Thursday was a big meeting for Halifax’s Transportation Standing Committee. The committee got a handful of updates about how poorly the city’s Integrated Mobility Plan has been implemented since being adopted in 2017.
The city got an update on its Strategic Road Safety Framework, which was brought forward by councillor Patty Cuttell as an information item.
Lucas Pitts, director of traffic management, told the committee that in 2022 there were 11 fatal collisions and 776 injury collisions in the HRM, which was good, kind of, because it was a decrease of 11.6% in automotive violence on city streets since the baseline year of 2018/19.
It should also be pointed out that the city changed how it measures road safety. Halifax’s strategic safety plan is based on a radical idea called “vision zero,” which envisions a world where publicly funded infrastructure results in zero public deaths. In 2017, Halifax decided that was a good idea, and decided to “move towards vision zero” by 2038. Meaning zero pedestrian deaths by 2038. Because, as staff told councillors in a June 28, 2018 presentation to the transport committee, no loss of life was acceptable. But due to a change in how the city measures road safety, it is now possible for the city to see an increase in road violence as making streets safer, as long as Halifax’s population is growing fast enough to keep that per capita ratio low.
This was pointed out during the public participation section of the meeting by Norm Collins, president and treasurer of the Crosswalk Safety Society. He pointed out that in 2018, Halifax’s target was an absolute one—no loss of life and all that—and in absolute terms the city had only made a 2.4% improvement in street safety, not the 11.4% staff claim.
In his presentation Pitts also talked about driver behaviour, pointing out that one in four incidents of automotive violence on our streets is perpetrated by a driver being aggressive with their one tonne kinetic weapon/personal transportation device.
“It’s quite shocking what people will do,” said Pam Lovelace, one of many councillors who chimed in to explain in great detail how municipal traffic-calming measures are ignored by drivers. This is a lesson the city absolutely refuses to learn, no matter how many times they are taught it. And that lesson is this:
It’s the same reason the Spring Garden Road pedestrian-only pilot failed. While most if not all drivers aim to follow the instructions indicated by painted lines, shiny signs and colourful lights, it takes something much heavier to guarantee a car can’t easily end up somewhere it’s not supposed to be.
Councillor Trish Purdy asked a relatively innocuous question about why the city builds speed humps for traffic calming, which lead to a fascinating discussion about how the city’s bureaucracy plans transportation. And that goes a long way to explaining exactly why the city’s bureaucracy—as currently set up—is actively undermining city councillors’ ability to meet their stated climate and modal shift goals.
The goal of traffic-calming interventions, such as adding large bumps to otherwise flat roads, is to lower the speed of drivers, ideally to 30km per hour or less, as that drastically reduces the odds of a fatal driver/pedestrian collision. But Purdy heard from a constituent who said he just speeds up and slows down between speed humps, and that is bad for the environment. This constituent gets an average speed of 30kmh by going 50kmh on the flat then slowing down to 10kmh at the bump, and if he is anything like the average constituent/driver, then speed humps are more a periodic interruption to fast driving than an effective traffic-calming measure. City staff told Purdy that they also don’t know if speed humps actually make streets safer as they don’t collect that data, and don’t really have any metric to judge a speed hump’s success.
Why then is the city spending money on traffic calming that likely isn’t working? Because the perception of safety is very important to people. Which in turn means any public money spent on speed humps may have been wasted in an elaborate years-long piece of street theatre to make us *feel* safer.
And we have been wasting money on speed humps even though the city knows that the problems are mainly at intersections, and speed humps go in corridors. As apolitically as possible, Pitts told the committee that this year they would have to choose between speed humps or making improvements to intersections, specifically these 10:
- Burnside Drive at Wright Avenue
- Bayers Road at Connaught Avenue
- Albro Lake Road at Victoria Road
- Bayers Road at Joseph Howe Drive and Dutch Village Road
- Mumford Road at Halifax Shopping Centre
- Burnside Drive at Commodore Drive and Ronald Smith Avenue
- Bedford Highway at Hammonds Plains Road
- Portland Street at Spring Avenue and Portland Estates Boulevard
- Dutch Village Road at Joseph Howe Road
- Chebucto Road at Connaught Avenue
One more thing to note about road safety before moving on to the Halifax Transit portion of the meeting: City councillors once again lamented their inability to change the posted speed on city streets without the province’s approval. But there is a very low-cost option to revolutionize mobility in the suburbs that would lower driver speeds, reduce congestion and make streets safer. While the city understands it can’t change the speed limit posted on the shiny signs, it also understands it can change the physics of the street to induce lower speeds, as it attempted to do with speed humps.
A physical change that would actually lower speeds is making suburban streets narrower, which forces drivers to pay more attention and lower their speed to avoid hitting such heavy obstacles as curbs and other cars. Almost every single suburban street in the HRM is wide enough to accommodate a bike lane beside narrower car lanes, which also makes streets safer for everyone. They can be installed for a fraction of the cost, and would encourage a massive modal shift, which is in line with every single one of the HRM’s strategic planning documents. But instead of bike lanes and slower cars, we get speed humps.
The transit bit
Halifax Transit’s ridership is way up this year, despite its frequently unreliable service. Overloaded buses (buses that were too full to pick more people up) happened 212 times this year, compared to 52 times last year. This spring, only three of every four buses ran on time.
There is some good news coming in less than a month for Halifax’s beleaguered transit system: On Nov. 20, there will be some changes to routes, including bringing back some routes that have been cancelled since Februrary.
Transport committee chair Waye Mason told staff and his fellow coucillors that they’d have to start making hard choices around transit. He said that Halifax Transit couldn’t stay the way it was for another year.
This coming budget season, we can expect a pretty exciting future or more of the same from the city. Either councillors will invest in more buses and bus drivers, or transit and the climate will continue to get worse. Councillors will make streets safer by taking road space away from cars and giving it to pedestrians, bike riders and/or buses, or traffic congestion will get fatally worse.