There’s no yellow school bus in sight at downtown Halifax’s Citadel High School. Instead, many students rely on public transit for their commutes. And that’s leaving buses overfilled.
“There’s some days . . . where my arms are against my legs. I can’t move,” said Colby Welcher, a first-year student at Citadel.
Students say crowding has become an issue, leaving both students and citizens on packed-full buses. If they don’t make it on, they’re left waiting on the curb for the next bus.
Welcher, who lives in the North End, takes the bus daily. At the final bell, he says students rush to make it to the bus in time. They are also racing each other to get on before the bus reaches capacity.
Of the common bus routes used by students, only the No. 9 comes in front of the school on Bell Road. The Nos. 4, 7, and 8 all run down Robie Street, a 750-metre walk across the Commons.
“You don’t know if you’re going to be able to get on the bus,” Welcher said.
If a student misses the bus, the only option is to wait. While buses on Halifax’s most common routes arrive every 15 minutes, Welcher said wait times are often longer.
“Even though he has a phone, I always worry, is he going to get on the bus, is he going to get home, is he going to have to wait?” said Colby’s mother, Stephanie Welcher.
Branwen Vaters-Vieth graduated from Citadel last spring, and said many of her bus rides were full.
“There would be an intensive amount of crowding,” Vaters-Vieth said.
‘Trip overloads’ a factor
For the 2021-22 school year, Halifax regional council adopted a student transit pass pilot program, which selected four high schools in HRM to receive free transit passes for all students.
In a report, municipal staff ruled out including Citadel in the pilot, “due to potential for trip overloads” on transit routes used by students.
Citadel High School still buys transit passes, but they do not cover everyone: 625 students are eligible for free transit passes this school year, just under half the 1,442 enrolment.
In an email, Halifax Regional Centre for Education spokesperson Kelly Connors said that eligibility is determined by a student’s proximity to school based on provincial school transportation policy. High school students must live more than 2.4 kilometres from their school to be provided transit. If students are within this radius from the school and wish to take public transit to Citadel, they have to pay the fare themselves.
While Citadel High School depends on Halifax Transit for transporting many of its students to school, there is no co-ordination between the two.
“We do not track the number of students who use public transit at this school, nor do we communicate with Halifax Transit about its fleet,” Connors said. The HRCE oversees all schools in the municipality, including Citadel.
Connors declined an interview with The Signal, as did Citadel principal Joe Morrison.
In an email statement, municipal spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray acknowledged that “Halifax Transit is aware of high ridership at arrival and dismissal times from Citadel High School.”
She said that Halifax Transit sends additional buses on an as-needed basis during peak arrival and dismissal times, but that the frequency of bus routes are determined based on overall capacity, not just in relation to Citadel students.
An additional ‘special school’ bus is sent to cover the school and departs at 3:45, 20 minutes after dismissal. However, some students say this does not give them enough time to collect their backpack from their locker and make the bus in time.
“Most of the time it would be empty because of how early it came, and how it only came once,” Vaters-Vieth said.
Shane O’Leary, president of Halifax’s Amalgamated Transit Union, said “this is something Halifax Transit should be addressing if there’s not enough buses out there for the passengers, and not just school. . . there’s other people who need to use the transit system.”
O’Leary says that transit staff shortages from the pandemic have worsened the situation.
“Normally, they could put extra buses out there for the schools, and there’s just not enough operators right now to fulfill the regular work, yet alone anything extra,” O’Leary said.
Spray confirmed that sending extra buses “may not be feasible at the current time” due to staffing shortages.
Crowding affects other riders
It’s not just students who fight for bus seats.
Amanda Douglas is a hospital worker whose bus home often overlaps with Citadel students getting out of school.
Since many students don’t have a transit pass, some take advantage of how Halifax Transit offers free trips for children under the age of 12. Douglas said high school students claim to be 12 when boarding the bus, and drivers rarely challenge them.
“One or two of the 30 that get on will show a pass, the rest of them are pretending they’re under 12. Well, if that’s the case, I’m 45, why don’t I just say I’m under 12?” Douglas said.
Citadel students crowding the bus has become a burden for many hospital workers, Douglas said.
“We look forward to the summer,” she said.
For Colby Welcher, it all comes down to a simple fact.
“At the end of the day, everyone just wants to get home . . . and not be stuck waiting for the bus all night,” he said.
About the author
Sam is a fourth-year King's journalism student from Boston.