No free rides on election day from Halifax Transit, council decides

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There will be no free rides on election day in Halifax Regional Municipality.

Regional council voted 14-3 Tuesday to continue the current practice of not offering free transit on election days despite the best efforts of Coun. Shawn Cleary (Halifax West-Armdale) to promote a pilot project to be run on Oct. 17, municipal election day, to gauge how free rides might affect voter turnout.

“Why not even try,” Cleary said. “For something that is as fundamental as our democracy and getting people involved in it, this is a pretty low-cost way to see if it has an effect.”

Cleary said a pilot project covering that one election would cost only in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

“If we find no difference, then at least we tried,” Cleary said.

Cleary’s pitch didn’t gain much traction with fellow councillors.

The main motion before council was predicated on an October 2019 council request for a staff report on the possibility of providing free public transit on election days for all municipal, provincial and federal votes.

The staff report came back with a recommendation for no free transit rides on election days that council endorsed.

The staff report found that voter turnout in the 2016 HRM election was approximately 32 per cent. Of those who voted, about 65 per cent used alternative methods or advanced polling, with the remaining 35 per cent, or roughly 32,000 residents, voting in person on the day of the election. 

The breakdown of in-person votes on election day for recent provincial and federal elections was not available for HRM, the staff report stated. The report acknowledged a general trend of more voters shifting towards advanced polling in both provincial and federal elections.

Free transit service on election days is often posed as a tactic to increase voter turnout, predicated on the notion that improving access to polling stations will increase turnout, the staff report stated.

Polling stations are typically placed in high traffic areas and often strategically located to be accessible to the greatest number of residents. Within HRM, not all polling stations are able to be served by transit, the report found.

Of the 69 total polling stations in the 2016 municipal election, 49 were considered to be served by transit.

Data on the location of polling stations within HRM from the past provincial and federal elections were not available but polling divisions for those elections are typically smaller than municipal election polling divisions, which suggests those polling stations are likely more accessible by walking or rolling and  less dependent on bus or car travel, the report said.

Meanwhile, the move to end all free bus and ferry rides implemented by Halifax Transit three months ago in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions could be coming to an end.

The municipality has announced that beginning early next month, Halifax Transit will start the installation of temporary polycarbonate shields next to drivers on conventional buses to act as a physical barrier and to promote safe distancing.

Buses and ferries continue to operate on a reduced schedule and Halifax Transit says fare collections will remain suspended until further notice.

Speculation is that when shield installation is complete, regular fare collection will restart.

The municipal announcement said that as service levels and the volume of passengers increase, it will be challenging to maintain physical distancing on buses and ferries. All Halifax

Transit are and will be encouraged to wear face masks.