The venerable #1 Spring Garden. Photo by Michael Taylor.

Another phase of Halifax Transit’s new tech rollout is hitting the streets, in the form of a female robotic voice letting you know what bus has just arrived at your stop, and what stop is next for the bus you’re on. In addition to the voice, there’s an on board display screen with the same information.

I’ve read plenty of confused and irked commenters online, but in general, I think the feeling is that Halifax Transit is finally getting with the program, and doing what other cities have been doing for years. The robot voice, once installed on the full fleet (currently being piloted on 13 routes) will allow visually impaired riders more autonomy within the system. And for all riders, it will put an end to the constant guessing game of where to get off on unfamiliar routes, and likely reduce the number of mistaken stop requests, saving the entire system some time.

Stop enunciation is an exciting step for Halifax Transit, but it’s only a small part of the $43 million tech program we first approved in 2010. Here’s what to expect in the coming year in bus technology:

Real time data

Halifax Transit has had real time location data on their full fleet of buses since July, but we are still waiting for that data to be released in a GTFS standard feed, so that we can use it via Google Transit and other apps like the locally produced Transit360, or my go-to Android app, Transit. Once that happens, sometime by the end of March, those of us with smartphones will know the actual arrival and departure times of buses at our stops, instead of just schedule info. This doesn’t fix the problem of late (or early) buses, but it eases the pain of a chronically late system, because you can adapt on the run (if you are packing a phone and a data plan).

Of course, this real time data has been available by phone since the summer, via Halifax Transit’s Departures Line, the beefed up replacement of Go-Time.  It’s taking an awfully long time to get our live data repackaged and available to third party apps, but HT’s new manager of technical services, Marc Santilli, assures me it’s coming. “We don’t have a firm release date; we are just working through some details with the vendor to make sure everything is in order,” says Santilli.

Schedule adherence data

Knowing that your bus is late and by how long will make using the system more pleasant, but it’s no substitute for actually having buses run on time. Our new AVL system has been collecting data on each of our bus routes, logging where and when they are on time, and where and when they are late, for the past six months.

This sort of data, once we analyze it, will help us target simple fixes for holdups along our routes. Eventually, when Halifax Transit reports to council each quarter, we will be able to see which routes are chronically late, where, and by how much. And these hold ups will then, presumably, become the problem of those who can actually fix them: our traffic and transportation departments.

Santilli assures me that Halifax Transit is logging this schedule adherence data into a monster database somewhere, but is still working out how exactly it will analyze and report it. “It’s just a matter of getting that data in a usable format for our various teams to use as they need it,” he says.

Although the new Automatic Vehicle Location package was meant to work “out of the box”, the default reporting systems were not quite what Halifax Transit had in mind, and so the tweaking continues. While Santilli can’t say when HT’s first schedule adherence reports will make it to council, internal reports should start flowing “in the very near future.”

Automatic passenger counts

Along with the equipment to track our buses via GPS, Halifax Transit has also installed automatic passenger counts on its buses. Up till now, Halifax Transit has relied on fare box totals, along with periodic manual passenger counts, to determine ridership along routes.

The automatic counts will provide more accuracy and detail. We’ll know not only which routes are busier, but which stops on which routes, and at what time of day. And considering that ridership numbers are what planners use to determine the viability of a route, this is arguably some of the most important data to come out of the tech upgrade.

As with schedule adherence, the passenger data is being collected now, but has yet to be reported. That will happen early in the new year, according to Santilli.

New Fare Management Tech

The final component of the tech upgrade has the potential to not only make taking the bus more convenient for occasional riders (or anyone not packing a monthly pass), but it could also help make the system more efficient, time-wise. Sadly, it will probably do neither of these things.

Originally, the Request For Proposals for new fareboxes required them to be “Smart Card (account-based), Credit Card and Smartphone payment enabled.” But that RFP was cancelled last December, and a new RFP was issued, with card technology conspicuously absent.

It’s a shame, because card payment systems could pave the way for all-door boarding on buses, which could speed up certain routes, where boarding can take a minute or more per stop. Halifax Transit has never endorsed all-door boarding as a concept anyway, but without fare card technology it’s a moot discussion.

And as for the convenience of non-pass holders? Well, it looks an awfully lot like the status quo, except that we will have transfer printers, so you will no longer have to watch a driver with dry fingers struggle to separate a single paper transfer from the stack as you board.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, that this technology upgrade is overlooking alternative card payment systems. But Halifax Transit is calling this a “phased procurement approach,” so it’s possible that card readers are still in the long term plan.

I will be watching to see which the city accomplishes first: credit/smart card enabled parking metres (which are underway as part of our regional parking strategy) or credit/smart card enabled buses. I don’t usually go in for horseraces, but I think the winner here will say a lot about the real priorities of Halifax’s senior managers and politicians.

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  1. I am cautiously hopeful that the technology implementation will foster significant improvements in transit service. I just hope that Halifax Transit now has the personnel with the knowledge, interest and authority required to make the necessary changes.

    I will feel more optimistic when they start to share the data.

  2. Why was card technology removed and a new RFP issued without it? Whose decision was it (collective or individual) and on what factual and procedural basis? This is important information which should be made public.

  3. The stop enunciation seems to have some teething problems. I’ve heard it on several buses, but it often misses a few stops, or announces two or three at once. Since it works in other cities, hopefully they can get it working here. Any improvements are good, but none of these high tech solutions address the poor routing. Passenger counts might, but only if the data can identify ridership on unique sections of the route versus overlapping sections of the route. Also, poor ridership may indicate that people have given up on the service, not that it is unwanted. For example, route 9 servicing Point Pleasant does not have many riders in the evening, but it only runs once per hour, which makes it useless for the hundreds going to Shakespeare by the Sea. Low numbers might mean more service is required, not less.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Just because people don’t ride doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they could. The 9 goes right by my apartment. But I often am forced to take the 7 based on frequency alone. Not sure how to measure what people would do. It’s much easier to measure what they actually do. I guess you would have to do a survey.

  4. I disagree that all door boarding requires smart cards. European systems have had all door boarding for years, without any sort of smart card technology. Many European systems allow you to board at whatever door you want, then show proof of payment when asked. If you don’t have a valid transfer or monthly pass then you must board at the front door to purchase one. No technology required.

    Imagine this playing out on the 1: it has three very heavy stops in front of Dal (Henry, Lemarchant, and Alumni Crescent/Larch), but nearly all passengers boarding are students, who one-by-one display their student IDs to the driver, while no one boards or alights via the two rear doors. In the future, these three doors would be used approximately evenly just by letting pass holders board at the back.

  5. Technology and Metro Transit have never been very compatible.
    There are how many hundreds of transit systems across North America? So why does Halifax Transit act like they are inventing the wheel every time they look at some new technology? There is a term called “best practices” with which they seem to be none too familiar.
    Their idea of “hi tech” is using a 55 inch plasma monitor to display a 1990s vintage static PDF file of a transit schedule (see in the ferry terminal). A 36 X 24 printed poster could do that at a fraction of the cost. Those same PDF’s are still what they have on-line. It really is quite pathetic that we are hitting 2017 and the Transit System is still anchored in 20 plus year old technology.