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Spin city 

The HRM may not be entirely cycle-friendly yet, but the cause has got champions that just won’t quit. Allison Saunders follows the road to building a thriving cycling culture.

Two wheels reign supreme in Amsterdam.
  • Two wheels reign supreme in Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam, two-wheelers rule the road. Bike bells chime more than car horns blare and narrow streets are full of weaving cyclists---couriers, tourists, cops, commuters or parents with kiddies in tow. There are nearly as many bikes as people in the city, making up 40 percent of the traffic flow. There's no shortage of places to lock up, segregated bike lanes are aplenty and people are exceptionally beautiful (I like to think there's some sort of link there, but I digress). Essentially, Netherlanders make cycling look easy, logical and damn good.

Is it a pipe dream to think such an inspirational and inviting cycling culture is something the HRM is capable of having? Could we ever be our own Amsterdam?

It takes a village, or in our case a city, to make such a transformation. Aesthetically our city's not doing too bad. We're pretty compact, many neighbourhoods offer an easy terrain and you can get most places on the peninsula by bike in 15 minutes or less. There is that thigh-burning incline from the water to Brunswick---oh, Hillifax---but really it's a small fraction of a cyclist's ride. "It's an issue I think, but I would urge us not to use it as a crutch as well, there's enough holding people back," says Ross Soward, a community planner with Dalhousie's cities & environment unit and an advocate sitting on the Halifax Cycling Coalition's board.

We've also got a massive, mainly peninsular, student population working in our favour. Philosophically, the city's not too shabby either---we're a pretty green-conscious community, and while the movement into cycle-friendly territory has been sluggish, it hasn't broken the stride of the cycling champions amongst us.

For Soward, a cycle-friendly city means not necessarily making bikes on the road a majority, but shifting them away from the fringes. "A general awareness to cycling is necessary in terms of facilitating a decent relationship between motorists and cyclists on the road," which he says begins with more people on bikes. "We need to demonstrate that cycling is going to be, can be and should be a legitimate mode of transportation."

But it's sort of a chicken-or-egg issue. To get people from what Soward calls the "interested but concerned" population onto bikes, they need to feel safe. And a lot of safety issues are rooted in infrastructure. Improving cycle-friendly infrastructure costs money and it all trickles back to the question of legitimacy. "On some parts of the peninsula, cyclists are up to eight percent of the modal share," says Soward. "If you think of eight percent of transportation as cycling, we're not taking over eight percent of the road, we're not getting eight percent of the investment in transportation."

The disconnect doesn't just lie there. The city's existing 75 kilometres of bike lanes are sporadic, and while they're just a piece of the bigger picture, the lack of continuity is a challenge for newbie cyclists. "You don't have to change the whole city, every street, to a bike-friendly route. Every treatment on every street doesn't have to be the same or the most costly but you do have to figure out how the people get through safely and fairly quickly on key corridors and that has to be continuous," says Rochelle Owen, the director of Dalhousie's office of sustainability. She ranks connectivity after infrastructure when it comes to a cycle-friendly city.

But she's working on a plan that might just be the catalyst we need. Dalhousie, SMU, Capital Health and the IWK have joined forces to form a Transportation Demand Management group that, with input from the cities & environment unit and some of the city's cycling advocates, has begun drafting a Bikeways Plan for the institutional district. With a guesstimated whopping 40,000 commuters (not including visitors or patients), many of whom Owen says live on the peninsula, the potential to grow the cycling population in this area is undeniable.

Covering many major connections on the peninsula, the plan includes education and proper infrastructure that won't just cater to seasoned cyclists, like markings, signals and bike lanes, a project Owen says will range from four to six million dollars depending on the implementation of a bike share. With up to 50 percent of the population falling into that "interested but concerned" population, this Bikeways Plan could ring the old philosophy "if you build it, they will come" loud and clear. After three public meetings the plan is in the final drafting stage and Owen looks forward to what's next. "I think if we manage to get this transformative project going and it's very visible it will speak for itself," she says. "Dare I make the comparison to The Oval, but it's that kind of thing."

District 14's (Connaught-Quinpool) councillor---and vice-chair of the city's active transportation advisory committee---Jennifer Watts also recognizes the need for strength in numbers. "Every time you choose to walk or take a bus or drive a bike you are having an impact on someone else because someone will see you walking, riding your bike, taking the bus, and that is a message." As one of council's cycle-friendly crusaders, she's suffered some blows from her council-mates (the opposition of the proposed Herring Cove bike lanes) but remains positive. Watts says when it comes to the city's 20-year Active Transportation Plan, staff have "strategically picked away at things that are easy to do and do without too much impact on the budget," but in an attempt to open eyes to the larger, more impactful active transport projects she proposed Five Big Ideas for AT in the HRM earlier this month. "It's sort of putting a challenge out there," she says of the five-year, $10-million dollar plan that includes projects for sidewalks, trails and bike lanes (including Halifax Cycling Coalition's Cross Town Connector).

"I think we want to be hopeful, we want to be idealistic and we want to challenge the status-quo in terms of cycling, but we also need to be aware of the fact that we're probably going to have our own interpretation of what a cycling culture is here, and that's going to have to grow in some ways organically," Soward says. True, it takes a city to make change but with organizations like the Halifax Cycling Coalition, Velo Halifax, the Nova Scotia Bikeways Coalition and many others, change doesn't feel unattainable. "It's hard to say if we can get to be Amsterdam or Portland, but maybe we can be the Portland of the Maritimes. Maybe we can be a cycling destination for Atlantic Canada and become a leader for where we are."

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