Drivers pass by a traffic-calming island on Colby Drive in Cole Harbour, N.S. in April 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford

Agreeing they were better than the status quo, Halifax regional councillors voted in favour of a set of new road design guidelines despite some concerns about the specifics.

Municipal staff presented long-awaited revisions to the Municipal Design Guidelines, generally referred to as the Red Book, to council’s committee of the whole on Tuesday.

The guidelines govern the dimensions and geometry of new roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure in HRM, and this is the first time they’ve been updated since 2013. The revisions have been sorely needed.

Following the adoption of the pedestrian, bike and transit-focused Integrated Mobility Plan in 2017, council asked for the Red Book updates to start building roads in the municipality to match that philosophy. In the meantime, sprawl developers continued to build roads to the outdated standards in the existing rules.

That means areas like Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit’s District 16 — Bedford-Wentworth received dozens of new streets that are now subject to speeding. They end up on a list for traffic calming measures like speed humps, chicanes and islands, and the municipality spends more on those treatments every year, with more than $2 million planned across HRM for 2021-2022.

In starting the discussion on Tuesday, Coun. Waye Mason praised engineering staff for their hard work, and said the debate could turn into “an unsavoury dog pile” due to all the little things council could quibble with.

Outhit took the invitation.

“This dog is going to pile on a bit because of what I went through in West Bedford which is a beautiful community in many ways, but in my opinion when it comes to traffic and transit was an unmitigated disaster in many ways,” Outhit said.

“Things are getting better, but just imagine this my colleagues, an area between three and 10 years old and I still get daily contacts about where we need a crosswalk, where we need a no parking sign, when we’re going to get the traffic lights, when we’re going to get the stop sign, when we’re going to get the roundabouts.”

Part of the big idea around updating the rules is to stop that cycle of building brand new roads and then retrofitting them right away, but it’s unclear whether the proposed guidelines in front of council on Tuesday go far enough.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the leading authority on progressive road design, recommends lane widths of 10 to 11 feet (3.0 to 3.4 metres).

“Lanes greater than 11 feet [3.4 metres] should not be used as they may cause unintended speeding and assume valuable right of way at the expense of other modes,” NACTO says on its website.

HRM’s current design guidelines call for between 3.0 (for turning lanes) and 5.5 metres. The proposed new guidelines call for between 3.0 (for turning lanes) and 4.1 metres, with a minimum of 3.4 metres for any lane seeing bus or truck traffic.

Comparing street design guidelines in the existing and proposed rules shows some of them are not changing all that much.

Under existing rules, an “urban major collector with turning lane” calls for four lanes 3.5 metres wide, a centre turning lane of 3.3 metres, and 1.5-metre unprotected bike lanes on either side.

Under the new rules, a “regional centre residential major collector” calls for two travel lanes of between 3.3 and 4.0 metres, a turning lane of 3.0 to 3.5 metres, if required, and a parking lane of 2.2 to 2.4 metres, if required.

As another example, under existing rules, a “rural local” road calls for two lanes 3.2 metres wide.

Under the new rules, a “rural local” road calls for two lanes between 3.0 and 3.3 metres wide.

That means rural local roads, the kind with ditches and no sidewalks, aren’t likely to get any narrower. Some could be built wider.

If roads built under these new rules are still too wide, they’ll still require traffic calming in the future.

The target design speeds in the new guidelines are also higher than council was looking for — up to 50 km/h on local roads, 60 km/h on collector roads, and 80 km/h on arterial roads. The design speed is generally higher than the posted speed limit. One city managed offered an example: highways are built to 120 km/h and then get 110 km/h speed limits.

Councillors raised these issues with staff, and they were told the roads still need to be wide and designed to higher speeds to accommodate fire trucks, buses, parking, and snow clearing.

“That is why in some cases those local streets are slightly wider than the bare minimum because we do need to account for those uses,” said Anne Sherwood, program manager of engineering design.

“The other thing is that when we get to an intersection and we need to make a turn, although we’re primarily designing for passenger vehicle and trying to keep things as tight as we can, we do recognize that we need to account for service vehicles.”

Councillors were also told that asking for changes would delay the new guidelines, leading to more of the kind of “unmitigated disaster” found in Outhit’s district.

Rather than move amendments and delay the process for the Red Book update, councillors asked for a series of extra staff reports with plans to amend the rules in the future. Those were reports on:

  • “Basing design speeds on street typologies; Reducing design speeds for minor and major collectors to 40-50 km/hr; and
    Reducing design speeds for local streets 25-40 km/h”
  • “reducing the minimum width of minor collector roadways to seven meters;”
  • “the benefits either requiring two sidewalks on a street or a design as a Residential Shared Street”
  • “the benefits of adding raised intersections to the Municipal Design Guidelines; and”
  • “looking at the benefits of adding medians and islands to the Municipal Design Guidelines.”

The guidelines passed first reading at council on Tuesday. They will come back for second reading and a public hearing before becoming law.

Zane Woodford

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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