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The future of transit

Hint: It ain't trains or a fast ferry to Bedford

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Illustration: Scott Neily

Illustration: Scott Neily

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Halifax Magazine.

When Haligonians get past their mid-20s, they tend to stop thinking about Metro Transit much. When Halifax’s buses were a major feature of my life—in those long ago days of hockey practices and swimming lessons—they were still powered by electric wires that crisscrossed the downtown streets like spider webs. Eventually I got my driver’s license, grew up and made the move to the suburbs where buses didn’t matter any more because the routes and schedules didn’t begin to meet my needs. In the last 30 years, I’ve spent more time using mass transit in London, Rome and Montreal than waiting at a Halifax bus stop.

That all changed last year when Metro X came to Tantallon. The park-and-ride bus service has become part of our daily routine. My wife Cathy takes the early bus to downtown most days now. Metro X has opened a world of possibilities for us. We donated our beat-up second car to charity a few months ago, and have begun banking away the money we’re saving on gas.

But it’s hardly a perfect love affair. The bus is usually crowded. If Cathy doesn’t get there early enough, she sometimes has to stand through the entire 40-minute ride downtown. And if she misses the bus altogether, the next one doesn’t come for half an hour—making her very late for work.

Metro Transit does get a lot of things right. After all, its transit system provides some 60 routes, covering an area the size of a small European country. It’s one of the few transit systems in North America that is multimodal—operating ferries as well as buses. But some challenges are hard to overcome. Halifax’s population of 350,000 potential commuters sprawls across a network of suburbs that stretch 50 kilometres from Upper Sackville to Lawrencetown. Designing a fast, efficient transit system is a daunting task; it’s hard to be all things to all people.

As manager of marketing and communication for Metro Transit, Lori Patterson has a tough job defending one of the most maligned organizations in Halifax. “In the past, transit was designed to serve the downtown core,” she says. “That’s all changed in the last couple of decades. Now we’ve got business parks, suburbs that are outside the peninsula. Halifax has gotten very spread out and we don’t have a particularly large population base to work with. We’re dealing with a lot of challenges that we didn’t even envision 20 years ago.”

There are other problems as well. Unfortunately, the military strategists who chose to locate Halifax on a small peninsula in 1749 were more concerned with defending the city from French invasion than with the problems that urban commuters might face a couple centuries in the future. What was easily defensible then is a rush hour nightmare now. As they converge on the downtown core, commuters are fed like stockyard cattle into a few ever narrowing choke points: the harbour bridges, the Fairview Interchange, the Armdale Roundabout. It’s a serious routing challenge for Metro Transit too, according to Patterson.

Potential solutions have been kicked around for years, often dragged out and waved around by politicians at election time; schemes like using the existing CN rail line that runs through the bedrock of the peninsula to support a commuter rail service into the city from Bedford, Enfield, maybe even Truro; and that perennial chestnut, a high-speed ferry service zipping from Bedford to the downtown.

But where most people imagine challenges, Jarrett Walker sees opportunities. Walker is an inter-national consultant on transit network design and policy with the Australia-based company MR Cagney. A native of Portland, Oregon, he had never been to Halifax until he visited earlier this year as part of an urban transportation conference. He saw a transit planner’s dream.

According to Walker, the geographic features in Halifax that people usually cite as obstacles are actually wonderful transit opportunities. The choke points that limit access to the city actually act as traffic metres to regulate congestion in the downtown core, making mass transit a convenient and appealing way to get around.

When a bus passes through a choke point it has the potential to serve a range of destinations on both sides and the density of the peninsula along with its concentration of universities, hospitals and government offices makes for an ideal customer base for a successful transit system. “What I see is a city that is incredibly fortunate in its geography,” he says. The whole city has incredible geographic opport-unities that make transit planning a whole lot easier than in Calgary, which is a big, flat space without a lot of barriers.”

Walker is refreshingly pragmatic. Instead of the expected talk about high-speed ferries, bus-only lanes, city entrance tolls and raised parking rates, he says the solution to Halifax’s transit woes boils down in one simple concept: “Frequency is freedom.” Right now Halifax’s bus system is too complex, with too many bus lines travelling the same streets. Schedules and routes are hard to figure out, making transit a confusing and unfriendly experience.

Transit systems that work—like those in London and Toronto—have a minimal number of lines, particularly in the denser urban core and the buses come often. “The peninsula is dense enough to offer an efficient, frequent service, the kind where you walk out on the street and a bus is coming,” he says. The infrequent but fast service typical in a Metro X-style express route is actually counterproductive. “That kind of service is only useful if you know you’re leaving at 5:17,” he adds.

Walker points out that Metro Transit recently increased the frequency of Route 1 (the route that travels from Dartmouth to Mumford Road via Gottingen, Spring Garden and Oxford) to every 10 minutes throughout the day. It cost Metro Transit 13 per cent more to implement; ridership quickly increased by 17 per cent. Customers want frequent service.

So the solution to transit woes on the peninsula sounds easy enough, but what about the suburbs? How do you increase the frequency of a bus service in Cowie Hill or Sherwood Park or Eastern Passage? You don’t, says Walker.

Unlike most public services, transit is not equal. “If your focus is getting really good transit to Sackville, you need to care about transit on the peninsula,” he says. “Your favourite service won’t work without the larger network it connects to.” To illustrate his point, he uses the network of North American airports as an example. The Sydney Airport only works if it can connect easily with Halifax and if that airport in turn connects with Toronto, Boston and Newark. Make Stanfield International more efficient and small feeder airports become more efficient as well.

Lori Patterson says that increasing bus frequency is definitely a priority for Metro Transit and the organization is working hard on a 25-year plan to try to stay ahead of Halifax’s growth curve. A new ferry capable of speeds of 20 knots will soon replace the eight-knot one currently traveling from Woodside to Halifax. New terminals are under development at the Macdonald Bridge and on Lacewood Drive in Clayton Park.

And Metro Transit will continue to expand the highly successful Metro Link and Metro X programs to more far-flung parts of the city. “It’s been a very successful program for attracting people back to Metro Transit,” she says, “people who have never used the bus or who haven’t used it for a long time.”

People like me.