You might think Nova Scotia is a peninsula. But if you don’t own a car, it’s really a collection of islands. Halifax is one big island and you can get around it pretty well by bus and taxi; rural Nova Scotia is a collection of small, unconnected islets, each of which might as well be far out at sea. If you live in Liverpool, or Sheet Harbour, or Nictaux without a car, there might as well be a vast ocean between you and the rest of the province. If you live in Halifax and want, or need, to go to another part of the province, the same holds true.
Haligonians (mostly the ones who don’t use transit) think our transit situation is fine because, well, there seem to be a lot of buses around. But outside the city, the situation is different. Maritime Bus Service only serves a small slice of the province. Shuttle vans serve some of the remainder (but anyone who has spent four hours crammed in a mini-van with seven strangers can tell you it’s not an ideal mode). Service is infrequent. These aren’t the kind of transit services you can rely on to run a couple of errands or get you home late at night.
Most Nova Scotians don’t realize how badly off we are for transit, because they have cars. They need those cars, they rely on them. They can’t live outside the urban core without one. Most of Nova Scotia isn’t built for other modes of transportation. Don’t believe me? Spend a week in Cheticamp or Digby or Canso without one. Try to live and work and run errands and go to appointments. Let me know how you make out.
Nova Scotians need their cars, so they have them, which means they never give their non-existent transit service a thought. Cars are a necessity, and people live accordingly. Car payments, insurance, gas, and repairs are bills you have to pay, just like everyone else. So that means a lot of people are stuck working to support their cars. If they lose their cars, they lose their ability to work, to live their lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I visited Austria on a press trip in July (see “Lessons from rural Europe” in the September issue) and vacationed in Ireland in August. On both visits, I had lots of opportunity to see the appeal of a less car-dependent life.
Some North American cities enjoy that life. You can get by comfortably in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and other cities without a car. But good transit service doesn’t have to just be a perk of big-city life.
For two weeks we roamed Ireland, from the country’s largest cities to small fishing villages, circumnavigating the island. We relied almost exclusively on bus service. There wasn’t a destination on our wish list we couldn’t reach.
Service was so frequent we rarely bothered consulting a time table until we were ready to head out. Buses were accessible, big and comfortable, with free Wi-Fi. Every bus had a mix of tourists like us and locals going about their daily business. Some people were obviously commuting. Others were picking up groceries, going to medical appointments, visiting friends.
If you rely on buses here, you know the stigma; the people asking “Why don’t you have a car? Are you poor?” There seemed to be no stigma around bus ridership in Ireland. It’s a useful, practical, efficient service, so people use it and their lives are better for it.
If you enjoy your car, bless you. Follow your heart. But a car should be a choice, not a requirement. Nova Scotians deserve better bus service. In the next Halifax Magazine, I’ll discuss how we can get it. (Spoiler: the pay-offs are worth the cost.)
CORRECTION: The story “Halifaxes around the world” in the September issue misidentified Lord Halifax as the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall. See the corrected story here. Halifax Magazine regrets the mistake.