Two buses are seen on a street on a sunny day, with pedestrians on the sidewalks.
Buses and pedestrians on Spring Garden Road during the short-lived pilot. — Photo: HRM

After a quickly failed first attempt, Halifax plans to try its Spring Garden Road pilot again next year.

In July, the municipality closed the busy street to vehicular traffic, except for buses, between 7am and 8pm and hoped to keep it that way for a year. But with signage and sporadic policing, it was unable to keep personal vehicles off the road, and it abandoned the pilot just five days later.

Council’s Transportation Standing Committee held a special virtual meeting on Wednesday to hear what went wrong, and how the municipality plans to fix it.

“Why are we back here today, just a few months after the pilot was to begin? The obvious answer is, it didn’t go well, didn’t go according to plans,” transportation planning manager Mike Connors told the committee.

“Traffic largely did not observe the restrictions through much of the operational period. And it’s evident now that traffic signage alone did not clearly communicate the traffic restrictions.”

A police officer stands in the middle of an intersection, arms stretched out. A vehicle is in the middle of the intersection, its driver seemingly confused. Pedestrians cross the street on the right.
A Halifax Regional Police officer directs traffic during the short-lived pilot. — Photo: HRM

People only obeyed the rules when there was a police officer standing in the middle of Spring Garden at either the Queen Street or South Park Street intersection, Connors said, acknowledging it’s “impractical to have police officers on site on a full-time basis enforcing these restrictions.”

Connors’ first proposed solution: better signage.

“For example, replacing the turn restriction signs at Queen Street and South Park Street with do not enter signs and replacing permissive signs on the side streets with restrictive signs,” Connors said.

“Drivers tend to respond better when you tell them what not to do, not what they should do.”

Four signs are seen denoting what drivers can and can't do using arrows.
Connors’ example of better signage for the street.
Connors’ example of better signage for the street.

But he expects the real fix to be some sort of barrier to traffic. He suggested traffic barrels (the kind that failed miserably during HRM’s “slow streets” program) could be a short-term solution.

Changing the traffic lights so that drivers aren’t confused by a green light where they’re not permitted to go straight would be effective, Connors said, but would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He suggested that would be appropriate if council wanted to make the change permanent.

What appears to be the winning solution is some sort of automated gate, where buses use a MacPass or other transponder to get through, but personal vehicles are blocked. Buses already use such a system at the Highfield Park terminal, Connors said.

“And we’ve been quite intrigued by another project that we’ve seen from Banff, Alberta that uses automated gates on a similar project,” Connors said.

Banff Avenue, “basically their Spring Garden Road,” has been closed to personal vehicles through the summer since 2020, and buses open a gate using a fob system. Their program has been a success, Connors said.

On a street in a mountain town, a semi-permanent gate blocks vehicles from a pedestrian plaza.
The gate system on Banff Avenue. —Photo: HRM/Banff

“At this stage we are encouraged by this option’s potential for use on Spring Garden Road. But there are several factors that we need to consider further before we can know if it’s applicable,” Connors said.

Those factors include whether MacPass will work, whether the gate could handle the amount of bus traffic Spring Garden Road sees, and whether there’s room in the street for the infrastructure.

The timing is another challenge for the pilot, Connors said. It’s confusing for drivers that the street is closed during the day but not at night.

“More recently, we’ve been considering whether 24/7 operation period would be would be a better approach in that it would simplify regulations and likely be less confusing for drivers,” Connors said.

Connors told the committee he hoped to be back with a plan by February 2023, and to implement a new pilot next spring.

“We’re proposing an operational review is completed that looks at the traffic control options in more detail, as well as investigates the potential for an expanded operational period, potentially up to all day,” Connors said.

Connors recommended the committee recommend to council that it rescind its earlier direction to launch the pilot and direct staff “to complete an operational review to investigate additional traffic control measures and other operational needs that are required to operate a transit priority corridor pilot project on Spring Garden Road between South Park Street and Queen Street and return to the Transportation Standing Committee with a recommended implementation approach for the pilot project.”

Coun. Waye Mason, whose Peninsula South district includes Spring Garden Road, wanted to add a timeline to that motion.

“This is not a well received report by the Twitterati and by activists,” Mason said. “And I feel like the report, the way it reads isn’t the way it was pitched to me by staff when they were saying we’re gonna have to do a thing and that’s why we need to have this meeting early.”

But Mason said he agrees, with ongoing construction on Spring Garden Road and years-long disruption for businesses, that next spring is the right time to relaunch the pilot.

“My concern is that, the way the report is written is, ‘And we’ll get back to you and and maybe in spring we’ll do it,’” Mason said.

“But the message I want to give to the public is, I think council needs to say clearly, ‘We are doing this. There’s good reasons to delay it but we’re doing it,’ and that it’s not going to slide further to the right.”

Mason moved to amend the motion to add the words “for Spring 2023 implementation.”

“I know that’s a tight timeline and I know it’s hard to consult with people between now and into Christmas. But I think we really need to see this come back to committee in March or April of next year,” Mason said.

Coun. Paul Russell said he doesn’t think it’s possible to get it done that quickly.

“With a Spring 2023 implementation, all of the planning and construction and design, all of that stuff will have to happen prior to that, and I don’t see how that’s possible,” Russell said.

Connors said the gate system used in Banff is installed in the spring and removed in the fall, so it’s possible to do it next spring.

Mason agreed to change the amendment to require staff to bring a report back by February 2023.

“My key is that there’s nothing instructive and binding that sets the time on this and I want us to be unambiguous,” Mason said.

That amendment passed, and so did the main motion. Council still has to vote on the recommendation from the committee.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. My personal opinion is this entire scheme is moronic! SGR is a major route to Barrington and other downtown areas. Simple, drop the plan.

  2. The Spring Garden Road project is a clear failure. That road like many like it was paved with good intentions. However the powers that be intend to gaslight their way to success regardless. Bigger signs and fixed obstructions will fix this they say. They,  being the original authors of this disaster. We’ll if nothing else it’s chuckle worthy.

    HRM council and staff it seems refuses to admit error, almost as if it had a collective Ego. Well let’s see what happens with bigger signs and more obstructions. Methinks Freddy had it right.” Blessed are the forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders” Friedrich Nietzsche.

  3. I like the fob gate idea and I think it should be 24/7 during spring, summer, fall. I like to cycle this city but now I avoid Spring Garden. It feels worse since all the renovations. Even to use the car on it is not pleasant.