Protected from the cold bite of the wind by the windshield, the clear blue sky looks extra clean, the way it sometimes does in the winter. It fills your view as you crest Breakheart Hill. The steep hill got the name because it’s rumoured to have killed a few horses back in the day. These days, the intersection at the bottom of the hill is what’s claiming lives.
Climbing the hill now paved with a five-lane residential highway poses no challenge to your hybrid car. Driving past a plateau of dead landuse and an underutilized bus terminal, the valley of Cole Harbour comes into sight. Once the breadbasket of Halifax and a beating heart of Nova Scotia’s economy, it is now a mausoleum to vibrant community, replaced by a monument to the automobile. The valley of vibrant farmland that once nourished the people of Nova Scotia is now dedicated to selling petroleum products, storing private vehicles and being gouged by two massive multinational corporations who control Cole Harbour’s food supply.
On the right, the start of Cole Harbour is demarcated with a sign dedicated to a hometown hero, with a more recent, hasty amendment after Cole Harbour produced yet another Stanley Cup champion. Behind the sign in a sea of private vehicle storage is a Scotiabank branch with ATMs inside. For the lazy, there is also a Scotiabank drive-through ATM on the other side of the parking lot. Or, for some, curbside parking.
On your left is a little square of green space, once sprawling farmland, where a museum is hidden behind a mechanic shop. The Cole Harbour Heritage Farm is your destination, a nice family outing on a cold late-fall day. Even if its once-fertile farmlands now exist to store gasoline. Just in case the other four gas stations within 2km weren’t enough, there’s also one where the farm used to be. At least Larry the mechanic has a sense of humour about it.
As its name suggests, Cole Harbour Road pierces the heart of Cole Harbour. The beating heart of Cole Harbour, the people who live there, no longer have anywhere to be alive in the heart of their community. Instead they bleed out to downtown. They are only connected to their community, and to their history, through Otago Drive.
As you turn on to Otago Drive it’s slightly blacker than you remember. You move up and down slightly, you notice the speed hump as you drive over it. It didn’t slow you down. “Was that a speed hump?” you ask your partner. They look up from their phone, confused. “Never mind,” you say to yourself. You’ve made it to the farm’s parking lot. Your family gets out of the car. “I think that’s new,” you mutter to yourself. “Hey, I’m going to go take a picture of that speed bump.” You see your partner’s eyes roll. You think you catch the hint of a resigned sigh on the breeze. She knows this is about to take over your life. Even if you don’t.
A speed hump or speed table—the name for this ineffective piece of infrastructure is largely interchangeable—is a raised deflection of asphalt that is supposed to slow drivers an average of 7-to-13km/hr on streets where they are used, according to the Transportation Association of Canada’s guideline document for speed humps. “The municipality uses speed tables as an effective tool to reducing speed on local residential streets,” writes an HRM comms staffer in an email. In a neighbourhood set apart from Otago, a brutal 200m trek across the asphalt-razed Dehumanized Zone of Cole Harbour Road, there are older speed humps on Hampton Green Road.
Hampton Green got speed humps because Cole Harbour Road has traffic lights and Hampton Green is designed for speed. Impatient drivers, conditioned to having their minor inconveniences catered to “for safety” in municipal and provincial transportation planning and design, started tearing through the Hampton Green-Cole Harbour traffic light bypass.
This two-lane residential highway saw 85% of drivers blasting through the traffic light bypass at lethal-to-others 58km/hr. These speeding impatient drivers shut down road hockey rinks and toddler learn-to-bike classrooms for the residents of Hampton Green. After the speed humps were installed on Hampton Green, drivers were slowed to a still-lethal 45km/hr. Living your life on Hampton Green remains cancelled for safety reasons. You think you are starting to understand why people in suburbs are so lonely.
The speed hump on Otago Drive also looks lonely. A dark black shadow on a fresh dark black road. Triangles are painted on the hump, two white fangs waiting to sink their teeth into a driver’s tires. Beware drivers, there is danger here. A woman in a red van speeds over the hump without slowing down.
Citizen software engineer and safety enthusiast Bartek Ciszkowski has been measuring the effectiveness of speed humps in his traffic-calmed community. He’s doing his data recording with Raspberry Pi computers-turned-speed cameras because he’s worried that using the 85% of drivers metric hides some real danger. “Additionally, we can see what is more problematic: There is plenty of opportunity to go faster than the posted speed limit. We see that 15% of vehicles are traveling over 47km/h, with some reaching variances as high as 60km/h. It is further concerning that we see typical speeds increase for L2R (Left to Right), as vehicles speed up the slope,” he writes of his most recent findings. As it turns out, adding a speed hump has had almost no effect on driver speed, and has not decreased the variation of those speeds. Or, in other words, the people who speed are still driving as fast as ever, even with the speed humps.
On Hampton Green, speed humps reduced the speed to 45km/hr. On Ciszkowski’s Central Avenue, speed humps reduced the speed to 47km/hr. The speed hump on Otago Drive will not slow down most motorists. According to city data, prior to the speed hump, most motorists on Otago Drive were driving at 45km/hr. This is the same speed the city usually achieves by installing a speed hump.
It becomes immediately clear to you why the residents of this street haven’t noticed a change in drivers’ speed.
As you look down Otago Drive you understand why an old man was not impressed by the over-engineered lump of crude oil and tar now visible from his bay window. For you, now on the sidewalk, the barren landscape of Otago Drive provides a clear line of sight across the DHZ to the ugly squatting block walls of a grocery baron’s empire across a five-lane barrier of high-speed kinetic violence.
It makes you angry that you have to risk death to go indulge a sudden craving for peanut M&Ms. You wonder if the inflated price of gas station “convenience” M&Ms is now on par with grocery store gouging. You briefly entertain pitching that story, knowing immediately you’ll never actually write it. But now, you’re thinking about M&Ms. There was a rumour in your high school that Van Halen was a diva because of M&Ms. Why did he want all the brown M&Ms removed? What would happen if all the brown M&Ms were removed, but they were plain M&Ms instead of the superior peanut? You remember a scene from 2010’s The Wedding Planner. A doctor played by Matthew McConaughey tells J-Lo that brown M&Ms are the healthiest because chocolate is brown so there is less dye. J-Lo teased him. You make a joke for an audience of just J-Lo’s fictional character: Why would Van Halen want the healthiest M&M removed from the bowl? A mild irrational disappointment is quickly replaced by curiosity. What was the reason for Halen’s request?
You find out embarrassingly late in life that Van Halen is not a person but a band, and their lives were saved by brown M&Ms in Colorado. In his memoir Crazy from the Heat, Van Halen’s lead singer David Lee Roth explains that the candy clause in the contract was a way to check if people actually read the contract. Their stage show was a massive production, all sorts of complex lights and rigging, and if the details outlined in the contract weren’t followed, then it would put their lives at risk. At that show in Colorado the candy clause was ignored. So too was the clause about the minimum safe weight requirements of the stage. Van Halen(’s members) recognized the brown warning signs mixed into the bowl of candy in their green room. They found the unsafe stage before it collapsed.
The city is getting similar warnings mixed into the suburban road network. You’re looking at a recent one that appeared this summer on Otago Drive.
The risk to you is not a collapsing stage. You see the speed hump as the end result of an evidence-based democratic system unhindered by evidence. The more you try and find the guard rails of public safety, the more noticeable their absence becomes. Public money is being wasted to further entrench behaviour almost every single one of the city’s strategic planning documents say we want to stop. You get an email from a city spokesperson. The email tells you this is a good use of public money because it makes people safer. The crisp air becomes harder to breathe. The email continues to say that we have to spend public money entrenching destructive infrastructure into our neighbourhoods. Keeping our infrastructure of planetary destruction in pristine operating condition is a part of our municipal priority plan. “Damn you J-Lo,” you yell at the sky as a panic attack starts. No one can hear you over the roar of the traffic.
You’re alone anyway. It’s a hostile place for a human to be.
You’re at home now, video chatting to your brother on the phone. You want to eat your M&Ms but it’s rude to do so on the phone. Even with family. You got your 200g bag of peanut M&M’s from Superstore for $5.49. It was cheaper than Sobey's $6.49 and Esso's $7.59. The bag is open on the kitchen counter in front of you. Taunting you. Your brother wants to know what you’re up to at work. “Oh you know,” you reply noncommittally, “doing a story about a speed hump.” You decide not to expand, he seems happy. It’s easier to be happy without being exposed to extended periods of ranting. “But why this speed hump specifically?” he presses.
You used to live in a submarine from time to time. A submarine, like the planet, is a bubble of human habitability completely surrounded by a hostile environment. You understand the importance of maintaining life support systems as a passenger on that type of vessel. As a kid you always wanted to be an astronaut. Since you couldn’t be an astronaut you joined the navy in hopes of becoming a submariner because it was the next best thing. The recruiter laughed in your face when you told her that. You got recruited to the navy later that year. After sailing on a submarine, and learning how the earth is moving through the galaxy (the last time we were here-ish in the galaxy dinosaurs were alive) you realize you’ve always kind of been an astronaut, it really just depends on your perspective.
The kitchen starts to disappear and is replaced by a memory of a submarine control room. You try to ground yourself by looking at your brother’s face. You can’t remember if you were talking. You shrug. You hope your face looks normal. Reality fades away as you’re engulfed by your memory.
You’re cruising along at depth in the submarine. The sail is boring, but you’re nervous. Boring sails are the perfect time for officers to get some emergency training, and your friend is up first. A fire alarm comes in, he springs into action. The submarine responds. Ventilation is crashed. The fire fighting system is charged with water. Your friend sometimes struggles with these, but this time he’s doing well. You silently cheer him on. “Hey Engines, aren’t we doing a fire?” The other engineer’s voice comes over the comms, it's hard to hear him over the distinctive undulating wail of the flood alarm in the background.
You remember the stillness in the room.
You remember watching Engines’ face change as he realized the danger we were in. You went to high school together, you remember unhelpfully as the submarine blows its emergency air to get to the surface. The submarine rocks to one side when it surfaces in an emergency, as the big sail drains slowly of water. It makes us top heavy.
We’re on the surface now, still flooding. You hear Engines tell the captain that water is coming in faster than we can pump it out. If we can’t stop this, we’re never coming back up. The cramped control room suddenly seems very big. Everything is really far away. The cold grip of terror. Your bowels instinctively try to empty. The fear is all-encompassing. Your heart feels cold. Your veins feel like ice. Your heart hurts now. It's pumping too fast, without traction, everything feels like ice. Existential horror has infused your body. You start to shake. You look to your superior for reassurance. “It’s been a pleasure,” he says, reaching to shake your hand. He is sincere. You realize he looks scared too. You grab the chart table trying to steady yourself.
“It’s important,” you say softly, shrugging again. Your knuckles are white holding onto the edge of a counter. You’re not on the phone anymore. You don't know when that happened. You feel embarrassed. Your brother hasn’t sent any concerned texts. You feel relieved that means your face probably looked normal.
Mostly you feel alone and regret not talking to him. You find yourself standing in the doorframe of your son’s room watching him sleep. Your chest feels heavy with guilt, you don't know why.
You start to cry.
You’ve been researching this speed hump for a few weeks now and it’s taking over your head. You wake up early, your brain is chewing on something. It prevents you from sleeping. You wake up your son to get him ready for school. You’ve forgotten it’s not a school day. His tablet chirps from the living room, Thomas the Tank Engine is winning some races. Last night’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting is streaming in your ear, it was long, you didn’t finish it last night.
You’ve been covering these meetings for years, last night is the first time that the Board of Police Commissioners made a recommendation to council to spend money on public safety instead of policing. Commissioner Harry Critchley and CAO Cathie O’Toole are having a stilted back and forth as is required by the committee’s rules of order. You’re watching the hot water get turned into coffee as it filters through ground beans. The window behind the coffee maker is starting to get bright. It’s an hour into the meeting when Cathie O’Toole says, “we have to be careful taxing citizens for things we can't deliver.” She’s talking about a sobering centre, but your brain shakes off the cobwebs and screams into life.
You watched too much TV as a kid, your thought patterns are influenced by hours in front of the boob tube. You remember a Simpsons episode when the workers at the power plant formed a union. There’s a prolonged clip where Homer repeats to himself over and over, “Dental plan, Lisa needs braces,” until his brain finally makes the connection. Sometimes this clip of TV comes to your head unbidden, it’s usually a sign that your brain is about to make a similar connection. You get impatient.
A few hours later you’re walking your dog. Your neighbour is driving towards you in his dark red truck. You wave. You don’t know if he waves back. You’re 5’10” and your eyes are level with the GMC logo on the front grill. He is slowly drifting towards you. You think you see the soft glow of your distracted death on his face. The truck jerks, overcorrecting to the centre of the road. You yell at the truck as it roars by. “Gotta be careful about taxing for things you can’t deliver, eh Cathie!? You don’t have a problem taxing for road safety even though you never deliver on that now, do ya!” You realize you’ve made the connection. If this same due diligence was applied to road safety, or automotive infrastructure, or transportation policy in general, the speed hump on Otago Drive would not have been built.
Has the city of Halifax turned one of its greatest assets into a debilitating liability? Yes. Yes it has. Tune in tomorrow to part 2 of “The saga of Otago Drive,” Halifax’s plan for a strategic bankruptcy, and Friday for part 3, unsafe by design.
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