There was a moment, about an hour into October’s HRM transportation standing committee meeting, when debate shifted from staff reports and cycling networks to the oft-repeated Field of Dreams dictum: “If you build it, they will come.”
“I don’t always agree [with it],” District 11 councillor Patty Cuttell told her colleagues that afternoon. “I think it has to be smart, it has to be informed and it has to be reflective of the particulars of the community.”
The committee had been discussing active transportation plans for Dartmouth’s north end: a vision that would add 2.2 km of bike lanes to a busy traffic corridor, and a piece of a much broader regional plan to build a 57-km network of all-ages and abilities (AAA) bicycle routes throughout the HRM’s core. Cuttell’s remarks had been rooted in wanting staff to think “outside of the regional centre.” But intended or otherwise, and depending on which cyclists you ask, her comments could just as well have applied to Halifax’s entire approach to building out a cycling network—full stop.
Three years after Halifax mayor Mike Savage proclaimed that “come hell or high water, this city will be a cycling city,” more than half of the HRM’s planned bike network improvements are unfinished or sitting in limbo. The municipality had targeted the revamped network’s roll-out for the end of 2022—thanks, in part, to a $25-million budget shared between the HRM, the province and the federal government. But as November approaches its midpoint, major infrastructure pieces—from a Macdonald Bridge flyover to protected bike lanes on Almon—have yet to break ground.
Other projects the region has rolled out, from seasonal protected lanes to missing curb cutouts, have left some cyclists uninspired.
Infrastructure update. Green line painted at Bell and Trollope. It leads directly to spot on sidewalk Between the access dip towards the Common MUP? 😖 seriously @hfxgov . #HFXbike pic.twitter.com/iiGXlxlzhk— 𝒿𝑒𝒶𝓃-𝒻𝓇𝒶𝓃ç𝑜𝒾𝓈 --🥾🥾🚂🥾 (@meanderingemu) October 13, 2022
“I don't think we have any infrastructure that’s safe for people of all ages yet,” says cyclist Jen Parker, the organizer of Kidical Mass Halifax.
As of last December, Halifax had completed 40% of its planned AAA cycling infrastructure—but Parker and her peers say gaps in the network render those route improvements difficult to use.
What remains, safe street advocates argue, is a miscellany of missed opportunities and an incomplete infrastructure that, at best, can prove confusing to navigate—and at worst, is putting lives at risk.
‘It feels clear we’re not keeping up’
Alison Zimmer has spent much of her life navigating Halifax by bicycle. Growing up in Halifax’s north end in the 1990s, she would ride the two kilometres to St. Catherine’s Elementary School and cut across town for soccer practices at Dal’s campus.
“The peninsula is so small geographically, a lot of trips that people are making… are fairly short distances that are bikeable, in theory,” she tells The Coast, “but if the infrastructure isn’t there, it's not a choice people will make—especially if they're riding with kids or newer cyclists.”
“Especially seeing what is happening elsewhere in other Canadian cities, and other cities around the world—it feels clear that we're not keeping up.” - Alison Zimmer, Halifax Cycling Coalition board member
A volunteer and board member with the Halifax Cycling Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group that aims to make Halifax the “safest city in North America to ride a bicycle,” Zimmer has watched with keen interest as HRM council has pledged to boost the region’s share of travel by active transportation.
“We've seen some improvement, but it's often pretty frustrating,” Zimmer says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “Especially seeing what is happening elsewhere in other Canadian cities, and other cities around the world—it feels clear that we're not keeping up.”
Much of Halifax’s current vision for a cycling network can be traced back to 2017. That year, HRM transportation planners introduced their Integrated Mobility Plan, which set a goal for at least 30% of trips in the region to be made on foot, by bicycle or other active transportation means, or by public transit by 2031. (Halifax envisions active transportation accounting for 12% of all trips.) To get there, staff recommended a “connected mobility system” that would provide “straightforward, flexible, barrier-free and pleasant journeys” for all commuters and “respond to the needs of urban, suburban and rural communities, for all ages and abilities.”
Council unanimously approved the plan. Adhering to it, though, was another matter. Two days later, the HRM’s transportation standing committee backburnered a proposal to add barrier protections to bike lanes on Hollis Street, which the region’s staffers had identified as a priority, due to its reputation as one of the most dangerous cycling paths in the city. (Hollis would eventually get a one-way protected lane, but not until 2020.)
It wouldn’t be the first—nor the last—time that bike lanes stalled at City Hall. Council established its first Bikeways Task Force in 1999 and approved Halifax’s first cycling master plan, Blueprint for a Bicycle-Friendly HRM, in 2002. “Experience in other North American cities has shown that more people will be encouraged to use a bicycle if bicycle-friendly streets, multi-use pathways… and bicycle parking are available,” the 2002 recommendation for the plan noted.
But that hasn’t been the reality many cyclists in Halifax share.
“I wouldn't say that the infrastructure in the city in any way guarantees my safety,” cyclist Edson Castilho, who has been biking in Halifax since 2004, tells The Coast. “Rather, it actually works against my safety.”
‘This isn’t rocket science’
The brouhaha over bike lanes is not unique to Halifax—nor is it a new phenomenon here in our provincial capital. Cities worldwide have shifted their focus to cycling promotion in recent years as a means of addressing climate change, boosting public health and solving traffic congestion.
Halifax Partnership expects the region’s population could grow to as many as 650,000 in 15 years—a 41% increase from 460,000 as of last July. A denser downtown and more sprawling suburbs means more private vehicles on the road—which, in turn, means longer commute times and more greenhouse gases emitted. An expansive regional cycling network offers a low-carbon alternative. It also, as studies have repeatedly found, keeps a region’s population healthier, lowering rates of indicators from overall mortality rates to cancer risk and obesity.
That’s what led Sara Kirk, scientific director of the Healthy Populations Institute at Dalhousie University, to commuting by bicycle. She’s spent the past 15 years researching chronic disease prevention and sees a bolstered bike network as a boon to Haligonians’ health.
“This isn’t rocket science; we’ve known this for a long time,” says Kirk, speaking by phone with The Coast. “We have among the highest rates of heart disease and cancer in this province—both of which are preventable through healthy behaviours.”
Halifax knows this: The Integrated Mobility Plan touts “healthier communities” as one of its core aims. But Kirk argues that if people are going to ditch their cars and commute by two wheels, “we need our environments to support that. And we need our politicians [and] the policies that are made to also make it easier for people to do those behaviours.”
What’s happened in Halifax, Kirk tells The Coast, is the opposite: Active transportation rates declined from 2006 to 2016—and at the same time, the rate of private vehicle trips increased. Even the HRM’s best-case projection of boosting active transportation rates to 12% of all trips by 2031 would merely bring levels back to what they were nearly two decades ago.
“This council has actually failed to implement its own strategy,” she says.
Gaps in the network
Two of Halifax’s biggest gaps in its cycling network involve getting people to and from the region’s core. There are no protected lanes or multi-use pathways—the infrastructure preferred by a majority of cyclists and other lane-users—to connect residents south of the Northwest Arm to the peninsula, nor is there a straightforward path for cyclists crossing the Macdonald Bridge into Halifax.
The Macdonald’s current access and exit ramps were designed 23 years ago with the bridge’s separated bike lane—and have been a nuisance to the HRM’s cyclists for just as long. On the Halifax end, barriers lead cyclists down North Street to Barrington Street, before they can double back to North for the steep climb to Gottingen Street. (“Imagine that you are forced to descend four stories and then ascend those same four stories,” Brian Zurek wrote of the Halifax hill-climb from the bridge in Spacing Magazine.)
The municipality has floated the promise of a Macdonald Bridge flyover, which would solve the Sisyphean sequence, since 2017. The project was intended to be completed by 2021. But as of yet, no construction has started.
That rankles Castilho, who crosses the Macdonald frequently.
“How long can it possibly take to build?” he asks. “I understand it’s complex, but come on.”
The Coast reached out to Savage for comment on the HRM’s cycling infrastructure delays, but could not arrange an interview before publication. (“Mayor Savage supports the AAA cycling network and is pleased to see work underway while understanding it has not gone as quickly as envisioned,” his chief of staff replied in an email.)
According to transportation planner David MacIsaac, there’s more to the bridge flyover project than meets the eye. For one, he tells The Coast, Halifax Water has “some fairly important pipes” that are “very much in the vicinity” of where construction would take place. “We knew that going into it, but as the [flyover] design gets refined, you get a bit more clarity on where the pillars [are] going to go relative to where that pipe is underground,” MacIsaac says.
“How long can it possibly take to build [a bridge flyover]? I understand it’s complex, but come on.” - Edson Castilho, cyclist
The HRM also needs to buy more land to support the project. That’s caused “some additional time” to be added to the flyover rollout. (“I don’t have the exact date,” MacIsaac says, when asked about a timeline for the flyover’s completion.) For now, it remains in the “design phase,” he tells The Coast.
Would-be cyclist Anne-Claire Loftus would like to see Halifax shift its safety focus south of the region’s core. She’d prefer to commute by bicycle, but sees no practical option to get from her home near Chocolate Lake into the downtown. As a person who has “walked pretty much everywhere” since moving to the HRM in 2021, she says she’s noticed “quite a few incidents” of close calls between motorists and cyclists or pedestrians—whether it’s drivers not stopping at crosswalks or other iffy interactions at intersections.
“It doesn't fill me with confidence for cycling,” she tells The Coast.
Loftus would like to see a protected bike lane on Chebucto Road or Quinpool Road. Neither exists. Nor is there a protected lane or multi-use pathway connecting cyclists from the Armdale Roundabout into town.
Tranportation planner MacIsaac acknowledges there is “not yet… a good way” between Armdale into the peninsula. The roundabout has a multi-use pathway, he says—“but legally, bicyclists need to dismount and walk their bike across those crosswalks if the cars are to yield for them.” As for lanes on Quinpool or Chebucto, he says the HRM is “aware” of the network gap, “but it’s among the many, many priorities” that the HRM’s planners have and “something that we need to focus on.”
Halifax isn’t done with spending on cycling infrastructure. The HRM has set aside $8.16 million for Integrated Mobility Plan projects in its 2022-23 budget, up from $6.5 million in 2021-22. (Not all of that is allocated for bike lanes—the region is also working on a Windsor Street Exchange redevelopment, among other things, along with improvements to rapid transit.)
Per Halifax’s Strategic Road Safety Plan, the municipality intends to add 2.11 km of protected bike lanes and 1.39 km of multi-use pathways in 2022-23. Some of that will come on Almon Street between Windsor and Gottingen Streets, where improvements were first discussed in 2017. (That project was slated for completion this year, but MacIsaac says it was delayed by the need “to acquire some land.”) Other work is planned for protected lanes on Brunswick Street from Cogswell Street to Spring Garden Road.
The pace of change has some Halifax cyclists frustrated—Zimmer included. In 2015, the City of Calgary rolled out 6.5 km of protected bike lanes in a single year. Earlier in November, the City of Montreal unveiled a plan to add 200 km of protected bike paths within five years.
“Especially seeing during the pandemic, a lot of regions and municipalities accelerated their plans for transportation and implemented bike lanes very quickly. And we did not take that approach; we kind of slowed down, so it’s frustrating to see kind of a missed opportunity,” Zimmer tells The Coast.
Councillor Waye Mason, who chairs the HRM’s transportation safety committee, understands the frustration—but he also calls for patience.
“People want to see change happen faster,” Mason told his committee colleagues in October. “[But] when you're talking about trying to change roads that were built what we now would think of [as] wrongly for the last 70 years, that’s gonna take a bit of time.”
Cyclists rally Nov. 18
Zimmer is busy gearing up for Friday, Nov. 18. The Halifax Cycling Coalition is organizing its 7th annual I Light HFX ride—a critical mass awareness event aimed at bringing bike-riders together in one place on Halifax’s streets. The event, which encourages cyclists to decorate their bikes with lights and glow sticks to make them as “bright as possible,” aims to boost awareness about cyclists’ safety at night.
While she calls it a “really great event,” her focus remains on what Halifax could look like if its infrastructure allowed for more cyclists to feel comfortable on the road.
“We’re a growing city; we have a lot of people moving here,” she says. “It’s not possible for everyone to get around in a private vehicle—it’s not practical in terms of traffic; it's not what we want to see in terms of our climate goals.”