It’s fitting that when Local Xpress journalist Liane Heller took the final ride for her three-year-long project to write about every single route on the Halifax Transit map, she found herself on the 402 Sambro. Along with Heller’s transit adventure project, the 402 is coming to an end this month, taking its last ride on August 21st, as part of the latest changes under Halifax’s Moving Forward Together plan.
The 402, which ran a Monday to Friday one-way loop from Spryfield to Sambro and Ketch Harbour, fell victim to new standards for ridership on Halifax Transit routes, which set a minimum of 25 passengers per hour during peak times. In 2015, the 402 averaged 25 boardings a day, well below the minimum. For a bus travelling 340 kilometres a day (with an estimated cost of $64.42 per passenger trip) the 402 clearly wasn’t cutting it, efficiency-wise.
— Halifax Transit (@hfxtransit) August 12, 2017
But does that mean that transit services are out of the question for HRM’s rural communities? No. It simply means that fixed route, scheduled transit services do not make sense for smaller, more spread out communities. Putting a bus stop on a rural road with no sidewalks and expecting the surrounding residents to make their way to it in time to catch the hourly, uni-directional bus is not serving the community well or making good use of resources.
Luckily, there are alternatives.
Pre-booked, door-to-door, accessible rideshare services are taking off in Nova Scotia’s rural communities, with 17 services operating this year and several more in the study/planning phases. Unfortunately, as the demand for and capacity to provide rural rideshare services grows, the provincial and municipal funding that is making them possible seems doomed to shrink.
Musgo Rider started in 2012 with a single vehicle serving residents from Lawrencetown to Clam Harbour. This past year it added a second service, Musgo Valley-Sheet Harbour, which reaches all the way to Ecum Secum. The service has seven drivers, four vehicles (two accessible), and is taking people on about 400 trips a month. The trips vary widely in cost, starting from $7 each way for up to 15km, up to $20 each way for a trip into Dartmouth. Most of the trips are booked a day in advance, but there is a dispatcher on duty from 8:30am to 4:30pm, so they will fit you in if they can.
The majority of trips are for medical appointments, says Musgo director Jessie Greenough, and then people going to work or school. There are also grocery runs, physiotherapy appointments, and people connecting to Halifax Transit routes at Porters Lake or Portland Hills terminal. There are also evening bookings, sometimes operating as designated drivers for weddings and events. “We probably wouldn’t do that if we had cabs,” says Greenough, “but we don’t have cabs.”
Rural rideshares are grassroots organizations, popping up all over Nova Scotia by necessity in areas where taxi services are prohibitively expensive and bus service doesn’t exist.
Residents around St Margaret’s Bay created Bayrides to service their area, finishing the first full year of service this past April. “Initially the growth was extremely rapid,” says director Julie Stover. From the first quarter to last quarter, Bayrides more than doubled the number of rides provided, averaging about 250 trips a month. So far this year, the numbers are stabilizing, but still expecting to grow as more and more people realize the service exists.
Which brings us to the Sambro Loop, and the communities soon to lose their trusty, if sporadic and underused, route 402.
Local councillor Stephen Adams argued vociferously during Moving Forward Together discussions that the 402 Sambro should stay in service because it brought in enough in taxes to pay for itself. (All residents within one kilometre of a bus route pay a local transit tax area rate, so once it’s gone, Halifax Transit will lose that tax revenue, and residents will keep it.) City staff argued that transit planning is based on maximizing ridership and fare revenue, not tax revenues.
During the debate I can remember wondering, why would all those residents want to pay an additional $300,000 a year in taxes only to get such a minimal, hard-to-access bus service? (And some residents are still lobbying to keep the bus and the tax, with a rally planned for August 18.) Surely there must be a better use of $300,000?
Sure enough, the entire Musgo Rider operation costs about $225,000 a year to operate, and that’s with a capital reserve for future vehicle purchases. Naturally, it’s a subsidized operation. Provincial and municipal grants help keep it afloat, with fare revenue covering about 25 per cent of expenses.
So there is hope for Sambro, after all.
Currently, the Spryfield Business Commission is spearheading an effort to bring rural transit to the Sambro Loop. It is hiring a consultant for a feasibility study soon, which will include consultations about the actual travel needs of the community. When it’s all said and done, the community may just end up with something much better and more flexible than the 402. (Now if only they had started back when the plan to discontinue the 402 was first floated, there might not even be a gap in service, but as it is, a new rideshare service is likely at least a year away.)
Unfortunately, as the Sambro service comes online, it will mean funding reductions for existing services like Bayrides and Musgo. The provincial funding for these services comes from a set pot of money. That means that as new services come online, the funding amounts go down for everyone. And the same is happening with city funding.
Halifax’s grants committee just approved this year’s Rural Transit Funding Program with a cut from the per kilometre rate for rural rideshares from $0.50 to $0.42, a 16 per cent reduction. The amounts at stake are a pittance in municipal budget terms: it would take only $148,500 (about half what Sambro Loop residents pay now in local transit taxes) to fully fund the three programs according to the rates set in the city’s own administrative order. But HRM’s budget is set at $130,000, and so a reduction in mileage rates was recommended by staff to shave off the additional $18,500. For small operations like Bayrides or Musgo Rider, that will be a pinch they feel.
While the province does of great job fully funding feasibility studies (as it will do for Sambro this year) and covering three-fourths of the costs of business plans, the annual operating subsidies for existing services are shrinking as new services come online across the province.
Shrinking provincial subsidies isn’t exactly a growth model for rural rideshares, which Jessie Greenough believes is a growing industry, considering our aging population, and the challenges of transportation for seniors. Over at Bayrides, Julie Stover estimates about 60 per cent of riders are seniors, with about 30 per cent in the 18-65 age ranges, and 10 per cent youth.
“We have some very compelling stories,” says Stover. “One woman had never driven and when her husband passed away she wondered if she would be able to stay in the community.” She is, says Stover, and now uses Bayrides regularly.
Rural rideshares are a missing puzzle piece in transportation coverage, something that Halifax will need as we rationalize our transit system. They go where transit can’t, and they provide stable, flexible options for people living outside of denser, more transit-friendly communities.
Let’s hope that our provincial and municipal decision makers see clear to funding them properly so that their own growth doesn’t end up killing them off.