Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Transit First – What’s next for Metro Transit

Read more articles by

HALIFAX – On Wednesday January 8th, HRM Council approved a complete overhaul of Metro Transit’s confusing network and set bold, transformative principles to guide the overhaul. I thought Council had a good discussion about transit and the purpose of the redesign. A few common themes emerged from the Council discussion, including:

  • How do we find out what will get drivers onto transit?
  • What areas will gain and lose service?
  • How will we balance the social needs of transit users with a focus on higher ridership routes?
  • What will the network look like?

These are very important questions, which have different answers depending on what you value. I’m going to write about these four questions in the next few columns. I hope people will join the conversation by posting comments, or by commenting on Twitter with me, @SeanPlans, and @SpacingAtlantic.

So first up: how do we get drivers using transit?

There are two big assumptions in this question. The first is that getting drivers out of their cars and onto transit is a worthy goal. I won’t argue with that; however, attracting drivers onto the bus often conflicts with meeting social service needs.  It’s a big topic – let’s save it for another article.

The second assumption is that drivers have different needs than transit users. I think this is false. Whether you travel by bus, by bike, on foot or by car there is one important question: does this trip make good use of my time and my money? Or as transit writer Jarrett Walker puts it: does a travel option go where I want to go, in a reasonable time, for a reasonable price? There are certainly other factors that come into play, but if a travel option is too slow or too expensive, people will use an alternative, or not make the trip.

Owning a car is expensive. According to CAA, it costs over $9,000 a year to drive a new compact car in Nova Scotia. Transit passes costs $78 a month – or $936 a year. Clearly, motorists could save a lot of money by ditching their cars and riding the bus. Even keeping the car, but leaving it at home for the daily commute, can save money. But many people choose to own a car and drive it every day, suggesting extra mobility is worth the cost.

So how does transit compete? Wi-fi? Trains? Free coffee? Better terminals? Friendly drivers? Better route maps? Comfy chairs? These things do matter, but if transit service doesn’t make good use of people’s limited time and money, they’ll use an alternative if they can. So what do motorists value? The same thing that transit users do: fast, frequent, reliable and comfortable service. Metro Transit provides some very useful services – the Route #1, the Metro Link and the ferries being good examples. Metro Transit’s Moving Forward Principles suggest in the future, Halifax will get more high quality service. That’s the kind of service that appeals to lots of travellers.

Next column: What areas get service? How much service?

Metro Transit’s Moving Forward Principles:

  1. Increase the proportion of resources dedicated to high ridership services.
  2. Build a simplified, transfer based system.
  3. Invest in service quality and reliability.
  4. Give transit increased priority in the transportation network.



  1. Hi Sean,

    I lost my license seven years ago due to a visual impairment (at 51). It was a hard adjustment, and transit was my only option. I’ve come to learn a lot about how the automobile dominates and isolates us in our efforts to create safe, walk-friendly streets, communities and shopping areas. For example, have you ever tried to walk around the Bayer’s’ Lake or Dartmouth Crossing shopping areas? You take your life in your hands! And we continue to create such paved wastelands as if it’s all natural, when it’s quite the opposite.

    Getting car-obsessed people to use transit is a challenge that requires all of the attractive features you’ve outlined – re fast, efficient and comfortable. But transit shouldn’t always be compared to cars. It is a different mode that needs to be accepted for it’s strengths and limitations.

    To have more people use transit requires more safe designated car-park areas where people can leave their vehicles when they come into the city. For that matter, we need more effective bus/transit links to surrounding communities in the Valley, Truro areas, etc., that make up the workforce of Halifax. But that’s a larger provincial issue!

    Further, given the degree of inclement weather that we have at times, we need larger and more comfortable bus shelters (look at what thousands of university students have to contend with at their campuses), as they stand waiting for their buses in shelters the size of an outhouse! Also, seniors require better sitting areas as they wait.

    I’ve just returned from a week in Toronto where I was very impressed with the manner and attention transit employees and drivers paid to visitor queries, providing directions – something many of our local transit workers could learn about in delivering a public service.

    At some point soon, the City should establish a toll on the By-Hi as cars come on to the peninsula (just like at the Bridges). Drivers could choose not to drive, park in a nearby designated area, and enter the core city via express buses to downtown.

    I don’t think there’s been a spring or summer in the past ten years when the Bi-Hi peninsula overpass has not been worked on, all the result of too much traffic, wear and tear.

    Lastly, cars are a choice, not an entitlement. And sometimes I think, like my own experience, to get more drivers using transit they figuratively will have to hit a wall. That may be climate change, rising costs, or just waking up to how cars often negatively impact our communities and isolate our live in ways one can’t understand till you’re sitting on a bus with the rest of humanity!

    I appreciate your efforts at raising more conversation and reflection on improving our city’s transit.

    Leo J. Deveau

  2. There is nothing HRM can do to fix Metro Transit. The bus only works when either you drop off at one location or pickup at one location, like a school bus. Sadly we all work and live in different locations. Halifax is an old city built before cars. Until I see the mayor and all city councilors using the bus daily, I will laugh at the money they spend on consultants for answers that fix nothing. People love their cars

  3. I agree, the people forcing Metro Transit on us are the people who will never use it. They want ” the others” to take the bus so they can have less traffic to deal with themselves. Face the fact, Halifax is an old city built before cars. Stop wasting taxpayers money on these studies. We see Matt Whitman now posting pictures of of what it would look like to have the railroad used for transit. Typical how he is passing the buck and doing nothing about the pathetic Hammonds Plains Road.

  4. Matt Whitman promised to fix the Hammonds Plains road and he has forgotten about that now that he collects a city pay cheque. Why is he promoting communter rail ? There are no railroad tracks in Hammonds Plains. What a joke. Face the facts people, cars are apart of our society. There is nothing you can do in this old city.

  5. I am very excited to see a comprehensive overhaul of Metro Transit and the level of community involvement in the values and priorities discussions that have occurred. There will be some who lose a bit on route changes but the majority of the city will benefit by a faster, safer, more efficient and growing transit system. There is a reality that people and goods movement is a multi-modal discussion with cars, trucks, buses, ferries, rail, bicycles and foot traffic all factoring in.

    For my part getting the heavy trucks out of downtown and on a dedicated rail/truck line would be great for road repair and congestion. But the use of the line for rail is hugely complicated by adding a single lane paved road for trucks and the costs of upkeep and ownership are very complex.

    Commuter rail or putting buses on the rail cut route could take a huge number of in-and-out commuters from the Valley area (like me) as well as Sackville, Bedford. There are problems with that option as CN isn’t at all concerned with people travel on their tracks as the latest uproar with Via in NB shows. The needed rail cut bridges repairs are super expensive and CN and the city have been fighting for years about who will pay for it.

    Adding fast ferries is also a suggested option with another huge price tag. There would have to be parking lots paid for and maintained at the commuter end as well as the increased cost of a ferry fleet.

    The rapid-route bus lines have improved things a lot but there are some difficulties with integration with the ferries, for example. Having the terminals intermodal alone would improve flow but train, bus, ferry and intercity bus terminals DO NOT connect effectively.

    These are complex problems and have to be carefully reviewed and then courageously decided on.

    It is kind of useless blaming a particular councillor for not controlling all the road budget spending for their district. They are not local area dictators! Council as a whole has to represent and serve the whole of HRM and there are balances of urgency and costs involved. Matt Whitman talks ALL THE TIME about H.P. road and posts pics of potholes and congestion to stir up public opinion. He is one councillor who is vocal and direct among a group of councillors who also have their communities to represent.

  6. Thank you all for the comments.

    There are a couple of points I’d like to pick up on from the comments:

    – I’m not interested in ‘forcing’ Metro Transit on anyone. What I would like to see is quality service that works for more people. To do that we need a well thought out network that works for more trips. A combination of good route design and giving transit priority – transit lanes and transit right-of-ways – is key. If people still need to, or chose to, use a car, that’s fine. Not everyone has to take transit for transit to be useful.

    – Cars are a choice for some, but not everyone. Cars will continue to play an important part in how people move around HRM. There are many downsides, however, to devoting so many resources to moving cars, as Leo has pointed out. Planning mostly for cars often creates neighbourhoods that are hostile to those who have to, or choose, to walk, bike or use transit. This doesn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen. Better community design and more travel options is the goal.

    – I really think Halifax is an excellent transit market. Just because we haven’t done a great job in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do a great job in the future. It’s a complex issue, with tough choices, but I think Halifax is moving in the right direction.

  7. I agree with the people above who say HRM cannot fix Metro Transit. Face the facts:
    1) People are getting more and more impatient, need things now, cannot wait, blame this on techology, information is now at your finger tips anytime, anyhour, and second. Nobody wants to wait for a bus anymore.
    2) Halifax is an old city and a penninsula. Only a few ways in and out. Get used to it.
    3) Cars are cheaper now than ever, you can but a tiny brand new car for $12,000 that gets 50 MPG.
    4) Cars are more reliable now than ever. The payment plans can be spread out bi-weekly up to 8 years. Almost anyone can afford a car these days.
    5) With society today and the way people lose or change jobs, you will never be able to count on a decent quick bus schedule to meet your working career’s needs.
    6) As the person said above, a bus system only works for schools or factories. But we have no factories anymore as society itself forced those jobs to low cost cheap Asian labour.
    So HRM council, stop wasting our money on study after study. We vote you in and we will vote you out. I dare you to put a toll on the Bi-Hi….Let the market fix itself.
    Council needs to focus on the Dump and the upcomming Billion that needs to be spent on the water and sewer systems.

  8. Using active or public transportation should be more convenient than driving in urban areas. When I lived in Halifax in 2012, that wasn’t the case. I was fortunate to have an apartment near the Mumford Terminal, so I could take a bus anywhere without too much trouble. I was also satisfied with the cost of monthly passes, although I was bewildered by the ritual of going to a retailer to buy a paper pass at the beginning of the month. As shown in St. John’s, electronic validation and 30-day passes are wonderful things.

    In exchange for the connectivity and affordability of Metro Transit, I had to sacrifice time. The current spaghetti of transit routes meant it took over an hour to get to work in Dartmouth, and the fabled Route #1 often resembled a sardine can due to the number of passengers who boarded as is wound its way past Spring Garden Road and Dal. For as long as buses are the main transit mode in Halifax, I’ll wish for a non-stop shuttle between the Bridge and Mumford terminals and a route from the west end to the south end of downtown that avoids Dal. Extending the current #6 bus south to the VIA station would be an excellent example. If I dare to dream, I think of the centre lane on the MacDonald Bridge given over to trams, and commuter rail connecting Beaver Bank, Bedford and Rockingham to the Mumford Terminal and VIA station. Doing commuter rail affordably would require a battle with CN over track access, but it can be done. Until then, there’s a lot that can be accomplished with bus priority measures. I just hope Halifax’s love affair with ferries doesn’t lead it to a foolish embrace of fast ferries on Bedford Basin. If you’ve taken the Thames Clipper, you’ll understand that a boat is no substitute for a train.