When Sarah Manchon gets on her bike to ride home from work, she can predict where she’s likely to have drivers yell at her — or worse.
The former chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, Manchon works for Halifax Public Libraries at the Halifax North End Memorial branch on Gottingen Street. She lives off Quinpool Road and rides through the North Park Street roundabouts. And that usually means trouble.
“Almost every time, something happens,” Manchon said. “Really close passing, aggressive acceleration, that kind of thing.”
Drivers yell out their windows, too.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ ‘Move out of the way!’ I do recall someone saying ‘Next time I’m going to hit you!’ I’ve shared that in meetings and other people have very similar experiences of the roundabouts specifically.
The roundabouts are one of only a number of places in Halifax that seem to be flashpoints for conflict between cyclists and drivers. In interview after interview for this story, cyclists pointed to the same locations. In addition to the North Park roundabouts, those spots included Bayers Road, the Bedford Highway, and routes on and off the peninsula, such as the Armdale roundabout, the Windsor Street exchange (for those actually intrepid enough to bike it), and the Chain of Lakes Trail where it reaches Joseph Howe Drive.
As co-artistic director of the Wonder’neath Art Society, Heather Wilkinson oversees the Art Bikers program. The Art Bikers describe themselves as “a mobile community arts program.” Travelling by bike, with trailers loaded with art supplies, they facilitate programs throughout the city. Wilkinson said one of the team members told her there are “people who cheer us on and are supportive as we come by,” but that the bikers also face more troubling interactions with drivers.
One of the arteries they used to take, but now go out of their way to avoid, is Bayers Road — opting instead for a much longer route through the Bayers Westwood community.
Some of the places where we had the most aggression from people shouting at the cyclists was when they would be making a left-hand turn. [The art bikers] are really good communicators, and will go over into the left lane as a group while signalling. And that’s one of the times they often get pretty aggressive verbal abuse, even though they are actually using the rules of the road in that situation.”
Some drivers, she added — including Halifax Transit bus drivers — don’t seem to understand the rules of the road when it comes to biking, and they get angry.
(In response to a request about training for bus drivers, Halifax spokesperson Brynn Budden said in an email: “Cyclists on the road is covered during training for Transit Operators. The specific training on cyclists includes a variety of modular videos, as well as a defensive driving module that also addresses cyclists. Any complaints received by Halifax Transit regarding a cyclist and a bus are thoroughly investigated.”)
“After [the Art Bikers] had had enough of these verbal instances, they started travelling with a GoPro on their helmet, and we started rethinking routes,” Wilkinson said.
While there is no excuse for road rage, clearly design plays a role in exacerbating conflict.
Manchon said issues seem to arise “in places where it might be unclear what people biking and what people driving are supposed to do.”
Maybe a bike lane starts or ends, or maybe a street is going from three to two lanes,” Manchon said. “If somebody cycling is adjusting their position because the conditions are changing, it really catches the people driving off guard, and they don’t react very well.
When it comes to the North Park roundabouts, which are narrow and have sharp angles to reduce vehicle speed, Manchon said cyclists have been told to take the lane (ride the centre of the lane) and ride through. But drivers “don’t get it,” she said. “It doesn’t seem intuitive to them that that’s the way to correctly bike through the roundabout. And therefore they become very upset about that and they’re slowed down of course. They don’t like that.”
“I’ve done observations at those roundabouts, and you see bicyclists pretty much doing just about everything,” said David MacIsaac, active transportation program manager for Halifax.
You see them using the facility with the pedestrians, you see them taking the lane within the roundabout, and you see some of them kind of hugging the curb, which they’re not supposed to do, really… The design speed of those roundabouts is 30 kilometres an hour or less, which should set them up for reasonably safe sharing between the bikes and the cars. But it’s not always really obvious.
MacIsaac said the problem stems in part from the fact that Canadian planners don’t have a standard that would better protect cyclists and pedestrians in these types of roundabouts:
Basically, all of those roundabouts have multi-use pathways around them,” he said. “So bikes and peds could be sharing that space on the outside. However, legislation doesn’t really provide the bicyclists the ability to walk or to bicycle across that leg. So, legally they need to dismount and and become pedestrians. So obviously there are problems with that. But there aren’t really a whole lot of alternatives right now. I keep sending examples of Dutch roundabouts [which clearly separate pedestrians, cyclists, and cars] to my colleagues at the Transportation Association of Canada and hoping for some changes there.
Of course, no amount of design can explain the sheer rage some drivers express towards cyclists.
Last summer, Janel Hayward and a friend were riding in the Annapolis Valley, rolling downhill on a beautiful country road, coming up on a T-intersection at the bottom of the hill. (Hayward is a policy analyst for the provincial government’s office of L’nu Affiars, and is on the board of Bicycle Nova Scotia. She emphasized that she spoke to the Examiner as an individual, and her views were not meant to represent those of either organization.)
Hayward, an experienced rider who considers an 80-kilometre route “not terribly long,” said that as she and her friend prepared to turn left, she heard a vehicle come up close behind her. She figured she knew what was coming next: a maneuver cyclists refer to as “punishment passing” — being passed dangerously close at high speed. Punishment passing is dangerous enough, but this time, the driver went one step farther.
The driver, in “a really big pickup” passed Hayward and her friend, yelling. As they turned, the driver honked at them. Then, Hayward said,
All of a sudden he came to a screeching halt in his truck, and he was blocking both lanes, and then he backed up towards me. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m not stopping for this person.
Hayward and her friend turned into a driveway.
He drove past yelling something about how it was illegal for us to be driving on the roads,” Hayward said. “So it’s just a complete lack of knowledge and awareness of the actual rules of the road… I also found it very funny and ironic because he came to screeching halt and blocked the lane with his car.
Conflicts between cyclists and drivers came to the fore in the early days of the current provincial election campaign, after the publication of Facebook posts from Progressive Conservative candidate Jennifer Ehrenfeld-Poole, who’s running in the riding of Annapolis.
In a 2018 Facebook post she wrote that until cyclists are insured, registered, and have plates, they should “get the fuck over because I will be beside you within a hair of my mirror and dually fender [sic] so that you can feel extra breeze on you as I go by wishing I could get away with running you completely over.” Other screenshots emerged of more recent posts as well, in which she joked about killing cyclists.
Hayward says for the most part, her experiences riding in rural Nova Scotia are “really great.” It’s far more common to experience drivers honking and yelling in the city, particularly as she tries to navigate her way along Bayers Road or Joseph Howe Drive to get to the Chain of Lakes Trail. She said she tries not to pay attention to whatever “garbage” drivers yell at her, but sometimes it’s clear they are saying she and other cyclists shouldn’t be allowed on the roads.
Scott Edgar has seen all this before.
A philosophy professor at St. Mary’s University who bikes to campus daily in normal times, Edgar has witnessed what he calls “the bike wars” play out in Vancouver and Philadelphia. When these cities added more protected bike lanes — lanes physically separated from cars — there was a backlash. And he expects to see that happen in Halifax.
I think there is no way to avoid a degree of backlash from drivers when a city starts building protected cycling infrastructure, because it always involves taking road space or parking away from drivers. And drivers see that as theirs. And many drivers see it as not completely legitimate for that space to be used by people who aren’t driving cars.
Edgar has had his share of drivers yelling at him during his commute, including one, notably, who told him to “get a job” while Edgar was making a left turn out of the University Avenue bike lane.
I was bemused because I was literally wearing a suit on my way home from the office.
HRM still overwhelmingly has a car-dominated culture, and I think the overwhelming majority of people who live here take it as a kind of axiom or law of nature that anybody who’s not driving a car is doing so because they don’t have a choice. That there’s no reason why you would choose not to drive if you had the better option of taking your car.
When there’s a backlash against more road space given over to bikes, “the discourse gets increasingly unhinged,” he said.
If that’s just people popping off online, that’s fine. I mean, that’s a perfectly reasonable trade for safe, physically separated bike lanes… Every time those car lanes got taken away from private vehicles [in other cities] and given over to pedestrians and cyclists, the prediction was, ‘oh, my God, this is going to bring the city to its knees,’ which, of course, it did not.
Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, and author of the book Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives, said in an interview that drivers are often “agitated” by the introduction of new bike infrastructure. It’s an attitude she called “myopic,” since ultimately bike lanes and other infrastructure can be “better for the overall traffic flow in a city anyway.”
“There’s a lot of politics to bicycle infrastructure,” she added. “There are a lot of people who feel they need bikes advantaged, and cars disadvantaged, as opposed to, you know, every bike is one less car that’s taking up space.”
A paper published in April 2020 in the Journal of Transport Geography looks at literature related to road safety (“letters, opinion pieces, and research articles”) published between 1900 and 2017. The paper’s authors note a significant mid-century shift, “from drivers being identified as ‘hazards’ to drivers being identified as perceivers of ‘hazards.’”
In other words, rather than being seen as other users with whom to share the road, drivers are trained to see bikes as a problem, in the name of safety.
“Around the world,” the paper continues, “novice drivers are now informed of, trained in and tested on their ability to identify and correctly respond to traffic ‘hazard cues.’ As this practice has been implemented, researchers have not yet paused to reflect on the effects of thinking about traffic interactions in terms of ‘hazards,’ the norms such thinking constitutes and the mobility culture it might foster.”
George (not his real name), a professional who lives in the suburbs and has cycled to work downtown every day for decades, said he finds the main issue with Halifax drivers is not rage but over-politeness. (George works for a company that frowns on employees speaking to the media, so asked that the Halifax Examiner not use his name.) He said sometimes at intersections drivers will wave him through even when he doesn’t have the right of way, which can lead to confusion and even danger.
Edgar has experienced the same thing, and says it speaks to a deeper issue.
Many drivers here will treat cyclists like pedestrians. It’s not uncommon that if I’m stopped with my foot down at a stop sign, a driver who has the right of way on a more busy street will stop to let me go. Now, that is not what we should do, according to the Motor Vehicle Act. And it’s not what I’m expecting them to do.
And it’s a funny thing, because I appreciate the gesture, especially if I’ve been sitting at that stop sign for three minutes already, trying to get across, but it does kill me that that driver doesn’t really understand how to drive around cyclists, and they’re kind of lumping me in with pedestrians. The darker flip side of that is the attitude that cyclists should not be on the road at all.
Three and a half years ago, Alec Soucy, an anthropology professor at SMU, decided to mostly abandon driving in favour of cycling. He was motivated primarily by a desire to do something about climate change.
I looked around and I saw not many people doing much to actually change their behaviour and do anything about it. And I just thought, well, in my own small way, I can commit to biking instead of driving everywhere.
But his environmental commitment soon ran up against the lack of safe routes from his home, in the Wedgewood neighbourhod off Kearney Lake Road, and downtown.
“I quite quickly became frustrated by how bad the situation was,” he said.
So he did what any self-respecting social scientist would do, and launched a research project on bicycle culture in Halifax. He and Dalhousie health promotion professor Sara Kirk launched a five-year program called The Halifax Bike Lab. “Our aim is to study how new infrastructure impacts bicycle culture and attitudes towards cycling in Halifax,” the project says on its Facebook page.
So far, the project has conducted some three dozen interviews with cyclists, politicians, and planners. The interviews reveal that multi-use or shared paths, designed to get people out of their cars, are actually one of the impediments to more people choosing active transportation options, Soucy noted.
“Bikes are not pedestrians. And putting pedestrians and bikes on the same path creates conflict. But that’s what [city planners] always want to do so that they don’t have to take away any lanes from cars,” Soucy said. To fight climate change in cities, he said:
One of the big things we can do is try to shift people out of cars… As long as you make it more appealing to drive a car, people will drive a car. In order to make it so that people are going to make the switch I think we need, you have to put in much better transit and you have to put in much better infrastructure for walking and biking — for active transportation. And you have to make it more difficult to drive. It sounds extreme, but things like closing the Bedford Highway completely to cars. If people want to drive onto the peninsula, they use the highway. Put in a toll: $20 a day if you want to get onto the peninsula. That would lead to people leaving their cars behind.
In order to mitigate the hazard of cycling on Bayers Road, the city built a shared pathway running along the south side of the road from George Dauphinee Avenue to Romans Avenue.
Asked if that makes a difference to a group like the Art Bikers, Wilkinson said not really.
I haven’t figured out how you get on and off those lanes, to be honest. They start and end at the most dangerous parts of the commute, and when you get to the bottom of the hill, it still narrows at the little bridge that crosses the train tracks, and there is no extra lane.
Soucy considers the Bayers Road path an example of the city’s lack of vision when it comes to active transport.
What they put in, again, was a multi-use path. And a multi-use path means there’s going to be conflict with pedestrians,” he said. “It’s going to work right now, because not that many people are using it. But if you start getting the numbers that we need in terms of that modal shift… How are you going to mix pedestrians and bikes? They’re building for the past. They’re building infrastructure that would have been good in other places 20 years ago.
MacIsaac, the planner, understands the limitations of the multi-use paths and asks cyclists to be patient. He said the start and end points of the Bayers Road path may seem to make no sense because the path is incomplete. There are plans to improve connections at either end.
“I think probably for the next two or three years there is going to be a gradual set of improvements to make it more obvious and to make it safer,” he said.
As for the issue of capacity on multi-use trails, MacIsaac said, “It’s a good problem to have.”
It’s nice to see people walking and bicycling and using the facility. But we would have to keep an eye on it, and if we observe safety issues or it’s over capacity, then that’s when you have to start looking at a different design or a different option. You know, it’s kind of tight in there. But if it came to that, we would we would look at the situation again and see if we could widen it.
Manchon argues the trail is already at that point.
I know there’s a future connection etcetera, but… you have to dismount if you’re going to try to get through that sidewalk on the bridge there, which is terrifying to walk on. So it’s not usable really until more is built. But on top of that, it’s already at capacity.
Angie Schmitt has built much of her career looking at these issues, first as a writer and now as founder and owner of the firm 3MPH Planning + Consulting.
Schmitt, whose book Right of Way examines “race, class, and the silent epidemic of pedestrian deaths in America,” said, “Tensions can get kind of high if there is a big high-profile project like a series of bike lanes being put in.” But she added that the “fervour” generally dies down.
Schmitt lives in Cleveland, and remembers things getting “really heated” over the construction of bike lanes a decade ago, but now they no longer seem unusual. (Interestingly, she said in major American cities pushback to bike lanes often comes from people on the left, who see them as a sign of gentrification.)
While some cycling proponents advocate for making life much harder for drivers, to get them out from behind the wheel, Schmitt thinks that approach can be counterproductive.
I don’t think we need to pit drivers against cyclists quite as much as we may have done. I think we should acknowledge that driving in cities is really frustrating. When we go into a corridor and we’re trying to improve bike safety, we should be thinking about how can we make it a win for drivers, too. How can we eliminate headaches for drivers so everyone feels like they’re getting something out of it, instead of drivers feeling like someone else is getting something at their expense?
These solutions don’t need to compromise bike and pedestrian safety, she emphasized. They could include improving the timing of lights for better traffic flow.
If we’re going to ask drivers to slow down, which I think is important for safety, we can try to make sure it doesn’t hurt their journey time quite as much. We do want to make it easier for people to choose transit… but we don’t want to force people out of their cars where it’s going to wreck their life if they have to have transit and they can’t take care of their daily needs or get to the doctor.
Soucy and Edgar said they are both sensitive to issues of class. Edgar said the only reason he can easily commute to work by bike is because he can afford to live on the peninsula.
To improve access for all, Soucy wishes there were more resources put into pathways on and off the peninsula. Pathways that are protected and don’t force cyclists and pedestrians to share the same space.
He has no regrets about commuting by bike instead of car. But he said, “The situation isn’t that great and [cyclists] don’t feel that comfortable on the roads… Buying a car in the city is increasingly difficult and parking is hard and not going to get any better. And so we’ve got to find ways to help people to get around that don’t cost a fortune and don’t screw up the planet.”