Everyday, people have places they need to go, on time. Everyday, people riding Halifax Transit wonder if they’ll get where they need to go, on time. There are ways to keep transit moving – transit priority. So far, Halifax hasn’t tried very hard. Without transit priority, our system is slow, unreliable and unpopular.
When transit runs late, it plays havoc with people’s schedules. Traffic is the biggest culprit slowing down transit; vehicle caught in transit easily fall behind schedule. Traffic isn’t entirely predictable – some days are worse than others.On Thursday an intersection could be a 2 minute delay, but on Friday it’s a 6 minute delay. It’s hard to build unpredictability into a reliable schedule. Technology to track vehicles helps a bit, but knowing where your ride is won’t get it moving.
Transit priority is the most effective way to increase reliability. Regardless of the vehicle – bus, light rail, streetcars or big trains – they need a clear path free from traffic to run quickly and on time. This is what transit priority provides.
Like many things, there’s a spectrum of transit priority options to choose from. The Cadillac is a separate, dedicated right-of-way, meaning tracks or roads only for transit. Subways, commuter rail and Ottawa’s busway are all examples. Dedicated right-of-ways let transit move lots of transit vehicles and huge numbers of people, quickly and reliably.
The Honda Civic of transit priority – reliable and reasonably priced – would be dedicated transit lanes on roads or highways. Transit bypasses most traffic, but can still be slowed down by traffic lights, by vehicles turning or by clueless tourists caught in the wrong lane. Transit lanes dramatically increase transit’s speed and reliability over standard bus or streetcar service.
Standard bus service in Halifax runs entirely in mixed traffic, using the same congested lanes as all other traffic. This is the Hyundai Pony of transit – slow, unreliable and frustrating. Transit gets no priority over other vehicles, so accidents or traffic jams slow transit and throws routes off schedule.
All but a handful of Halifax Transit services are bus routes running entirely in mixed traffic (the MetroLink buses and ferries are exceptions). Ninety percent of riders use routes that run in mixed traffic, and for most people there isn’t a better transit option. Busy routes to the hospitals, universities, downtown Halifax and Dartmouth and the shipyards get no transit priority and are routinely caught in traffic. People living in Clayton Park, Spryfield, Bedford, the Halifax Peninsula and most of Dartmouth (ok, almost all of HRM) have no options but bus routes running in mixed traffic. Service that’s slow and sometimes late: no wonder lots of people choose not to ride Halifax Transit. Ridership was down 1.5% last year, so we aren’t even heading in the right direction.
If Halifax really wants more people riding transit, we need to get serious about transit priority that keeps people moving quickly and reliably. We need much more than what’s currently proposed (there’s one measly turn lane so far in this year’s budget). We need to invest in permanent, dedicated infrastructure to keep transit moving. We have to look at major corridors – on-street and off-street – that can start moving lots of people, quickly and reliably. We need to give transit space to skip traffic and get people moving.
Investing in fast, frequent and reliable transit won’t be cheap or easy, but the timing is perfect. The new federal government has committed billion for urban transit. Now is the time to decide what projects can transform our system. Now is the time for bold proposals that will move tens of thousands of new riders every day.
Giving transit significant priority over traffic could transform our city. Getting transit past traffic would speed commutes, improve reliability and attract new riders. Faster service is not only more popular, but it’s also cheaper to operate. More revenue, lower costs, fewer cars on the road and less emissions: win, win, win, win. It’s well past time that Halifax makes transit priority a serious priority.