Ahsan Habib, director and founder of the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC).

The numbers have been in for a few weeks, and they are… unimpressive. Naturally, I mean the 2016 census “journey to work” survey numbers, part of the long form census that 1/4 of us are asked to complete. Here’s how our mode share breaks down:

Transit mode share: 11.8% (down from 12.5% in 2011)
Walk mode share: 8.2% (down from 8.5% in 2011)
Bike mode share: 1.0% (down from 1.1% in 2011)
Auto (driver) mode share: 70.4% (up from 68.7% in 2011)
Auto (passenger) mode share: 7.3% (down from 7.9% in 2011)
Combined auto mode share: 77.7% (up from 76.6% in 2011)

I spoke with Ahsan Habib, director of the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC), to get his reaction to the latest census numbers.

“Looks like it’s our wake up call, to me,” says Habib. “We need more investment. The 2016 survey is telling us what we did from 2011 to 2016 is not enough. That’s loud and clear.”

Of course, Habib has had a sense of Halifax’s 2016 modal share longer than anyone. DalTRAC has been surveying the transportation habits of Nova Scotians since 2015, with the NovaTRAC survey. This year, a city-sponsored and city-specific survey is underway, the results of which we should start to see rolling out in the spring.

But if we have the census, why do we need NovaTRAC?

“Although Halifax and a couple of other cities have been relying on journey to work data, this is not [complete] transportation information,” says Habib. “It’s a reflection of predominant mode.”

The census data, while extremely consistent over the year, can be a slightly blunt instrument when it comes to transportation.

First of all, it leaves out all non-work trips. In DalTRAC’s 2016 survey, only 46 per cent of trips were for work purposes, with the other 54 per cent for a variety of other reasons. “We have a 24-hour travel cycle,” explains Habib, “so we can report on work trips as well as trips for shopping, groceries, medical appointments, entertainment…“

Secondly, it doesn’t weight our multi-mode trips, or seasonal shifts in mode choice. There’s no way to report on the census that you drive with your partner two days a week and take transit the rest. You have to pick your commuting mode of allegiance, and declare that.

“For many years, traffic engineers were mainly planning cities for peak hour traffic conditions,” says Habib. “That’s why only the commute mode, or the reliance on that type of information is still there. But we have evolved to also plan for off-peak hour, non-work trips.”

“It would be much better if we could do this seasonally or even longitudinally [revisiting the same survey participants over time],” says Habib, “to see how things are happening and changing. But surveys are costly and we can’t necessarily do that.”

Habib says that because NovaTRAC asks participants to log specific days of travel, they do have the potential to analyze for something like seasonal variations. “We can associate the travel pattern that we see to the specific day, weather, or many other attributes which we can collect, and really get those variations,” says Habib.

To be able to do that sort of analysis with any sort of certainty, NovaTRAC needs respondents, and plenty of them. This year’s HRM-sponsored survey will contact 12,000 randomly selected people and ask them to complete a single 24-hour day trip diary. So far, NovaTRAC has a roughly 20 per cent response rate from the 2,000 people it contacted via cell phone, and while that will do, it’s just not great.

To really up Halifax’s data game, everyday Haligonians just need to be up for playing. Habib says in his seven years collecting data in Halifax, he’s noted what he politely calls a “familiarity issue.”

Jurisdictions like Toronto have been doing personal travel surveys for so long they are an accepted part of being a citizen there. [Fun fact: my mother’s first job when she moved to Toronto in the mid-60s was to call random people, ask them how they got to work, and then actually draw their commute on a paper map.]

“It’s not as difficult as when I first started in 2014,” says Habib. “It’s getting better, but we need more openness to complete these types of surveys. Haligonians should really understand that scientific enquiries and collecting data is important for them. It can help decision-making.”

And eventually, collecting the kind of data the DalTRAC collects may become a requirement for funding public infrastructure. DalTRAC’s Tracking Progress 2016 report includes not just data on modal share, but also vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT), energy use and emissions, and other noxious pollutants.

Though modal split certainly seems to be king in the world of transportation politics, Habib says that relying on just one target number can be problematic.  “Sometimes it’s difficult to deliver if you have a very small target of one item,” says Habib. “The goals should be more on where the benefits are coming. Or where the costs are.”

“For example, based on modal split, you might just target transit investment. But if we put VKT as a target, then the land use side also comes into it. We cannot allow new subdivisions far away from city centre because it will increase VKT. We know that. So what is now just the transportation department’s responsibility becomes the responsibility of the whole city planning apparatus.”

And, says Habib, with cap and trade or carbon taxes on the horizon, HRM needs to start tracking the right indicators, and setting the right goals, sooner rather than later.

“We really need to include these types of targets because at some point we will need to start calculating and reporting those back to get federal funding, or to get compliance with environmental regulations,” says Habib.

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  1. I tried getting SMART trip with Metro Transit implemented here at the Department of Internal services, I was told that it would be too expensive. (because there would be so much interest, which would be a positive)

    It is always too expensive to do good things.

    I guess that is why we need altruistic rich people spreading ducats around from their high horses. They did not have to slip 5.7 KM to work this mornin.’ Here’s to my Healthy/Dangerous lifestyle! Rock on!

  2. At some point Halifax Transit changed to time based transfers, so now you have unlimited rides in any direction until your transfer runs out. So much better and caters to people using transit for multiple purposes, not just work trips.

    1. Thanks, Erica. I didn’t realize they changed this. And neither do some of my bus riding friends. It was a good change, but I don’t remember it being advertised. Thanks.

  3. Erica—this isn’t directly related to the article, but I’ve always wondered–do you know why, unlike in Winnipeg where transfers are solely based on time , Halifax Transit only allows transfers to be used for different routes? As a walker and bus rider, there are times that I might want to head out to a couple different stores, along the same route, to do various errands. I’m only planning to take a few minutes at each place. I don’t commute by bus frequently enough to justify getting a transit pass. However, in order for me to visit multiple stores along the same route, I’m unable to use the same transfer on the same bus number: I have to keep using up tickets.

    As well, I can’t take the same bus with a transfer once it gets to the end of its line. For example, if I want to go to Robie Street by bus, and I’m currently on Gottingen, I can only take the bus one way to Robie. I can’t take it the shorter route with a transfer. (The shorter route would mean almost half the transit time.) Did Halifax Transit think they’d lose that much money on me by allowing me to do this, or is this something that is too difficult for them to implement and monitor?

      1. What do you mean by return trips? You mean you are able to use a transfer once a bus is at the end of its line, either going back the same way or switching to the beginning of a new route? (And maybe I don’t understand the 7, but I always thought that the 7 going north technically “ended” somewhere before heading back down south on Robie. But perhaps this is not the case? The person who told me this must have given me the wrong information.) So, If I’m on Gottingen heading North and I want to go to Robie Street (heading north where it cuts down Leed Street) how do I do it?