The most important piece missing from the Rapid Transit Strategy

We talked yesterday about the longer-term vision that’s missing from Halifax Transit’s Rapid Transit Strategy. How is the bus rapid transit (BRT) network going to grow after 2030? Will it be extended to Bedford? How can Bedford be connected to Burnside and north Dartmouth? Today we need to start talking about why that longer term vision is so important.

Let’s start with a basic fact that all planning about transit has to face. High-frequency transit, where buses (or trains or ferries) leave every ten minutes, can only work in locations with a high density of people. You need large numbers of people within an easy walk of transit stops, so the transit has a large built-in base of potential riders. If there aren’t large numbers of people within walking distance of a transit stop, there won’t be enough people to fill six buses an hour, every hour of the day, seven days a week. Instead, you’d have a bunch of mostly empty buses, which it turns out is too expensive to work.

Since Halifax transit is proposing that the BRT buses run every ten minutes, all day every day, BRT stops are going to need a lot of people living or working nearby. There are already lots of people on the Halifax peninsula and in downtown Dartmouth. But what about Spryfield, Kearny Lake Rd, or Portland Hills? Remember, it’s not enough for those places to have lots of people. The people have to be densely clustered around the BRT stops.

The upshot is, for the BRT network to succeed, HRM must focus as much future development as possible around Halifax Transit’s proposed BRT stops. What does “as much future development as possible” mean? It means taking key locations in Spryfield, Kearny Lake Dr, and Portland Hills, and making it possible for developers to build (at least) eight- to -ten story apartment and condo towers at those locations. It means looking at the areas that are a couple of blocks away from BRT stops and allowing developers to build townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings there.

The point of all that development is to make sure a huge number of people live within an easy walk of rapid transit. That’s the only way to make sure a huge number of people actually take rapid transit.

The hard part about planning for all that development is that development takes a really long time. So HRM needs to be taking a much longer view than just the ten years covered by the Rapid Transit Strategy. To circle back to a point we talked about yesterday, HRM needs to know where the BRT stops will be in Bedford, and maybe Sackville and Larry Uteck Blvd, by 2040 — even if those communities won’t have BRT by 2030. And HRM needs to know where those future BRT stops will be, so they can start the process of zoning those areas for massively increased development.

On the flip side, HRM needs to know where BRT will never go, so it can start the zoning process that will make sure high-rise and mid-rise apartment and condo towers never get built in those places. Density and rapid transit go hand in hand. If there isn’t going to be any rapid transit in a place, HRM, has to make sure these’s never much density there either.

One last, important point about these issues. It is not up to Halifax Transit all by itself to make these changes. Encouraging development around BRT stops is something that will have to happen in the Regional Plan and the Suburban Plan. So it’s something that lots of different groups of planners at HRM are going to have to coordinate on. But Halifax Transit can start that process by developing a Rapid Transit Strategy with a longer-term vision, and by stating, explicitly in that Strategy document, that zoning around BRT stops must be changed to allow for the dramatic increase in density that makes transit successful.

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