Haligonians are taking up biking like never before—the city’s infrastructure still needs work, but there are more resources than ever to help you stay safeW
hen the pandemic started, Nancy Miller faced a dilemma.
With her gym closed down and nowhere to work out, the 47-year-old mother of three wanted to find another way to keep active. She decided to take the bike that had been stored for a long time in the garage out for a spin, and it changed her lifestyle.
“I did it the first time with my kids, and I was like, ‘Oh, that was fun,’ so I started going more often,” she recalls. “Initially, it was for exercise, keeping physical, but it quickly grew into more mental health help and connecting with nature and such. That’s why I continue.”
As she began cycling, she thought it would be an excellent way for family bonding for her, her husband and three children between the ages of 8 and 13.
“They’re not into it as much as I am; I do it more than them,” she says. “My middle guy will ask, ‘Mommy, can we go on a bike ride,’ and I say, ‘Yup, let’s go’ … My husband will do it on the weekends if he can come with me, but I do like to go alone too.”
As for equipment, Miller already was a step ahead as she already had a bike and a helmet. All she needed was a bell and a phone holder.
“That was the beauty,” she says. “That’s all I needed.”
When she first started, Miller would cycle with her children, once or twice a week within their neighbourhood, between going about 5 kilometres. As she grew more comfortable and confident, she increased her frequency and distances. Now, Millar is riding 50-kilometre distances four or five times weekly, mostly around her Bedford neighbourhood. She also enjoys the Beechville-Lakeside Timberlea Trail, which it allows her to explore other parts of the region.
“I would start with my bike in Bedford, downtown to Halifax up to a certain part, there are bike lanes, and then they stop,” she says. “I would bike over there and then take the ferry over to Dartmouth and then bike to Shubie Park and all in around there. The parks are lovely.”
Last summer, Miller and her husband decided to go on a weekend trip to Pictou. They opted to take their bikes with them to explore the region, something they never would have considered before the pandemic.
Many others have also taken up or returned to bicycling in the last year.
“We see fewer things like cars on the road,” says Alison Carlyle, cycling advocacy director with Bicycle Nova Scotia. “That’s giving people a bit of confidence to get out there and give it a try. Cycling is a great outdoor activity: you can cover a lot more ground than when you are walking, and it’s a bit easier as well.”
But bicycling infrastructure in Halifax and Nova Scotia have a long ways to go. Miller would love to ride her bicycle to her work near the Stanfield International Airport, but there are no dedicated bike lanes, which would force her to jockey for space with automobiles on busy secondary roads.
“We’re lucky and fortunate to have the trails that we do, but … [infrastructure should be] more readily available, like in a larger city—say have bike paths that lead right downtown or in the city,” she says. “You have to be picky with your route to try to figure out what is the safest way to go … There’s just some work that can be done obviously with continuing the bike lanes.”
She believes that would encourage more people to take up biking. “I don’t think at this point people feel safe driving downtown on their bikes,” she says.
Carlyle says that HRM’s infrastructure efforts are improving.
“The infrastructure that has been built in the past is just, a lot of the time, it’s a painted line, and that’s considered a bike lane,” she says. “That’s what a lot of people think most of the time when they think of a bike lane.”
These days, more cities are striving for what urban designers call “AAA” (All Ages and Abilities) infrastructure: public spaces that are safe for people of any age or ability. That means bike lanes that are entirely separate from traffic, protected with bollards. “Biking infrastructure … needs to be physically separated because a line of paint doesn’t help you at all,” she explains.
Bicycle Nova Scotia has a lot of initiatives aimed at helping beginners learn to cycle. Starting this summer is a new children’s program from Cycling Canada called Hop On. Nova Scotia is among the first provinces to roll it out.
“We are excited about that program and about getting kids the confident cycling skills on their bikes,” Carlyle says.
Currently ongoing is the Women on Wheels program, designed for women who have never ridden a bicycle or haven’t been on a bike in many years.
While the program is specifically for women, men can participate if invited by a woman who is a group member. The overall goal of this program is to help cyclists gain confidence, and Bicycle Nova Scotia is hoping it will gain provincial traction.
In mid-June, the online Ride Leader training will begin, aiming to give people the tools to lead and plan a safe riding trip. Additionally, Bicycle Nova Scotia is offering a $40 membership, which gives riders insurance but also discounts for goods at local bike shops.
Carlyle advises novice bikers to choose comfortable routes.
“A lot of people just circle the Citadel Hill, the Commons, or Point Pleasant Park,” she says. “If you are looking for a nice family ride, we’re really lucky in HRM because we’ve got good trails on either side of the city.” She particularly recommends the Salt Marsh and Run Runners trails.
Often trick intersections daunt new cyclists, so remember, you don’t have to stay on the bike for your whole trip. “If you are not feeling safe on the road, you can just get off your bike and walk it on the sidewalk,” she recommends. “It opens up the city a little bit more if you want to get through different neighbourhoods that you have to cross one heavy road. You can get off your bike, walk or cross the road and get back on your bike when you feel like it again.”
Carlyle hopes even more people take up cycling this summer, and rediscover their communities.
“If you bypass someone walking or cycling, you can give the nod or a hello, which you don’t get in a car,” she says. “You are going to places in Halifax that you haven’t been otherwise, so again, you are just getting to know the city a bit better and know your area a bit better as people wanting to get out and explore a bit more and have that piece of adventure. With cycling, you feel like you’re going far and get a bit farther than walking, but you are still staying in your region and following those guidelines.”
“Biking … can really entertain all of your senses,” she says. “You are smelling your trees, smelling flowers. You are just more aware, and present for me is what I find, definitely a stress relief from work and kids and all of that. It’s just feeling healthier and meeting new people along the way and that sense of community as well.”
In April, Miller set a goal of biking 1,000 kilometres this year. When she talked with Halifax Magazine, her odometer was already at 400.
“I think I need to up that goal a little bit” she says, but ultimately, her real target isn’t a number, it’s: “just to get out too as many times as I can and enjoy it. It’s so nice and so mentality soothing.”
In addition to the spots mentioned above, here are some great destinations for novice bikers.