What kind of transit has dedicated rights-of-way separated from traffic, the kind of frequency that makes checking a schedule superfluous, stations where you pay before boarding, and platforms allowing you to walk or roll directly on board?
Of course that sounds like a subway or elevated train system — the kind of higher order transit you find in the bigger cities of the world. But there’s another system with all those features that’s more accessible to smaller cities like Halifax. It’s called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and we’re about to start hearing a lot more about it.
The city has announced an intention to study BRT in 2017, but It’s More Than Buses has already imagined what Bus Rapid Transit could look like in Halifax. The transit advocacy group has just released a call for a Halifax-Dartmouth BRT network as part of Fusion Halifax’s “pitch for great youth city.”
Houssam Elokda is an urban planner and advocate with of It’s More Than Buses. “If you want to really change how people move in Halifax,” says Elokda, “then BRT is an ideal solution for that.”
So what exactly is it? Think MetroLink on steroids.
Just over a decade ago MetroLink was set up with federal funding as a pilot project to test out some of the ideas behind Bus Rapid Transit. With minor tweaks at intersections like queue jump lanes and advance signals just for buses, not to mention an express schedule with fewer stops, MetroLink managed to offer riders competitive travel times on some key routes. On MetroLink, you can go from Sackville to downtown in 30 (scheduled) minutes, or from Portland Hills in just 24. And during peak hours, the buses run every 10 minutes. They are popular routes.
IMTB is proposing a network that would up the ante on Metrolink, and bring genuine BRT to Halifax, including dedicated bus lanes all over the city, especially on our most congestion-prone streets.
The IMTB plan includes dedicated lanes on Robie Street, Bayer’s Road, Dunbrack, Herring Cove Road, Burnside Drive, Wyse Road, Pleasant Street, and even the McDonald Bridge. (The city has listed a dedicated toll lane for the McDonald Bridge on a to-do list for 2018.) Dedicated lanes would be complemented by stretches with transit priority measures, and in some cases, with further roadway improvements, like bike lanes and pedestrian improvements.
Whether the dedicated lanes require widening of roadways or just reorganization of current lanes depends on each case, says Elokda. “On Herring Cove and Bayer’s Road, for example, there have already been plans to widen these corridors, so what we’re saying is if they are going to be widened then they should be for buses. In some areas it would be feasible to reorganize lanes.”
The IMTB plan also includes big improvements to how people get on and off buses. “With weather in Halifax, people can’t be standing next to lamppost signs like they are now,” says Elokda. “They should be standing in stations that are sheltered, where they can pay before they enter the station, so that as soon as the bus comes, it’s quick and the bus in on its way.” And most importantly, of course, “It’s never stuck in traffic.”
IMTB’s map includes BRT corridors along almost all our major corridors, but for the Bedford Highway corridor, the group favours using rail instead of BRT. “We haven’t come out and said a huge amount much about rail until this point,” says longstanding IMTB member Sean Gillis, because the group has focussed on improving the bus system.
But for higher order transit along the Bedford Highway, it seems like rail may be the smart choice. Rail has the advantage of being already separated from car traffic, though it has the disadvantage of being owned by CN, who use it to ship freight, and with whom the city has a difficult relationship.
The trick, says Gillis, is to find the right kind of car to use on the track. One light enough for quick stops and starts, but one heavy enough to be approved for mixed freight use by Transport Canada. And ideally, says Gillis, we need cars that can also operate on streets, so that our rail routes needn’t stop at the south end VIA station, but instead could continue along Hollis to downtown.
So far, the majority of discussion about using the Bedford rail line has focussed on commuter rail, a limited peak hour only service. Gillis says if commuter rail can happen at a reasonable price, it’s a good short term investment until we can set up a more frequent, all-day system, with versatile, light rail cars.
“We want to see some actual real service on there. And if you can’t do that then we want to look at something else,” says Gillis.
IMTB have long been proponents of all-day, frequent transit, meaning they don’t favour schedules that offer weekday peak-hour services. “Commuter rail is just rush hour service,” says Elokda. “In the beginning that can be a start, but it can’t be the end goal. For it to truly transform how people from Bedford and Sackville move, this has to be all-day, frequent service.”
There’s no specific cost estimates on the full BRT/rail network proposal, yet, but we’d be looking in the millions of dollars per kilometre for true BRT with dedicated lanes, says Gillis.
Of course, higher order transit like BRT could actually make projects like the widening of the 102 (costing in the neighbourhood of $1 billion) redundant. Some would say it already is.
“Tonnes of research has shown that widening roads for cars only creates more traffic,” says Elokda. “When you create more room it encourages more people to live further away, and more people to use the previously congested corridors. And the congestion comes right back within five to six years.”
Elokda would like to see the province shift its potential investment in the 102 to the transit system, in the form of a BRT network. “Why spend millions of dollars in an investment that’s not going to bring a return, and that is going to have negative impact on people in Nova Scotia? There’s no economic argument for it.”
Meanwhile, says Elokda, the arguments for investing in higher order transit like BRT are piling up. “Whenever cities bigger or smaller than Halifax have adopted BRT programs along their corridors, more investment came in. The benefits of having great transit go well beyond just the quality of the service. Businesses have lower turnover rates. Young people are more attracted to come live in cities with good transportation systems,” says Elokda.
“If we build great transit, it will strengthen our economy, it will improve our health, it will help our environment.”