Well, I’ll be darned. While Saskatchewan mourns the loss of its extensive regional bus service (shut down by an austerity budget in 2017), and while Greyhound pulls out what remains of its routes in western Canada, Nova Scotia is testing out subsidized regional bus transit.
That’s a very good thing.
If we learned anything from tolling consultations last year, it was that we can’t afford to keep building and expanding a fully-subsidized road network that induces more and more private car use. We need to invest in alternatives. And regional bus service provides a basic alternative to private car use.
Starting this week, Halifax and south shore residents will get to test out that alternative, with an 18-month pilot project. Thanks to a $385,000 subsidy from the province, Maritime Bus now offers three trips a day, seven days a week, from Halifax to south shore destinations like Chester, Bridgewater, and Lunenburg. The provincial money will get disbursed through the not-for-profit Nova Scotia Community Transportation Network.
The trips won’t be cheap, but they are in the ballpark of the costs of driving a private vehicle.
When I punched in the trip from Lunenburg to Halifax in CAA’s online driving costs calculator, I found that taking a 2010 Honda Accord each way would cost me about $35. So a one way ticket of $33.80 is relatively on target for the solo traveller. (The same day return price of $47.02 is even better.) But because we tend to bury driving costs in our household budgets, the ticket prices will still look steep to many. The monthly pass prices are far more realistic, coming in well below the average cost of operating a private car for 20,000 kms a year.
(Note: The CAA estimated about $0.37 cents per kilometre in cost for driving. That includes all maintenance, depreciation, and insurance for someone owning or leasing a car for five years. So it’s not exactly the right number for someone deciding whether to drive or take the bus if they know they will own or lease a car regardless. It’s a more useful number for people thinking about whether or not it’s worth it to operate their own car.)
Even more important than price will be the effective level of convenience the service offers. Three trips a day, seven days a week is a good start. (Kudos to Maritime Bus and/or the provincial government for not skimping on the weekends.) Here’s hoping the next step includes integration with Halifax Transit and Bridgewater Transit, in terms of both stops and ticketing. Realistically, if you are busing into town, you are going to be busing around town.
And hopefully, the provincial and municipal governments involved will get on board with promoting the heck out of this pilot project. They are off to a rocky start on that front. Mystifyingly, my emails to the province this summer came back with, “nothing to formally announce yet” replies, and there was a provincial communications embargo on the project until a launch event on Monday at 10am, which is the same day the service launched. You gotta wonder how many people had any idea there were now three buses a day connecting the south shore.
— Ed Halverson (@edwardhalverson) September 10, 2018
Sometimes, just sometimes, pilots are designed to fail. (See the province’s posted speed limit study in which it measured the effects of changing a single sign in a community, without any additional promotion or enforcement.) I sincerely hope that is not the case for this regional bus service pilot. A convenient, well-sudsidized regional bus service makes a lot of sense for Nova Scotia. But a pilot service that no one knows about and which is disconnected for other transit systems will not get us there.
Are buses part of our cultural heritage?
You might think that this piece of transportation infrastructure spending would come from the Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastrucutre Renewal (NSTIR), whose mandate includes, “provide a transportation network for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.”
You might think this bus funding would be a subsidy diverted from our current massive subsidies for private car use.
This is a Communities, Culture and Heritage (CCH) project, the department whose mandate is “the promotion, development, preservation and celebration of our culture, heritage, identity and languages.” And yet, CCH is the department in charge of Nova Scotia’s Community Transportation Action Plan, which includes this regional transit pilot project.
So, instead of NSTIR diverting money from other transportation projects to fund a transportation project, we have our provincial cultural department diverting money from the “promotion, development, preservation and celebration of our culture, heritage, identity and languages” to fund a transportation project. Not only that, but apparently CCH is responsible for all community transportation planning and infrastructure in Nova Scotia.
I find this baffling and problematic. Transportation is a basic structural need in society. If people can’t get from A to B, then many things break down. Yes, cultural connections suffer, but so does access to health care, education, jobs, and markets.
That’s why transportation gets its own provincial department. It’s a massive, and massively important, undertaking.
But for some reason the provincial government has chosen to make the transportation department about serving those of us with private vehicles only, and to relegate all public or shared infrastructure over to a much smaller department that doesn’t even have the word transportation in its mandate.
Why does this matter? Because transportation funding is austerity-proof, as the provincial government so clearly demonstrated last year. Even in the face of its own arguments about the un-affordability of further twinning our highways, it announced massive new investments without any new sources of revenue. At the same time, anything with the whiff of “culture” about it is clearly seen as expendable, as we saw with the ham-fisted dismantling of the film tax credit, despite the government’s continued commitment to prop up just about any other industry.
The provincial investment in this regional bus pilot project is in many ways a great sign. But the way it is organized betrays the way that government managers think, and demonstrates the reality of where this type of infrastructure sits on their collective priority lists.