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Switch Halifax 

This Sunday is Halifax’s first ‘Switch Open Street Sunday,’ but hopefully not the last.

click to enlarge MEAGS FITZGERALD

Early August: Ross Soward sits in a room full of bureaucrats from the provincial energy department, regional municipality culture wonks and health authorities. He's been working with them for months to organize an open street, car-free Sunday based on the weekly cyclovia, held in several Colombian cities since 1976.

The Nova Scotian bureaucrats have slowly come around on Soward's proposal. To get a sense of how they're feeling with the big day a month away, he asks how many of them see a direct link between an open street Sunday and their work. They all raise their hands.

The event is this Sunday (September 9, 9am-2pm), and Soward hopes for a big crowd. "Building on the Open Street Party, which gets between 1,000 and 1,500 people each year, and the Blue Nose [Marathon], which gets 3- to 4,000," he says he hopes to get at least 1,000 people out. "If we can demonstrate its success, maybe we can find ways to do this without the cost and bureaucratic process."

That's the kicker. Soward and the Planning and Design Centre---he's on the board---envisioned a regular mainstay event similar to cyclovia, which has taken hold in countries across the world. Several western Canadian cities have annual events, but the gold standard goes to Ottawa, which reserves 50 kilometres of roads every Sunday for pedestrians, cyclists and skaters.

In Halifax, the original plan was to close five kilometres of road from Point Pleasant Park to the Hydrostone Market. Like anyone organizing a special event on city property or streets, Soward went through HRM's special events task force. "They have no mandate to help make a project happen," he says. "They put people through the paces."

The task force's initial response, Soward says, was to say he was crazy for wanting to shut down streets. What if there was an emergency? Perhaps it's a Halifax cultural thing; we do seem rather fond of the status quo at times. But what of all our progressive policies, like the Regional Plan?

"There seems to be an institutional dissonance between our policies and our operational procedures," Soward says.

The big surprise was that rather than see a day celebrating active and carbon-free transportation as a boon to the city, the task force gave him an estimate. It would cost the non-profit planning geeks at least $20,000 to shut down five kilometres of streets for a few hours. That covers barricades, police, signage and whatnot.

Undaunted, Soward et al kept at it for two-and-a-half years, dog-on-bone style. They got a $15,000 grant from the provincial department of energy, which was funding a handful of sustainable transportation projects across the province. That was enough to shut down two kilometres of streets.

Then, with another $10,000 from Mountain Equipment Co-op, Soward could market the event and get the buy-in required---the businesses on Agricola gave the car-free day "unanimous sign off," he says, with some retailers particularly excited for the potential of more than 1,000 people cruising slowly by their doors on a Sunday.

The new route goes from Victoria Park to the corner of North and Agricola. "It still brings the north and south ends together and achieves our objectives," Soward says. "It's providing a safe, easy, fun way people can get out on the bike and see how Halifax can be a bikeable city. And it shows that walking and cycling are good for business."

If things go as planned, Soward hopes to eventually approach Ottawa-level car-free regularity. "Ideally it would be a casual thing, like going to the market. The thing to do on Sunday, a no-brainer."

Seeing those hands all raised in early August, bureaucrats connecting the dots between a community assembled away from its cars---riding and chatting and shopping--- and their own responsibilities to improve citizen health, culture and sustainability, gives Soward hope of getting there. With time and community support, perhaps our operational procedures will overcome knee-jerk naysaying and catch up with our more progressive policies.

click to enlarge MEAGS FITZGERALD

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