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People movers

How does Halifax build a better transit system? Put people first

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Building a better transit system isn’t hard: just put people first.

Building a better transit system isn’t hard: just put people first.

“It’s about moving people, not just about moving vehicles.” Those were the campaigning words of Mike Savage when he ran for mayor a year ago.

Jen Powley is coordinator of the Our HRM Alliance, a coalition of groups working to maximize livability and sustainability in Halifax.

“It means we have to start thinking about people of all ages and abilities, of all income levels, and getting them where they need to be, rather than just servicing the small segment healthy enough and rich enough to own an automobile,” she says.

While “moving people” isn’t official policy, having been repeatedly uttered by the city’s highest-ranking official it can serve as a vision to focus transportation initiatives. So, how are we doing since the new, shrunken council took office one year ago?

If people—all people—are to get around, accessible, reliable, affordable public transit is needed. Council has approved the purchase of five new buses to increase frequency of service on existing routes, and another six buses on a new route from Portland Estates to the Woodside ferry terminal, where ferries will be running more frequently. The new buses are wheelchair accessible, and another eleven new ones will replace older inaccessible versions. Positive, but small, steps.

Two years ago, Metro Transit came up with a bigger-picture plan, called “5 Big Moves.” The moves included keeping buses on schedule, creating urban express routes with minimal stopping, and investing $840,000 to create high-frequency bus corridors. HRM has pushed Council and staff to back these ideas up with funding. “As far as I know, Metro Transit hasn’t even costed them out,” Powley says.

There is better news if you’re inclined to get around on bike or foot. The city is taking strides on the active transportation front, steered by staff coordinator Hanita Koblents. In the summer, she released a report based on input from 300 people attending six open houses in March and April, and another 585 people completing an “obnoxiously long” online survey.

It’s part of the city’s five-year review of its active transportation plan, which Koblents expects will result in better “connectivity” throughout the regional municipality. She wants to connect new bike lanes to old ones, and connect those to greenway trails in the outskirts. “Since ’06 we’ve piggybacked on existing paving projects,” Koblents says. One result has been 100-metre bike lanes to nowhere.

The proposal that’s generated the most excitement, and been most controversial, is the long bike route to connect peninsular Halifax’s north and south ends, a boon to downtown bike commuters. What once seemed an impossible dream, a functional and continuous downtown bike lane, is really happening. Koblents’ report will put forth other citizen proposals in the hopes that money will be allocated toward them.

But even the north-south bike connector lane highlights the battle between cars and other forms of transportation. The central street to the north-south bike lane was to be Agricola, but that required taking out three-quarters of the parking, something the North End Business Association opposes. In May, city staff recommended focusing on Windsor street first as a compromise. “Windsor would be useful to new and existing cyclists and connect via local streets to Dal,” Koblents says.

But Agricola is not off the table yet. Council has directed city staff to look more closely at parking mitigation options for Agricola.

“There will be a recommendation to consider bike lanes on Agricola, or a parallel route using local streets,” Koblents says. She cites experts in Vancouver, Portland and other progressive North American cities who say that local street bikeways are a great way to grow the cycling community while avoiding contentious parking issues.

Despite impressive progress on the bike front, one of the strongest criticisms Our HRM has of the city’s transportation policy is that, despite progress in active transportation, the rubber only really hits the road—that is, the city spends money—when cars are involved. Arguably one of the most important of the city’s plans is its “Road Network Functional Plan,” which lists dozens of road projects, implemented, planned and possible, with the intent of ensuring the smoothest possible traffic flow.

HRM wants the city to rethink that intention, using “a new vision for multi-modal mobility”—moving people, not just cars. “In the latest draft of the regional municipal planning strategy there is still a list of road improvements,” Powley says.

One “improvement” is to widen Bayers Road, which would run hundreds of millions of dollars and has been on the city’s wish list for two decades. “[Councillor] Watts wanted to put the Bayers Road widening on hold for the next five years and HRM staff was quite opposed to it,” Powley says. That project and the next road plan are shelved until the ongoing review of the regional plan is complete. “But I think at a staff level, it’s already been written,” Powley says.

Even if staff and Council can learn to think beyond cars, there’s another hurdle to sustainable transportation. Because transportation planning as practiced in Halifax is broken down into so many pieces (the parking plan, the road network, active transportation, Metro Transit, and demand management) it’s hard to assess progress. “I do think the plans are fragmented,” Powley says. “A single sustainable transportation plan would give better direction.”

And moving people around isn’t just about the mode of transportation they use. It’s also about where they live, where their friends and family live, where they socialize, and where they work.

A May report from the consulting firm Stantec, part of regional plan review, says Halifax could save $670 million in new infrastructure costs if it met its own goal of having 25 per cent of growth concentrated in metro Halifax-Dartmouth. That number would balloon to $3 billion if 50 per cent of growth happened in the core. Currently, just under 17 per cent of new housing starts happen there.

Halifax’s growth goals tend to fall under the “land use” umbrella, but they are directly related to transportation issues. Sprawl, coupled with a lack of new investment in public transit, is what creates car dependency.

Setting goals and putting forth “Big Idea” documents isn’t enough to change how we get around. Bold visions are great, but they must be cohesive, workable, and especially funded.

Our HRM wants a hub-and-spoke model of transportation planning that looks at where people are, where they need to be, and how to connect those places. New development would happen not only downtown, but in those “hubs” where people tend to congregate, like peninsular Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Sackville.

Powley acknowledges that a heavy upfront investment is involved, but contrasts that with the $3 billion in infrastructure that Halifax will pay for not focusing its growth in dense areas. She notes that the Brazilian city of Curitiba, which has a GDP per capita of about a third of Halifax’s, has successfully implemented a hub-and-spoke system with rapid bus transit, reducing citizen fuel use by nearly a third.

Curitiba is a global model in affordable, sustainable, accessible transportation planning linked to land-use planning, having focused its growth along designated corridors linking busy places with minibuses and large wheelchair-accessible buses. Several pedestrian-only streets were also designated.

“Metro Transit operates on a line system where you end up with a billion buses down Spring Garden Road, all going to different places,” Powley says. “What would be more efficient is having one bus down Spring Garden Road that comes every couple of minutes and goes to a [downtown] transit terminal where all the connections could be made.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a production error, the wrong draft of this story ran in the October 2013 print edition of the magazine. The draft that ran in the magazine was an edit-in-progress, missing later factual updates from the writer. The version above is correct. 

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