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Halifax gets connected 

Cyclists hope a new north-south connector bike lane will change the way Haligonians get around, and get healthy.

"It's freaking me out," Steve Bedard says. "It's too much of a shock to the system." Bedard is on the board of the Halifax Cycling Coalition and he's talking about two big wins for cyclists.

In the same week, cyclists learned that Nova Scotia has become the first province to initiate a one-metre safety rule---motorists will have to give a one-metre berth as they pass cyclists---and that HRM is planning a cross-town connector lane for 2011. The lane will go from Young Avenue in the south end, up South Park Street to Bell Road, to Ahern Street, North Park Street, Agricola Street, west on Almon Street then up Windsor Street to the exchange at Kempt Road.

Having a clearly marked, north-south bike lane will make life easier, and safer, for two-wheeled commuters in this crazy intersection town. HCC and city staffers hope it will attract more downtown people to cycling as a legitimate transportation option, and cut down on peninsular traffic.

I was a cyclist for seven years in Toronto ---I even sat on the Toronto Cycling Committee for a time---and cross-town connector bike lane proposals popped up every year I was there. In a city where 48 percent of residents cycle, those proposals went nowhere. For Halifax to get a connector lane within a year is a coup.

It started with an HCC subcommittee discussing concrete asking what it could make of the city. They looked at streets eligible for bike lanes under HRM's Active Transportation Plan. To qualify for a bike lane, a street must be scenic, sufficiently wide and connected to other routes.

HCC found plenty of unused options and mapped out the north-south route. Then the footwork began, rounding up 1,400 signatures in nine shops and cafes, and letters from prominent health and environmental experts, all supporting the connector lane. The petition went to council as a 13-page proposal November 2.

Council responded by authorizing staff to do a tech review---traffic counts, checking if bike lanes fit with two-way traffic, parking implications and budgeting---and public consultation. Hanita Koblents, an HRM transportation planner, hopes to start public consultation this winter, and she acknowledges that the bike lane involves "some tough decisions," particularly addressing a potential loss of parking on one side of Agricola, and moving the centre lane.

The consultation will likely include direct conversations with affected businesses and business commissions, the Chamber of Commerce and public interest groups, a comprehensive website and a public forum. "Our experience with the Herring Cove Road bike lane shows that opposition to bike infrastructure can be very serious," Koblents notes, which is why the city is soliciting all opinions before moving forward.

Steve Bedard supports the slow approach. "They tried to bulldoze the rotary thing and Herring Cove and it didn't work." HCC's petition asked for a completion date of 2011, so he figures the actual route will go down sometime in 2012.

"I think it'll make it through," he says.

He attributes the positive reception by council to HCC's strategic approach. "We put together a concrete plan," he says, "and I think the timing was good, with biking as an umbrella issue that is good for the environment, health and saves the city money in the long run. It's a no-brainer and it'll change the culture."

Bedard knows culture change from personal experience. He says he used to be "one of those idiots in the car, leaning out the window yelling at cyclists." Then he biked across France with friends and was blown away by the infrastructure, the courteousness of drivers to cyclists. He couldn't see why that couldn't be the case here.

Koblents adds that while HRM isn't seen as a cycling mecca, peninsular Halifax does have a strong cycling culture, with four percent of the population being regular cyclists. "That's high by North American standards," she says. "With the high concentration of homes and jobs here, it's a natural, but until now there's been very little cycling infrastructure that's actually connected."

She hopes that, in addition to making existing cyclists' lives easier and safer, the connector route will shift our travel choices away from single-occupancy vehicles. "Our Active Transportation Plan is broad, the timing is right and everyone agrees in principle," Koblents says. "It's time to test it in practice."

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