This afternoon, city council’s transportation committee will consider whether or not to continue planning for a north-bound bus lane along part of Gottingen Street.
The plan would see 51 parking and loading spaces removed from both sides of the street, to make room for two vehicle lanes and one northbound bus lane starting at Cogswell Street, ending just before North Street.
The North End Business Association (NEBA) has come out against the plan, saying that the lane will change the character of Gottingen, and that removing parking and loading could negatively impact the growing number of small businesses on that stretch.
With no more parked cars to buffer the sidewalk and slow down traffic, NEBA director Patty Cuttell-Busby worries the new lane will become a bus highway at rush hour. “There’s the speed,” says Cuttell-Busby, “and there’s the noise and the pollution that comes with an increase in buses.”
Gottingen is a unique transit street in that many of its 79 rush-hour buses (increasing to 90 under the Moving Forward Together plan) either do not stop, or stop only at limited stops, along the street. And most of the routes, including the high-frequency #1 route, do not currently run both ways on the street. They use Gottingen on the way out of downtown, but use Barrington on the way in. (The MFT plan will eventually bring the #1 onto Gottingen for two-way service, which accounts for about half of the rush-hour increase mentioned above.)
Instead of building a dedicated lane, says Cuttell-Busby, the city should be working to get fewer buses on Gottingen by moving the current slew of Dartmouth-bound express buses down to Barrington Street. But don’t get her wrong: do not touch the route 7. Or the route 1, especially now that two-way service is within reach. “We’re very pro-transit” says Cuttell-Busby. “We’re pro-local service. We just don’t think that Gottingen is a transit corridor.”
Transit advocacy group It’s More Than Buses sees a more pressing need for a Gottingen bus lane. “We’re definitely in favour of getting this done as soon as possible,” says spokesperson Ben Wedge. “We see it as a pretty important project for getting buses moving toward the bridge. But we do share some reservations with the North End Business Association.”
“The express buses that don’t serve the street frankly shouldn’t be on Gottingen,” says Wedge. “It’s not right for anyone who’s walking there, living there. It’s a lot of noise and pollution and just stuff that doesn’t add value to the street.”
The Barrington alternative?
Both NEBA and IMTB are hoping the city will consider using Barrington as an alternative route to get buses quickly to the Macdonald Bridge. “We want to see the city commit to reevaluating how many busses go down that corridor and giving us a clear answer on why buses can’t go up the Barrington ramp [to the bridge], and what it’s going to take to change that,” says Wedge.
Right now, the key argument coming from the city as to why express buses aren’t using Barrington Street is that buses can’t make the turn from the ramp to the bridge without encroaching the centre reversible lane. The desired turn, from the inside curb lane of the ramp to the outside curb lane of the bridge, was tested by Halifax Transit and the bridge commission in October 2017, but “it was determined that the bus cannot consistently make this tight turn without impeding on the adjacent lane,” writes city spokesperson Nick Ritcey.
The problem with the turn certainly seems like a fixable technical problem, as there appears to be ample at-grade space where the ramp meets the bridge. Although Ritcey says it’s likely “that further trials will follow” and that “these agencies will continue to work together exploring options to change road geometry, pavement markings and other traffic control measures which would allow this movement in a safe manner,” there is no stated council or staff direction to pursue a technical solution.
The lack of initiative on the Barrington ramp is problematic not simply because a short stretch of Gottingen is bearing the brunt of Halifax to Dartmouth bus traffic, but also because the city is about to build a brand new street grid next door, as part of the Cogswell redevelopment, presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for higher order transit on Barrington Street.
The recently passed Integrated Mobility Plan envisions a Barrington Street Transit Priority Corridor stretching from downtown to Africville, the first phase of which will happen as part of the Cogswell redevelopment. Despite the potential in having a blank slate for some key downtown streets, the city has opted not to consider Barrington as a potential route for Bus Rapid Transit, and any further study of the transit priority corridor outside the bounds of the Cogswell rebuild is not yet planned.
Currently, the plan for the Cogswell area includes two major roundabouts with bus lanes connecting them, and a so-called “transit block,” which is not mentioned in either the Moving Forward Together or Integrated Mobility plans.
Planters to the rescue
Despite the possibilities for Barrington, Ben Wedge says a transit lane for Gottingen is still in order, and sooner rather than later.
“The buses are there now, so let’s let’s keep them moving,” says Wedge. When it comes to the Barrington bridge access, “we don’t know if this is as simple as repainting the lines or as difficult as rebuilding the ramp, and it’s not right to keep those buses stuck in traffic for another 10 years while we figure out a major capital project,” says Wedge.
Wedge says that some of NEBA’s concerns might be alleviated by permitting loading at off peak times, and by including streetscaping improvements with the project, to mitigate the effects to pedestrians. And as for speed, he says, “we should have a serious chat about whether it’s appropriate for a bus to be doing 50 kilometres an hour down the street.” Wedge would also like to see Halifax Transit extend the bus lane right up to and down North Street, to prevent buses getting stuck in traffic along with other right turning traffic.
Cuttell-Busby is not too optimistic about the streetscaping possibilities of the project, which are estimated to cost about $250,000, and doesn’t include much in the way of planters, benches, or beautification.
One of Cuttle-Busby’s big issues with the project applies more broadly to the style of consultation used by Halifax Transit for many recent projects.
“What they’ve adopted is commonly known as a DAD process,” says Cuttle-Busby. “It’s a display and defend. They give us three multiple choice scenarios and ask, which one do we like better? That really confines the dialogue. You can’t have a dialogue outside of that scope. And they collect the feedback on that and use it to kind of justify the plan. So, display and defend.”
Consultants recommended lesser measures to start
Interestingly, Halifax Transit’s recommendation for a full bus lane down Gottingen is a departure from the final recommendation in the consultant WSP’s report, which calls for the medium investment option, including a complete parking analysis for the area, removal of peak hour parking and loading to free up traffic, and a northbound queue jump lane for buses at Cornwallis Street. In later years, WSP recommends a full transit lane “on a trial basis.”
Despite this recommendation from WSP, Halifax Transit is asking council to move on with detailed design, including further public consultation, for a full bus lane. The staff report says that construction could happen as early as this year. (By contrast, the Bayers Road transit lanes still require property acquisition and will have a considerably larger budget ask, currently estimated at about $16 million.)
“Gottingen gets the green light as a transit corridor because it is cheap, requires no land acquisitions, and is easy to implement,” says Cuttle-Busby. WSP was asked, “to do a study on how we could move buses more quickly down Gottingen street,” says Cuttle-Busby. “So we got the answer to that question. But we didn’t ask the question — we weren’t allowed to ask the question — is Gottingen the right street?”