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Halifax is seeing an explosion in bike culture 

Let’s rebuild our city to bring it to the next level, starting with the cross-town connector.


Since the sunshine returned last week it is tough to walk down Bell Road, Vernon or Agricola Streets without seeing someone on two wheels zipping by. This palpable surge in bicycle culture is not unique to Halifax; cities all over Canada are seeing growing numbers of cyclists. Bicycle culture in Halifax is a relatively recent phenomenon.When I moved to Halifax in 2007 council had just adopted its first comprehensive plan for cycling. Local citizens were mobilizing to form an advocacy organization that would become the Halifax Cycling Coalition (HCC). I want to be clear. It's not all rainbows and bike bells for cyclists in Halifax. We have some serious work to do if we are to realize our potential as a cycle city. As the outgoing co-chair of the HCC, I was involved in three years of kitchen conversations about bike lanes, Bike Week and business commissions. I saw first-hand the growth of cycling in Halifax and the appetite that exists for better cycling conditions.

So why is Halifax primed to be a cycling city? A lot of it comes down to geography. Studies that investigate transportation behaviour identify the sweet spot for cycling as trips of five to eight kilometres. This is the distance where someone is most likely to leave the station wagon at home and ride the Schwinn to work. Given the compact character of the peninsula and the high proportion of the 70,000 or so residents that live, work or study in the centre of the city, there are a lot of trips that would be classified as "bicycle friendly." Throw in three major universities on the peninsula, a less than luxurious transit system and rising gas prices, and you start to see why the bicycle is emerging as a viable option. The Halifax Cycling Coalition is not the only group that is taking notice.

One area where we have witnessed some change is from the business side of cycling. Cycling and cyclists are being recognized as a market that deserves attention beyond just lycra. In 2011, I Heart Bikes launched bicycle tours, rentals and discounts, putting a whimsical spin on bicycle tourism. Recently, the Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission put bicycles front and centre in its rebranding campaign. New cycle shops popped up in Dartmouth and on Quinpool targeting cycling as a lifestyle choice as much as recreation. Bikes are a serious part of the conversation when it comes to urban living, and there's been an explosion of Bike Valet and Bike Week interest, and a growing number of branded bike racks around town.

The HCC has also seen a healthy bulge at local cycling events. In 2009, public lectures featuring the Bike Gurus from Portland brought crowds of 50 to 60 people. By 2012, a standing room-only crowd came to hear Mikael Colville-Andersen, a bike advocate from Copenhagen, speak. The Open Street Party evolved from a small grassroots event to the jewel of Bike Week, with thousands of people coming out to celebrate bike culture. The bike movement brought us Switch: Open Street Sundays, challenging our perception of how we use streets and public space. The HCC has worked to support the Planning & Design Centre as it works to expand Switch Open Street Sundays in 2013 (the first is this weekend, June 9th!) and two more in the works. In 2012 Switch parlayed two kilometres of open streets into an event that attracted 3,500 Haligonians to explore the streets by bikes, proving again the appetite for investment in cycling.

The next step in the development of bicycle culture is to meet the growing demand for cycling in urban areas. The bottom line is that we need a connected network of routes where cyclists have space on the road, making it safer and easier to get around on two wheels. This requires some bold decisions that challenge some of the values that have been the norm the last 60 years.

Cycling isn't exclusive. It is inclusive and you're all invited. Explore your community at a different speed. Every new cyclist makes our city a more interesting place to live. Together we can build a cycling culture that keeps us all safe, happy and healthy.

click to enlarge opinion_voice1-2.jpg
Ross Soward, is a community planner and cycling advocate who has volunteered with the Halifax Cycling Coalition for the last three years.

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