I have great news. Halifax is going to create a transportation plan.
For months I’ve been waiting to hear announcements regarding public consultations for our new Road Network Functional Plan (RNFP), which is essentially the long list of roadway infrastructure projects we have planned, most of which focus on improving or maintaining car traffic flow. But as it turns out, we’re not going to be creating a new RNFP this year. Instead, we’re going to create an Integrated Mobility Plan, which will focus on increasing the numbers of trips that we take by sustainable modes like transit, walking, and biking, and decreasing those we take by car.
How did this happen? Last fall, when city staffers prepared their report on the latest commuter rail study, they decided to include an interesting recommendation. At first blush, it didn’t look like much. In addition to “accepting” the commuter rail study, staff recommended to:
direct staff to undertake a process to integrate land use planning and transportation planning to develop a strategic plan specifically aimed at increasing the modal split of sustainable forms of transportation as per the Regional Plan.
I remember reading this at the time, and thinking it sounded like yet another passive recommendation for a study that would simply delay the real decision-making that we need around transportation planning in Halifax.
I was wrong.
It turns out the recommendation in question (on a report signed by both our chief planner Bob Bjerke, and our then-head of transit, Eddie Robar) may actually lead directly to the real decision-making that we need around transportation planning in Halifax.
So far, the recommendation has led to an almost-approved (just one more committee, then on to council!) project to create an Integrated Mobility Plan for the city.
Could this mean that instead of considering something like commuter rail on its own, without reference to any of the alternatives out there (like, say, the already well-studied high-speed ferry concept or perhaps a dedicated bus corridor on the Bedford Highway), that we would actually consider all those alternatives together, side by side?
“That is the intent,” says Halifax’s Chief Planner Bob Bjerke. “To try to pull these things together. We’ve got lots of research that has been done, some good understanding of how the different pieces work. This is the attempt to pull it all together, and then say, okay, what are some of the big moves we could make that would make a real difference? And then put those in front of council and start to make some decisions around what kind of a transportation network we think is going to be most effective into the future.”
So finally, Halifax, we will have the big conversation. We will get to compare road widening costs with things like high quality transit corridors. We will consider what it might mean to build a third bridge or perhaps up our ferry game with new boats and terminals.
Now of course, you may be wondering why, with a regional plan in its second revision stage, we would need a new plan to integrate anything. Aren’t our transportation goals already integrated in the regional plan? Didn’t we already have the big conversation about transportation?
The Regional Plan identifies all the modes of transportation, and includes a plan for each. It even asks us nicely to increase our use of sustainable modes. But while it asks us to consider all modes in theory, it essentially tells us to plan for them all separately.
“The Regional Plan related to transportation has some very high level goals,” says Bjerke, “and it indicates that we should have a Road Network Functional Plan, and then talks about some of the other plans that would fall underneath that, like active transportation, parking, and transit. But while it identifies those different components, it doesn’t actually have a way to pull those all together.”
While the RP sets a goal to get our regional average modal split from 25% to 30% sustainable by 2031, it fails to say how to do that. “That strategy isn’t there,” says Bjerke. “And it doesn’t pull together how the road network components would fit with transit. They reference each other, they’re based on that, but this would give us a chance to look at them both together, so we can integrate those different modes and the kind of actions we want to take to get to that combined outcome.”
The project promises an ambitious timeline, with a “Big Ideas for Mobility” document due by April, and public consultations beginning by next month. Public engagement will include lectures and workshops, says Bjerke, and will also make use of the already collected input from recent consultations, like Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Together plan.
The whole thing is planned to wrap up by this time next year. (The cynic in me almost spit out my coffee at that deadline, but then the optimist chimed in to say, hell, why not? With a motivated staff and council on such an important project, it could happen.)
“We don’t want to be at this forever,” says Bjerke. “The intent here is to really consolidate information we have… to pull it together and get those options on the table quickly, and then do the follow-up work.”
“There’s going to be some big questions for the municipality,” says Bjerke. “We’re at that seminal moment when we’re really trying to see what we want to have for a transportation network. What is it we’re aiming at?”