On his travels around the world, John Wesley Chisholm watched people biking not just for exercise, but to go to …
Shifting gearsBy Richard Reesh Woodbury | Apr 28, 2011
Progress is slow and fitful but Halifax is gradually becoming a more bike-friendly city.
Steve Bedard hasn’t always been a cyclist. Back in 2007, he and some friends were travelling through France and wanted to see the country in a way that allowed them to truly appreciate the scenery without breaking the bank. They decided to use bicycles. “It totally changed my perspective on how to get around,” says Bedard, who now co-chairs the Halifax Cycling Coalition (HCC), an organization focussed on improving cycling infrastructure and raising awareness.
When Bedard returned from the trip, he took up cycling in Halifax and began using a bike as his primary means of commuting from his apartment in Fairview to his studies at Dalhousie University. It wasn’t just the shorter commute time that endeared Bedard to cycling; the effect it had on his time spent at school was another factor. “You go in more focused,” says Bedard. “You’re more alert during the day. You’re just happier.”
The benefits of cycling don’t end there. With today’s emphasis on leading greener lives, cycling gets cars off the road and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. “The more we move toward sustainable transportation, the more we reduce the tremendous costs we have of servicing roads and building roads,” says Jennifer Watts, the councillor for Connaught-Quinpool.
Today, Bedard works a nurse and he especially appreciates the health benefits. He says taking up cycling is the best decision he ever made. It’s a decision HRM would like to see more people make as well.
“Our goal is to build a city that is accommodating and not just for the most seasoned cyclists,” says Hanita Koblents, the city’s active transportation coordinator. A cyclist herself, she says progress in making the city more bike-friendly has been “a bit slow.” Limited budget and staff are likely to blame. For example, last year Koblents purchased equipment to set up temporary bike parking at special events and festivals. However, she now struggles with finding the resources to get the equipment to the venues.
Despite the challenges, progress is being made overall. Currently, HRM has about 86 kilometres of road with either bike lanes or wide curb lanes. This is significantly more than what it was just 10 years ago, when the city had one sole bike lane on Brunswick Street, says Koblents.
The creation of trails across HRM, such as the Bedford Sackville Greenway Connector in 2006, has also played an important role. This trail now connects the two communities by means other than a vehicular one. “The two communities were two kilometres apart, but you couldn’t walk between them on foot,” says Koblents. (HRM has roughly 175 kilometres of trails suitable for bikes.)
Metro Transit has also helped make it easier for people to use their bikes by having bike racks attached to the front of some buses. The first was in 2005; today, 53 per cent of the fleet is equipped with bike racks, says spokesperson Lori Patterson. Also, every new bus ordered includes specs for a bike rack.
Koblents says HRM has also enacted important institutional changes, such as the creation of HRM Bike Week, which takes place this year from May 27 to June 5. The creation of the 2006 Active Transportation Plan was another important step. It recommended land-use bylaws be amended so new developments include space for bicycle parking. The plan also identified roads that should be considered for installing cycling infrastructure and recommended this work coincide with road maintenance. “Those times when roads are being reconstructed is the most cost effective to implement changes,” says Koblents.
A downside to this approach is that it has resulted in a start- and-stop system of bike lanes which people are quick to criticize. This patch network creates a perception problem, says Koblents. “Until the routes are substantially connected, people won’t really see their usefulness,” she says.
Studies show with the cycling infrastructure in place, people will use it. A 2010 study by the Clean Air Partnership found Canadian cities “with more kilometres of bicycle facilities also have a higher [active transportation] mode share, as do those cities with a higher density of bike lanes.”
Besides more cycling infrastructure in general, the HCC is pushing for a dedicated bike lane that would connect the North End and South End (and eventually Bedford). The HCC figures this would cost $60,000. “What you’re really paying for is the paint to go on the road,” says Bedard. “We’re not looking for road expansion by any means.”
HCC filed a petition with 1,418 signatures in support of the project with HRM last July. The group hopes to have this cross-town connector in place by the end of 2011. A team of internal staff at HRM is examining the project and Koblents expects there to be public meetings regarding the proposal this summer.
While HRM is making progress in becoming more bike friendly, their success will continue to be measured one patch at a time. “The biggest thing we’re lacking is the infrastructure to encourage people to get on the street on their bikes,” says Bedard. “It’s hard to market cycling when you don’t have an intact product.”
Paved with good intentions
Last July, city council faced a situation that was as contentious as the widening of the Chebucto Road. This time, the locale was the Herring Cove Road and the plan was to insert bike lanes on both sides of the road over a 900-metre stretch.
“It was polarizing,” says Steve Bedard, co-chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition. “People were either extremely for it or extremely against it. There was absolutely zero middle ground.”
The stretch of the Herring Cove Road in question has four through lanes. The idea was to reduce it to two through lanes, while adding a centre-turning lane and two bikes lanes. Because pavement resurfacing was already scheduled, the project wouldn’t have cost the city any additional money because the road work would have simply adjusted pavement markings and reallocated existing road space.
Traffic modelling done by the city found there would be “no significant impact on capacity or delay” with the lane reduction and there would still be enough room for future traffic growth. The Spryfield & District Business Commission, which was one of the organizations against the project, submitted a petition against the proposal with 2,639 signatures.
Councillor Steve Adams represents the area on HRM Council. He voted against the plan, citing doubts about the accuracy of the modelling and the widespread opposition he heard from constituents. “As councillor, given that much opposition to the reduction, what am I going to do?” he says. Adams says people weren’t against the bike lanes, they were against taking away a lane of traffic. The motion was defeated by a vote of 13 to nine.