The Cogswell Lands plans have toured around the city for the past two weeks in an effort to get some public input on the greenspaces that will be part of the plan. (Not where the greenspaces are, mind you, but what might go in them. You can check out the plans and weigh in online here.)
I’ve written before about concerns over the lack of public consultation around this new downtown street grid, so I won’t do it again here.
Despite those issues, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of promising stuff in the plans. The active transportation bits are the most impressive: a fully separated bi-directional bikeway from the existing Barrington greenway (near Cornwallis Street) to the beginning of Hollis and Lower Water Streets (and the hopefully improved-by-then bike facility on those corridors), a similar bikeway headed up Cogswell Street, and a multi-use path alongside the newly created Poplar Street, running parallel between Barrington and Brunswick Streets, and then continuing behind the TradeMart building to connect to Cogswell.
Not only are these planned active transportation components of a higher order than we currently see in the city, but more importantly they are connecting to existing infrastructure, and helping create an actual, practical network of active transportation routes.
I cannot, however, say the same about the transit components of the plan, the ambitions of which pale in comparison to their active transportation counterparts.
There are bus lanes in the plan, but they’re short and incomplete.
The plan calls for bus-only lanes stretching along Barrington from Scotia Square to just beyond Cogswell, where the smaller, closest-to-downtown roundabout will be located. Transit priority lanes cannot go through roundabouts by design (there are examples of trains running straight through the centre of some roundabouts, but this is a rarity).
So the new bus lanes end shortly before the first roundabout and do not continue on the other side or through the rest of the redesign along Barrington toward the bridge. And that stands out as a missed opportunity.
It’s odd that in a city about to spend a significant sum of money retrofitting key corridors to give buses dedicated lanes, that a newly designed stretch of road coming from a major transit terminal (Scotia Square) and headed towards a major traffic pinch point (Macdonald Bridge) is not going to feature a complete set of bus lanes.
Perhaps the Cogswell team has been relying on Halifax Transit to lead the way on transit instead of looking to the far more ambitious Integrated Mobility Plan, passed in December unanimously by regional council.
Let’s face it, Halifax Transit doesn’t have a reputation for shooting for the moon when it comes to the needs and convenience of riders.
Remember that Halifax Transit first released their Moving Forward Together plan without any concrete plans for bus lanes, and then after public feedback decided to recommend only two tiny corridors.
Thankfully, along came the Integrated Mobility Plan and we now, at least, have a map showing a network of streets that we know should have some kind of transit priority on them. And it so happens that Barrington is one of them.
You might think this Cogswell redesign would be a major opportunity to build in some transit priority, since it’s practically a blank slate. It stands to reason that if the Cogswell team were taking the lead on transit from the IMP, then transit priority would get more, well, priority, here.
So why aren’t we taking this opportunity to build a Barrington transit priority corridor, or even make way for something more ambitious like bus rapid transit right into downtown?
It could have to do with the status quo.
Although the IMP lists Barrington as a transit priority corridor, it’s actually not heavily used by Halifax Transit, at least as a two-way route. There are plenty of buses coming off the bridge from Dartmouth and into Halifax via Barrington Street. But those buses will not return to Dartmouth on the same road. On the way back they take Gottingen Street — to the consternation of the local Business Improvement District, and to newbie riders who expect two-way bus routes. Why? Because getting on the bridge from Barrington is verboten for buses.
It’s always been that way.
For the 40 years after bridge was built in the 1950s, no Dartmouth-bound buses used Barrington Street because there was no ramp from Barrington to get onto the bridge.
Then, in the mid-90s, the bridge commission started designing a new on-ramp from Barrington as part of the third lane project. The bridge commission reportedly checked with Halifax Transit (Metro Transit at the time), which told the commission not to worry about buses, since there were no routes using the then-non-existent ramp, and no plans to do so in the future.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the transit planners of the time looked at that project and did not see potential to get Dartmouth-bound buses (and the people on them) more efficiently out of downtown Halifax. Instead, they looked at it and thought, that doesn’t affect what we are doing right now at all. It seems like a clear missed opportunity. Then again, it was 20 years ago, and retrospect is deceiving.
Regardless, it’s not the decades-old decisions that we should worry about, but the present day ones. Like the one wherein the city redesigns a downtown street grid and specifically chooses not to prioritize public transit all the way through it. This, despite the fact that plans are afoot to retrofit other streets, at great public expense. This, despite the fact that we have set major growth goals for our regional centre. This, despite the fact that we have political representatives who have demonstrated they are capable of looking beyond their own careers on council, to impact the long term viability and sustainability of Halifax.
I can’t help but think that the current Cogswell plan misses a major opportunity in designing for transit, and all seemingly because it’s been designed for the status quo, and not for the plan we, or at least our political representatives, have just agreed on.