More Haligonians are biking than ever before. Many will continue to do so through the winter. Is the city doing enough to keep them safe?

F

or 35 years, cycling has been a big part of Jeff White’s life.

The Halifax father and business owner became serious about it when he was 12 years old.

“It’s always been this massive sense of freedom; you can go wherever you want, and it seems entirely up to how tired you are going to get in terms of how far you can go and what you can do,” he says. “I’m passionate about it because I enjoy the sport, the movement, being outside, and the fresh air.  That amount of riding that I do gives me a comfort level to enjoy all aspects of it.”

In a typical week, White racks up at least 100 kilometres of commuting and recreational riding, totalling about 5,000 kilometres per year. 

“It’s a very big and important part of my life; everything that I do in some way revolves around bicycles,” White adds. “My kids ride, our family vacations have been about cycling. It’s such a big part of our lives.”

Photo: Keith Croucher

Whether it is urban and mountain, White says there are so many benefits to biking all-year-round that include enjoyment, social interaction, fitness and challenging limits.

“Cycling is like anything: it can either be a hobby or a thing you do on occasion, or it can be something you are passionate about that you’re really into like anything else or other people are into,” he elaborates. “It’s a joy no matter what time of year it is; it’s just so much fun.  You arrive to work refreshed, get cleaned up, get dressed, a great workday, and then ride home. It’s awesome.”

Even though Mark Long was riding in his neighbourhood and with his kids, the pandemic gave him the chance to get back into mountain biking as an outlet for physical activity. This past spring, the Bedford resident seized the opportunity by going to Spryfield’s McIntosh Run trail with a couple of friends.

“After a couple of rides, I was hooked on it again and having a lot of fun,” he recalls. “It was something new, keeping me in shape; it was a way to get out of the house. Getting out there with a couple of buddies reignited my passion for mountain biking. The riding out there technical, just super engaging.  I am getting better to the point that I can now, but it was just invigorating. It was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. It is different from lifting weights or going for a walk.”

At the onset, Long faced adversity trying to clear obstacles and overcome physical and mental challenges.

With more time on the trail, it allowed him to progress to the point that he could turn those challenges into motivation to push his limits. 

“There is a challenge from a physical fitness standpoint,” he says. “If you are riding with any intensity, it’s hard on your body, especially if you haven’t kept in shape where you haven’t done any high cardio type of exercise before. For me, the bigger part of it is the mental challenge of deciding that I am going to try something that I haven’t tried before, committing to doing it, and forcing my brain to do it.”

Now, Long can ride recreationally a couple times weekly, usually evenings or weekends. In early November, he did his first cold-weather mountain bike adventure. It also allowed him to test his new fat bike, which has bigger, wider wheels designed for use in snow and other adverse conditions. The purchase will help Long with his goal to bike all-year-round.

While he is progressing in mountain biking, urban bicycling is another matter.

Mark Long

“I don’t think I could jump on a road bike and ride for four hours on the road,” Long says. “This is something that I wouldn’t do myself because… the infrastructure is still lacking.  I know there have been improvements in recent years with dedicated bike lanes with physical barriers.  From what I see, it’s getting better, but there’s no way I don’t think I could comfortably and safely ride my bike from my house in Bedford into the downtown core at my level of experience.”

Both White and Long agree on one thing: a car-first driving culture predominates in Halifax.

“[Drivers] don’t always see us; it doesn’t matter how bright my light is, or how loud my clothing is—people in cars just don’t notice bikes,” White explains. “This is why we needed separated bike lanes so that people who aren’t comfortable riding in traffic as I am, feel just as comfortable using their bike as transportation.”

If Long were to ride to the downtown core, he would have to take the Bedford Highway, a high traffic area. “Some parts of the way are painted bike lanes; some parts of the way aren’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t be comfortable riding on that stretch without a dedicated separated bike lane with some physical barrier between the bike lanes and cars where a curb or little pylons that you see everywhere else or to enforce some physical separation between vehicles.”

Another concern is the maintenance (or lack thereof) of existing protective bike lanes during winter. White believes more winter maintenance by HRM would lead to more people making the healthy and environmentally friend decision to bike.

“We need to make the same effort for bike lanes that we make for cars and pedestrians,” he says. “The only way to encourage people to do this more is for them to see there’s a safe alternative.  If the bike lane is always full of snow and ice, and the roads look pristine and salted right down to the pavement, people are going to make the choice that makes them feel safer.”

David MacIsaac is HRM’s active transportation supervisor. He says HRM is making improvements that will encourage use throughout the year. In September, HRM Council approved improvements for winter maintenance of protected bike lanes and pathways.

“It’s a valid concern; we try to keep our streets and everything as clear as possible,” he says. “We are continually improving our practices in terms of clearing bike lanes. The decision that Council made in September to endorse new standards for clearing the bike lanes is a clear sign of progress and a commitment that the municipality is going to put resources and efforts to do that.”

Additionally, infrastructure funding will help to build the Regional Centre All-Ages-and-Abilities (AAA) Cycling Network. Included in this Network is 50 kilometres of protected lane cycling and multi-use pathways. Multi-use pathways are 3 metres wide to accommodate bike and walking. You’ll already see them in different parts of HRM, including Barrington Street between Cornwallis and Devonshire, Beaufort Street in the South End, and Lake Banook. 

“It’s more expensive infrastructure than we built before, so the more people that can use it year-round, the better it is,” MacIsaac says. “For us, the benefit of these newer protected bike lanes is that they’re safer and a wider range of the population feel comfortable bicycling in them.  With this more protected infrastructure, we’re offering a facility where it’s more accessible to a wider range of people. We also see these facilities as enablers; these are how people get to work, get to school, or shop. If you don’t own a car or choose not to own a car, you still need a way to get around.”

Those efforts encourage Long. He points to McIntosh Run as an example of how proper infrastructure and maintenance encourage use. He credits the McIntosh Run Watershed Association and its volunteers.

“The investment that has been made like specifically at McIntosh Run and there’s other trail systems that are being developed as well has been a huge thing for me getting back into cycling,” Long adds. “Having kilometres and kilometres of awesome mountain biking trail this close to the city is leaps and bounds beyond what was available when I was riding 20 years ago. It’s that type of investment, that type of work done in between the trail committee, city, province, and everybody else involved…opening up the sport is huge for people like me and people who are just getting started.”

Having cycled in Montreal, Ottawa, and Amsterdam, White has seen how life is improved in bike-friendly cities, and hopes HRM will do more.

“It’s one of those things that if the infrastructure is there, people will take the easy path,” he says. “If it’s not there, they will fall back to their old ways of taking a car.”

White frequently shares his experience with other cyclists, offering route planning advice and other tips. When it comes to a year-round bike, recommends sturdy, well maintained (oil your chain daily) and reliable over expensive. (Winter road salt does a number on a bike). Comfort is key, particularly considering no matter where you go in HRM, you’ll be labouring uphill at some point.

White recommends getting clothing that can handle extremes. Water-resistant shells, a pair of heavier cycling, skier or snow gloves, thermal pants, and boots that keep your feet warm are ideal.

For beginners, the key is to start slow, especially with fitness levels in mind.

“Head out to… Chain of Lakes Trail or the Salt Marsh Trail or one of these commuter rail trails; they’re mostly flat, so they’re quite easy to get going,” White says. “Do it a few times and extend that and then keep doing it. Around here, days are getting shorter at this point, but on the weekends, why not head out to a trail and try it out or go to somewhere a little outside of the city and go for a ride on quiet roads or find a quiet subdivision… Westmount here in town is great. There’s not a ton of traffic, it’s pretty flat, it’s pretty, and you can ride all over the place.”

The key for newbies is to not be shy about asking advice. You’ll find lots of experienced cyclists via social media, and they tend to have something in common: “I love to help other cyclists,” White says. “It’s a great community.”

Halifax Magazine