrase, of course. To the city’s finance department, recovering only 60~% of expenses is woefully inadequate. To public transit advocates, the emphasis on a high rate of cost recovery reflects the city’s lack of will to provide better, more convenient, and accessible transit where and when it’s needed.