In August 2016, shortly after Halifax Transit’s Moving Forward Together plan was revealed to all, I interviewed transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker about the route re-design process. Walker makes a living helping cities rethink their bus networks, and has visited Halifax in the past at the invite of local advocacy group It’s More Than Buses.
One of the things that really stuck with me from that interview had less to do with the technicalities of route design, and more to do with our collective sense of what’s possible in our cities, given how they are designed and built. Walker sees a disconnect between what people expect public transit to accomplish, and what it reasonably can, given the layout of our streets and the distribution of our people and jobs.
Here’s how Walker explained it to me:
Where we are starting with public transit in North America is communities where most people are primarily motorists. Generally in those communities I find that people ask for transit to do things that transit actually doesn’t do well.
They’ll tell me for example, hey, we have 10,000 jobs out in this area, why don’t we have service? And I have to say, well, that would justify a road, but if you want transit, it matters how the 10,000 jobs are configured. If they’re close together, if they’re in bigger buildings along a single path, we may be able to do that. If they’re all scattered about in business parks, then there’s no way that transit can get an attractive service to all of those jobs.
There are just a lot of issues where people aren’t even aware of the extent to which they live in places which have been designed for the car, and the extent to which making transit work requires thinking differently about your community.
In Halifax, transit is going to succeed in some places more than others, just as it does everywhere else. But it takes a while for people to start understanding just how that works. Like why is it that transit is going to carry so many more people around the Halifax peninsula than its going to carry in some of the outlying suburban towns? And how do we describe that in a way that doesn’t sound like we just disapprove of those towns, or don’t value them or something? The fact is there’s some geometry about why transit succeeds in certain places rather than others.
This idea, that there are geometric realities to providing decent transit service, came to mind this month as I heard about Our HRM Alliance’s next big move, something they are calling the Halifax Region Mainstreets Plan. If done right, a Mainstreets Plan could significantly improve the city’s ability to provide good transit service within the urban transit service boundary.
The Mainstreets Plan calls for two major master planning exercises, one for suburban and one for rural communities in HRM; between the two, that’s where the majority of our growth has been and will be occurring. Even if we achieve the stricter growth targets set by the Centre Plan, that leaves 60 per cent allotted for suburban and rural communities (with most of that happening in suburbs). And right now, says Our HRM Alliance coordinator Jenny Lugar, “a lot of those places haven’t had updated plans since the 1970s.”
“We are functioning on old planning rules which don’t really reflect what our realities are for growth now,” says Lugar, “and don’t really reflect the kind of communities that we’ve decided as a culture we want to build and live in.” Not just community values, but also the basic tenets of planning have evolved considerably over the decades, leaving us with plans that don’t allow for things like mixed residential and commercial developments, and plans that make poor transit service a foregone conclusion in our suburbs.
Sometime in the 70s we should have hit peak “designing for the car” days, because it was around then that people started to realize the pickle we were getting ourselves into by doing strictly that. But the reality is we just kept designing that way for decades, and in many cases we still are, partly because we are conservative by nature, and partly because it’s a heck of a lot of work to change municipal plans and bylaws.
Updating plans involves extensive local consultation, and so it’s time-consuming. Lugar says that at our current rate (about five years per plan, with only two completed since amalgamation in 1996), “we’re looking at 2050, 2060 before these are done.”
Enter the Halifax Region Mainstreets Plan concept, which could significantly reduce the time required for updating individual suburban and rural plans by eliminating the repetition. There’s variety among our non-urban communities, but there’s also a lot they have in common in terms of needs and obstacles. And they essentially have the same suite of planning tools and concepts available to help overcome those obstacles: things like Complete Streets, mixed-use planning, and transit-oriented development.
So a new planning framework that could apply these concepts to solve some of the shared issues across our suburban communities could shave years off the time required to renew these plans, while still allowing for individual communities to address their specific needs.
It seems eminently sensible. And happily, HRM planning staff not only agree with the idea, they’re already on it.
“We’ve been sort of working around that premise for the past year or so,” says Kate Greene, of the idea of creating master plans for HRM’s suburban and rural areas.
Greene is the policy and strategic initiatives program manager with HRM planning and development. The position she’s in was created in April 2016, as part of the planning department overhaul started by former HRM chief planner Bob Bjerke.
“We have a lot of different plans,” says Greene, citing 21 plans and 22 land-use bylaws. “It’s really burdensome to handle all of those.”
So the municipality is undertaking a plan and bylaw simplification program, of which the Centre Plan is the first phase. And next up is rural and suburban planning frameworks.
“We are coming forward to Community Planning and Economic Development [CPED, standing committee of council] in the next couple of months with a work plan about how we are going to go about doing that,” says Greene.
In addition to shortening the time it will take to renew our badly outdated plans, these frameworks hold out the promise of saving time and resources in the daily operations of the planning department, by simplifying a dog’s breakfast of planning definitions and regulations that vary across the municipality. HRM’s bylaws, says Greene, “are more complicated than they need to be. We have six different ways of measuring height, for example.”
And our Regional Plan has only managed to complicate matters at the secondary planning level, because it called for adding plans for small growth nodes, without taking on the whole messy framework. “You were just making the secondary planning framework more and more complicated by adding these small geographies in,” says Greene. “We want to have that big framework to guide everything, and then we can do more localized study for these main streets. So exactly what Our HRM Alliance is saying.”
Greene and Lugar also seem to be on the same page in terms of what the suburban and rural frameworks might look like.
“One of the great things we are seeing in the Our HRM Alliance material is that they are very focussed on complete streets and great local main streets,” says Greene. “And we have seen that come forward in the [Integrated Mobility Plan], and that’s a really important idea that we need to focus on as we move forward. What they are saying is aligning with the plan that we have, what we are bringing forward to CPED in the next few months.”
Judging by the reaction of some councillors, suburban and rural planning frameworks will be received positively at City Hall. In CBC’s coverage of the HRM Region Mainstreets proposal, Pam Berman quoted an enthusiastic Councillor Steve Adams, who represents Spryfield, saying, “I would support hiring a dozen planners, if need be, to get this work done for us.”
The comment is slightly ironic, since Halifax council just watched CAO Jacques Dube inexplicably fire the city’s first chief planner, and then proceed to eliminate the position. (The city is currently recruiting for a director of planning and development only. The recently departed Bob Bjerke served for four years as both director of planning and development and chief planner.) And the cherry on the cake? Since Bjerke was the guy who created Kate Greene’s position, there’s a solid chance this project would not exist without his having been hired by HRM about four years ago.
Luckily for Adams, and the rest of us, Bjerke was hired and did start the ball rolling. Now it’s up to Greene and her team of planners to see to the follow through, and rewrite the rules so that we can start growing in ways that actually make sense for efficient transit and other forms of sustainable transportation.