Last week Halifax’s active transportation team presented their vision for the future of cycling in Halifax to a packed room at the Central Library. There was not much new in the presentation, more a summation of the latest in bike planning soon to be released as part of the Integrated Mobility Plan, which goes to council this summer.

The big vision: By 2020 (three construction seasons from now), HRM will have a network of protected bike lanes and local street bikeways that looks something like this:

The idea, and the fact that it’s made it this far in the planning process, signals a big change for Halifax. Up till now, our cycling infrastructure has gone in based on where other road work was planned. That’s a great way to stretch a buck, but it offers up an absurdly piecemeal network of infrastructure, which doesn’t really get people from A to B, and therefore doesn’t much increase the number of people taking to two wheels.

But building a connected, mostly protected network in a short time frame (yes, 2020 is just around the corner, in city-building timescale,) represents a whole new way of thinking.

I asked Halifax Cycling Coalition (HCC) director Kelsey Lane if she thought the city’s current plan comes close to HCC’s On Track for 2020 plan, which HCC first released back in June 2014. “It’s pretty close and a good start,” said Lane. “There’s a few routes in the On Track for 2020 plan that I would have loved to have seen, like Quinpool Road,” which was mentioned by an audience member at last week’s meeting.

The big question is, can it be completed in three years?

Or more realistically, can it be completed in two years, since this construction season will not see any new protected bikeways built. Yes, that’s right. There’s no construction of protected bike lanes budgeted to happen this year.

David MacIsaac, HRM’s supervisor of active transportation, does, however, have a list of projects in the planning stages: South Park from Sackville to Inglis, continuation of the Rainnie lane around the corner and along Brunswick Street, and sections of Cogswell and Upper Water (part of the Cogswell redevelopment project). The planning process for a permanent University-Morris corridor is budgeted, and the Macdonald Bridge Bikeway Connector planning is underway, and will include recommendations and preliminary designs for some protected bikeways, likely on parts of North Street and Wyse Road.

If you include another upcoming project that reconsiders the downtown north-south connection (currently painted one way lanes on Hollis and Lower Water), that pretty much covers the protected lanes listed in the Integrated Mobility Plan’s proposed 2020 network.

So it’s all there, but the question of whether it can get done by 2020 looms large.

Protected bike lanes are a new concept in Halifax. They will take away space currently allotted to cars, either in the form of traffic lanes, lane widths or on street parking. And they will certainly cost more than your average painted line, though they are still incredibly cheap relative to other types of transport infrastructure.

Add in the fact that Halifax staff are attempting to design all permanent infrastructure from the get-go, and 2020 appears a more and more ambitious deadline.

I’m not sure why Halifax isn’t embracing Calgary’s method for protected bike lane growth. About two years ago Calgary built, all at once, a temporary 6.5 km protected network in its downtown. It was part of an 18-month pilot study, which resulted in a report that convinced Calgary city council to make it permanent this year.

One of the big reasons for doing a whole network at once is the potential for impact. Calgary could have added 20 kilometres of disconnected lanes throughout its urban area and the city likely would not have seen the increase in cycling it did from the modest 6.5 km connected network.

From the city of Calgary website.

The other big advantage of a temporary, pilot network is the ability to tweak. I’m a huge fan of tweak-able public infrastructure, especially when it comes to something new like protected bike lanes in Halifax. From the summary report on Calgary’s pilot protected network project:

Several different design treatments have now been tried, tested and in many cases, have been modified during the pilot based on public input and monitoring by the Transportation Department. Over 100 adjustments were made during the pilot to improve parking, traffic operations and reduce conflict between people walking, cycling and driving.

The other big factor in Calgary’s success is that the city was able to measure it at all, which is perhaps why Halifax’s data collection is top of mind for Kelsey Lane these days. While Lane is generally happy with HRM’s planned network, she’s anxious to see the city up its game in the data and measurement department.

HRM does have an annual program of screenline counts, the tracking of how many people ride across a north-south or east-west threshold during a certain time period. And then there’s the new promise of the trip survey now being conducted by DalTRAC (go fill out a trip diary here). Both should yield useful numbers, but Lane would also like to see HRM invest in more location specific bike counters, like the two currently in place on Agricola Street and University Avenue, to show daily rates of bike trips on specific corridors. And those need to be in place now, says Lane, to establish relevant baseline data. Basically, the city needs to take a “before” picture, so it will have something to compare with “after.”

Lane also wants the city to adjust its operations to match the new reality of street infrastructure coming by 2020. She mentions a three-part test described by Andreas Röhl, former head of urban mobility for Copenhagen, when he was in Halifax in March.

“He highlighted three tests to see whether a city is taking cycling seriously,” recalls Lane. “First is winter maintenance. Are the bike lanes cleared first? If you are prioritizing active transportation on those corridors, then you should be clearing sidewalks and bike lanes before anything else.”

Halifax gets an obvious failing grade on this one, since the city’s guidelines don’t mention bike lanes, and place residential sidewalks at lower priority than gravel roads or private lanes.

The next test was on handling diversions and obstructions. “If there’s construction, how is the construction obstructing active transportation routes? For example we see on Hollis that’s pretty much eliminated the bike lane for a month now,” says Lane. “So that’s a test we fail on continuously.”

Last but not least, there’s traffic signalling. In cities that prioritize bikes, lights are actually timed to suit the average speed of cyclists, instead of the average speed of cars.

“I always keep those tests in the back of my mind,” says Lane. “The HCC wants to put out preliminary survey to our members to say how would you evaluate Halifax on these three measures. I think we would find there would be a failing grade on a lot of them.”

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  1. Interesting that one of the current counters is on Agricola; several cyclists I know (myself included) cycle north-south regularly, but use other routes (Creighton, Gottingen, Brunswick).

    1. Counters can’t go everywhere due to cost, so they go where the traffic is highest. Using the screenline count mentioned in the story, which would capture cyclists like you on Creighton, Gottingen, etc., and the data from the bike counters, we can make a pretty reasonable estimate of the number of people biking on side streets each day.