The Chamber’s Imagine Halifax program recently asked Haligonians for their visions of what Halifax should, or could, or ideally would look like in 25 years. With that inspiration, I recently spent some time in Toronto and, as often happens when I travel to other cities, I found myself looking at how they do things, and whether any of the ways of doing things would work here in Halifax.
A couple of much-talked about things come to mind (A big, modernized convention centre right downtown! Tall buildings downtown! Sports stadiums – several of them – right downtown, practically on the waterfront!) but the thing that struck me the most during my visit was the public transportation system. During my visit I utilized three types – subway, bus and Go Train.
I realize that Toronto is much larger than Halifax and therefore can support a much more intensive public transportation system than Halifax could. As much as I love the subway systems I have used both in Toronto and in major cities in Europe, Halifax obviously isn’t at that stage in its development yet. However, I think there are a number of lessons we could learn from Toronto’s system and successfully adapt here.
I only took the TTC bus for one excursion during my visit, but it was an easy experience, even as an outsider. Two practices were especially helpful. The first is that a loudspeaker on the bus announces what the next stop is (and also displays it next to the Stop Requested light): a very helpful feature if you are from out of town, are unfamiliar with the part of the city in which you are traveling, or if you are visually impaired. The second is that at every stop – not just the major hubs – they have the schedule posted for each route that departs from that stop.
Also helpful was the frequency of service. Despite the fact that while traveling in one direction, the driver of the bus I wanted pulled away as I ran up to the bus doors, and on the return trip, the bus went by while I was waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street to the stop, in both cases the next bus came fairly quickly, which is an important factor in convincing people to ride. Having to wait an hour if you miss your bus by seconds isn’t conducive to happy travelers. Of course, there has to be a business case for increased service and that has to come from increased ridership but I suspect increased ridership in many cases would result from increased frequency of service rather than the other way around.
During our visit we stayed at a campground outside the city, a selling point of which was that it was a short five-minute drive from the Go Train station. Park your car for free, hop on a Go Train from Rouge Hill and in less than 30 minutes you can be in downtown Toronto – no downtown driving or expensive parking required! From there you can connect to the bus or subway without leaving Union Station, or you can walk to Rogers Centre, Air Canada Centre, the Hockey Hall of Fame and any number of other tourist attractions, the convention centre, and all those nice tall office buildings.
It occurred to me while I was enjoying the gentle swaying of the train carrying me downtown that this would be a relatively easy and useful system to apply to Halifax. One train could come from Truro through Elmsdale and near the airport with stops in key bedroom communities (including Bedford) along the way. These tracks already exist and would only need the station infrastructure to be created and/or improved. Another could come from the Eastern Shore and perhaps connect with the existing track structure from Eastern Passage into downtown Dartmouth. A third could come from Tantallon – maybe even as far as Bridgewater – into downtown, and there would also be a potential for a fourth line running from the Valley into the city.
All of these routes could connect into major hubs – the Via Rail station on the Halifax, which could become our own Union Station with connections to buses, taxis and the waterfront boardwalk; or the Alderney ferry terminal, which already has tracks running right past it and would offer an easy connection to downtown Halifax as well as Dartmouth.
Imagine how many cars we could eliminate from the peninsula and the downtown core if commuters from those areas had an easy, efficient, convenient, free-parking-provided alternative mode of transportation into the city. In my vision of Halifax in 25 years, I see trains, not extra bridges, or fast ferries, or tunnels.