Nova Scotians are being governed very badly when it comes to climate | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Road damage caused by floodwater along Highway 103 near Chester, seen on Sunday, July 23, 2023.

Nova Scotians are being governed very badly when it comes to climate

Trying to find hope in a climate emergency.

In the past few years it seems like tragedy has piled on Nova Scotia, which has only been compounded by recent—likely now normal—climate changed weather. In the fires of Tantallon, the flaws and vulnerabilities of suburban sprawl were on full display:

And now, after the biblical floods of July 2023, we are about to learn practical lessons about the flaws and vulnerabilities of our car-first development.

When sections of the Cabot Trail were wiped out by a 200mm-plus rainstorm in 2021, the repairs there cost $7 million. So far in 2023, the province’s spokespeople will only say that damages from this recent storm have been “significant,” and premier Tim Houston told reporters the cost is estimated in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Our rail system is, apparently, extremely vulnerable to climate change, and the BLT bike trail has been wiped out (donate here to help repair it—because it’s not car infrastructure, it isn't getting public money for repairs). Most of the damage to transportation infrastructure is roads and bridges for cars. These road repairs will be extremely costly because roadways are crazy expensive to build and maintain. The expense of roads has grown to the point that it’s genuinely becoming an issue of good governance that we keep allowing, encouraging and subsidizing the damage done by cars and car infrastructure. But for the benefit of people with healthy social lives who don’t follow city politics down to the granular level of the pavement quality index: We are spending more and more on road paving, getting fewer roads paved, and the quality of our streets is degrading in spite of increased “investment.”

Or, more simply:

Roads are going to bankrupt our governments unless we shift how we move around this city (or start to charge drivers to use roads.) Neither of which will start happening until the HRM (or the province) starts planning and legislating differently. But before we get to municipal planning, everyone needs to be on the same page about cars.

Cars are so ubiquitous that we casually accept the massive public safety tragedy unrolling under our tires. Cars are killing the planet. Lack of federal and provincial regulation means Canadian cars and trucks are getting way better at killing the planet as they become less fuel-efficient and more polluting over time. Canadians are switching to large trucks, increasing our emissions and fuel costs. Suburban commuting is ruining the Canadian economy. Commuting is making us depressed. Our tires are poisoning our water. Car noise is hurting us. Car exhaust is poisoning us. Children who live close to highways are more likely to develop lifelong respiratory issues. Cars kill main streets and are bad for small businesses. And there is now research to suggest that building and using highways has had a massively detrimental impact to wildlife that has so far been largely unobserved.

Almost all of the cost of this damage is publicly subsidized through things like health-care spending or disaster relief funds. Almost none of these costs have been borne by oil companies or car manufacturers. Why is it, do you think, that their industries are so profitable, yet all of our public services are foundering, even as our taxes increase?

This is not to discount the genuine need a lot of people have for cars due to our current infrastructure. People in rural areas can’t go anywhere without a car. Even if riding a bike to school is physically feasible, it’s not safe. What kind of responsible parent would let their child bike to school unprotected next to a modern pickup truck? Instead of letting children experience independence and autonomy with their friends and encouraging their development into a healthy adulthood, parents instead have to drive their kids to school. Parents are forced to coddle their children so that automakers can churn out human-body-and-climate-destroying masculinity machines so they can capitalize on the modern man’s eroded sense of masculinity and purpose for profit. Pretty cool stuff.

Anyhoo, that car dependence cuts both ways. Without access or ability to drive a car, formerly independent people become trapped in their homes as they age. Like free parking and toll-free roads, this is another cost of car driving that is being subsidized by your tax dollars. If, after a natural disaster, you are stranded due to car dependency, you can call 311 and be put on a list of people the city will check in on after a storm.

The infuriating part of all of this is that city planning policies continue with the pedal to the metal, prioritizing cars even as councillors take victory laps on climate change after declaring a climate emergency and passing HalifACT.

One of the things that’s well-known in the transportation world is the concept of induced demand, which can be summarized by the 1989 classic Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. For a more detailed breakdown, the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute did a report on induced demand in June, coming to the conclusion that:

“Traffic congestion tends to maintain equilibrium; traffic volumes increase until congestion delays discourage additional peak-period trips. If road capacity expands, peak-period trips increase until congestion again limits further traffic growth. The additional travel is called ‘generated traffic.’ Generated traffic consists of diverted traffic (trips shifted in time, route and destination), and induced vehicle travel (shifts from other modes, longer trips and new vehicle trips). Generated traffic often fills a significant portion of capacity added to congested urban road.

“Generated traffic has three implications for transport planning. First, it reduces the congestion reduction benefits of road capacity expansion. Second, it increases many external costs. Third, it provides relatively small user benefits because it consists of vehicle travel that consumers are most willing to forego when their costs increase. It is important to account for these factors in analysis.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the city mandates parking in the Centre Plan area. It does not. The city does however mandate that developers do Traffic Impact Statements for developments in the Centre Plan area.

Traffic Impact Statements are car-centric planning documents that aim to predict how much development will impact the flow of traffic on adjacent streets. Take, for example, case 20218 of 615 units planned for Robie and Spring Garden. According to the traffic impact statement for that case, a 615-unit mixed-use development in one of Halifax's most transit-connected areas will require 511 parking spots. It requires that many parking spots because traffic engineers are forced to predict car trips using garbage data in the formal planning process, which in turn forces developers to plan to induce traffic. Compounding the woes of traffic impact statements, they often “predict” enough car use to warrant underground parking (case 20218 will likely have underground parking for around 380 cars), which in turn makes housing less affordable. By design, but likely accidentally,
the city is undermining its long-term planning and climate goals by
demanding cars be prioritized in planning, even though there are no formal parking requirements for a part of town that is currently one of the best-designed places for non-car use. But it may be unrealistic to expect much else when the traffic impact statements guiding document has footnotes like this:

“What is an acceptable amount of delay to drivers or pedestrians varies according to the situation being examined. Drivers waiting on private driveways will accept longer delays than the same drivers waiting on side streets, and drivers waiting on major streets expect lower delays than on side streets. The more urbanized and/or congested an area the longer drivers will wait. What is needed is consideration of what drivers might accept before starting to take more dangerous actions, such as turning out into shorter-than-usual inter-vehicle gaps. HRM does not explicitly consider the calculated ‘level-of-service’ results because any one particular delay range is not representative of various situations. Another aspect is the analysis/calculation procedure allows an analyst to manipulate the inputs to achieve so-called ‘good level-of-service’ on a problem movement at the expense of overall excessively poor performance.”

That footnote demonstrates an underlying planning assumption built into our city: If intersections and roads are designed to be as fast as possible for drivers, then roads will magically become safer for everyone. These planning assumptions defaulting to driver convenience mean staff consistently recommend “solutions” for pedestrians that actually benefit drivers. Like that time when staff thought making a pedestrian cross more lanes and interact with more drivers at an intersection would somehow magically make things safer for pedestrians:

Sometimes, like with the Spring Garden Road pedestrian pilot failure, city staff will just straight up ignore direct instructions given to them by council. When the pilot failed in 2022, the transportation standing committee told staff to look at physical barriers for the Spring Garden transit-only corridor in 2023. In March 2023, staff told the committee they couldn’t do the pilot project because it would require physical barriers. So the transportation standing committee once again directed staff to use physical barriers.

It’s getting harder and harder to remain optimistic in our future with the calibre of leadership on display in modern politics. At the provincial level, there is very little leadership being demonstrated. Instead of preparing Nova Scotia so that we are ready for the future in store for us, our quote-unquote leader has wasted public money to try and shift the blame of our car dependence onto the feds while pissing away $1 billion to further entrench car dependency. That’s not to say safety improvements to the 100 series highway aren’t necessary—since 2007, an average of 17 people die per year driving those highways. But since Halifax launched its data collection, a similar number of pedestrians are being killed on the streets of Halifax each year (13 on average since 2018). Where is the matching billion-dollar investment to protect pedestrians from drivers?

At the city level, there is reason for optimism: Councillors passed HalifACT. But there is also a lot of room for worry: Councillors will often vote against their long-term planning projects due to immediate concerns from vocal constituents. HRM council and the city’s bureaucracy also seem generally nonplussed by their continued failures in the world of practical municipal governance. At the Halifax waterfront, a major tourist attraction in a “world-class" city, there is a struggle to maintain a level of transit service that riders in any other major city would have found unacceptable by the late 1990s. Riders need exact change in cash to take the ferry across the harbour. There is a paid Halifax Transit employee sitting at the waterfront terminal who is able to point confused potential riders at a sign explaining that exact change in cash or a transit ticket is required to ride. This employee has no transit tickets. Instead of spending a couple hundred dollars on a mobile point-of-sale system and giving this employee tickets to sell, Halifax Transit decided to spend $606.75 on signs for paid employees to point at instead.

Are any bookies taking odds on what will happen first? A successful Spring Garden pilot project three years in the making, or tap-to-pay for transit 10 years in the procuring? Good thing the climate emergency is notoriously slow moving.

While it’s easy to see these single points of municipal failure as their own thing, it’s becoming more apparent that these outcomes are the result of a specific type of rot that festers through bureaucratic stagnation. At the city level, institutional planning habits and doctrines are actively undermining Halifax’s efforts in our fight to survive the ongoing climate emergency. If our governments can’t quickly adapt their institutional processes to at least keep pace with the scale of the damage we are doing—and have already done—to our climate, we are condemning ourselves to losing a still winnable fight.

About The Author

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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