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Kourosh Rad picked a hell of a time to get into the restaurant business.
On Feb. 1, the city planner turned small business owner took over Garden Food Bar and Lounge at the corner of Clyde and Queen streets, near the Halifax Central Library in downtown Halifax.
Business was starting to pick up in March, and then COVID-19 happened. The pandemic has been “devastating” to his restaurant, like all others.
“You go from a packed restaurant to, all of the sudden, your only way of making revenue is online and you don’t have the infrastructure for it,” Rad says. “We had to make a lot of changes very, very quickly and change the business model altogether.”
Rather than dining in, Rad’s customers are now ordering online for delivery and pickup. He’s adapting, and has had help from two levels of government. The federal government is covering some wages with its emergency subsidy program, and the provincial government changed liquor laws to allow restaurants like Rad’s to sell booze for pickup or delivery.
There’s something the city could do, too: give pedestrians and cyclists a little more space, a sliver of the roadway, to allow them to safely social distance their way around the city.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Rad says.
When the pandemic got serious in Nova Scotia, one of the first things Halifax did was make parking free. Rad says that’s “flooded” Clyde Street with parked cars, making pickup and delivery more difficult.
“The cars don’t necessarily bring business for us. We’re in the downtown core,” Rad says.
The difficulty in safely navigating the city outside of a vehicle could even be driving much-needed dollars out of the hands of local small business owners and into the hands of Silicon Valley delivery app developers and multinational fast food chains.
“When people are discouraged from walking down the street to see their neighbour and their local coffee shop, what are they going to do? They’re going to sit at home and they’re going to order it from a third-party delivery company … Or they get in their car and go to the McDonald’s drive-thru and purchase their food and beverages there,” Rad says.
“We’re in week seven of this thing and we still haven’t had a single thing happening on our streets. I encourage you to come down and stand at the corner of Clyde and Queen to see the theatre that is people passing by each other on narrow sidewalks here.
“It’s chaos. This is not how we build a future city.”
Along with individual citizens and business owners like Rad, advocacy groups including the Halifax Cycling Coalition, Walk and Roll, the Crosswalk Safety Society of Nova Scotia, and HRM Safe Streets for Everyone have been calling for the change for more than a month.
“Whenever feasible,” the WHO’s latest guidance encourages people to walk or ride bicycles. And as restrictions related to COVID-19 loosen, transit ridership is likely to be slow to rebound, and people — many of whom may not own cars — will look to other modes of transportation.
“If we look to China, we see the cycling and walking numbers have remained high as the social distancing measures have been lifted, and so this really gives us a snapshot and tells us how we need to prepare our transportation systems for this next phase,” says Kelsey Lane, sustainable transportation coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
“Obviously, given the current situation, there is a need to make sure people are able to maintain social distancing given the current circumstances and the current volumes of people using active transportation, but also looking ahead, that need is going to increase.
“This is a huge opportunity to take action on this.”
No one is asking for expensive, permanent changes to be made immediately — just a row of pylons safely extending the sidewalk into the street, maybe removing some parking.
Cities across the world have made it happen, including New York, Paris, Toronto, and even Winnipeg. But in Halifax, despite those calls from citizens and support from councillors in the urban core, nothing’s been done.
Let’s play the game “but we are NOT [fill in the blank]”.
Today: “But we are NOT Brussels, Belgium”. So far we have NOT been Paris, NYC, Milan, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Drummondville Qc., Burlington On., Kamloops B.C. and countless other places. https://t.co/EZAx4xoGOw
— Kourosh Rad (@RadUrbanist) May 6, 2020
The inaction exposes a deeper issue with transportation policy in Nova Scotia’s largest municipality, and a rift between political policy-makers and bureaucratic decision-makers.
“It’s a bit baffling, to be honest,” says Lane.
“I think that we have a staff that is ready, able, and potentially willing to take action on this but we need leadership and vision from everyone to move this forward. I think the council request for a staff report was an attempt to show that leadership, but it needs to happen quicker.”
Councillor says he’s trying, but hitting resistance from city hall
Coun. Shawn Cleary — representing the Halifax West Armdale district, including Quinpool Road — has been leading the charge on council.
“What I’m trying to do is provide safe space for people to go about doing the essential kind of things they need to do, and as the restrictions get lifted, doing other kinds of things like shopping,” Cleary says.
“Not everyone has a car, and in fact environmentally and economically, we don’t want everyone to have a car. We want to give people a choice to be able to get around safely — both physically from traffic and now this extra layer of being protected from the virus.”
Cleary didn’t think it would be a tough sell.
“We do this for construction sites all the time,” he says. “It’s not unusual, you walk around Halifax, to see a construction site that’s pushing out into the sidewalk, pushing out into the road.”
Since early April, he’s been emailing the managers in charge of these kinds of moves, including transportation and public works director Brad Anguish and acting traffic authority Taso Koutroulakis.
After getting a no from Koutroulakis, Cleary got a more detailed explanation from Anguish.
In an April 8 email to all councillors, Anguish laid out 11 dodgy reasons why Halifax can’t do what other cities have done. Among them: “closing streets” would oppose provincial public health guidelines, encourage “significant public gatherings,” “interfere” with businesses, and increase demand for masks.
Anguish also said the municipality is “aware of at least two cities who regret establishing open streets for several of the reasons cited above,” without naming them.
Seeing that municipal staff were cool to the idea, Cleary drafted a motion for council, requesting an “expedited staff report on providing safe mobility through an inexpensive, tactical, and temporary installation of bike lanes and active transportation routes.”
Though her district isn’t in the urban core, Cole Harbour – Westphal Coun. Lorelei Nicoll supported Cleary’s motion.
“In a perfect world, with complete streets, you wouldn’t have the dominance of the car,” she says.
Nicoll says she’s received complaints from drivers who want people to stop walking in the streets.
“That’s problematic if the drivers think they need to rule in that. We’re all in this together.”
The motion passed 12-5 in late April. During debate, chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé repeated many of Anguish’s unsubstantiated claims, but said staff are warming up to the idea and now considering some temporary measures. He told council it would be six months before staff could produce that report.
“I don’t think expedited in any reasonable way means six months,” Cleary says.
It’s now unclear whether that report will come back before the pandemic is over, and council can’t make it happen without that input from staff.
Koutroulakis, the acting traffic authority, can.
The all-powerful traffic authority, ruler of roadways, sultan of streets
“If you want to put up signage or change signage, if you want to have a stop sign installed, if you want to mark a crosswalk, all of that has to be approved by the traffic authority,” Cleary says.
“Council can’t put anything in the roadway without the traffic authority’s agreement and authorization, so it’s a very powerful position under the Motor Vehicle Act.”
The municipal traffic authority gets their power — including control over signage, crosswalks, and street closures — from the Motor Vehicle Act. Council appoints the traffic authority based on a recommendation from staff, approving amendments to an administrative order.
According to the latest amendments, Bruce Zvaniga — former director of transportation and public works — was appointed traffic authority in June 2015. At that time, Taso Koutroulakis was re-appointed deputy traffic authority, though he’s been deputy traffic authority since 2000.
Koutroulakis has served as acting traffic authority since Zvaniga left the municipal workforce in September 2018.
Cleary isn’t sure why Dubé hasn’t brought a recommendation for a permanent traffic authority to council.
“When I talked to the CAO, he said, ‘Well we’ve got it covered,’ which wasn’t really good enough for me,” he says.
Cleary brought a motion to the transportation standing committee in December looking for a staff report on a new process for appointing the traffic authority where the committee would choose the candidate. That motion passed.
“That report is in production and it’s anticipated it will go before council this summer,” municipal spokesperson Brynn Budden says in an email.
In the meantime, Koutroulakis reigns.
“The traffic authority we have currently — very nice person — has not proven himself to be fully aligned with the direction that council is going these last few years, particularly when it comes to pedestrian prioritization,” Cleary says.
Cleary argues that Koutroulakis is adhering too closely to conservative interpretations of the Transportation Association of Canada’s guidelines.
“There’s, I guess, an old-school engineering, ‘Let’s move as many cars as fast as possible’ kind of perspective,” he says.
The Halifax Examiner asked for an interview with Koutroulakis, seeking a response, but was told he’s not available.
For Lane, the sustainable transportation coordinator, Koutroulakis’ power isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows him to be nimble during emergency situations.
“But I think that we need to see leadership from the traffic authority, and not just the traffic authority but the whole organization needs to come together and respond appropriately to the current circumstances,” Lane says. “I think that we have incredible people able to do that, we just need strong leadership to move that forward.”
Nicoll, who’s also chair of council’s transportation standing committee, sees Halifax’s transportation woes as primarily provincial.
“I think it comes down to governance,” she says.
Council has repeatedly tried to lower speed limits in residential neighbourhoods across the municipality and been told no by the provincial traffic authority. It’s also asked to replace white crosswalk signs with neon green. Same answer.
“I just wish the provincial traffic authority realized there’s a large urban centre in its province and that the rules need to change accordingly,” she says.
Time for action
For citizens like Rad, the excuses — municipal or provincial — are getting old.
“Councillors are telling me, ‘Our hands are tied’ … I understand you have limitations here. It’s not good enough to say, ‘We had a vote in council. Let’s sit down and see what happens,’” he says.
“If we can’t move in a public health crisis, at the verge of an economic depression, if we can’t change things now, we will never be able to change them.”
Lane says the city needs to find a way to break down those barriers.
“I think our staff are ready, I think our city is ready, I think our residents have sent the message loud and clear that this is something that is needed,” she says.
“We can’t leave people behind in a time of crisis, and inaction on emergency active transportations measures does just that. Council’s approval was a step when we need a leap. I hope we can learn from this moment and do better in the future.”
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