After the announcement about $25 million in funding towards a minimum bike grid for central Halifax and Dartmouth, there was a lot of talk about who would benefit from such an investment. One of the main numbers that got thrown around was 1%, a perfectly good statistic supplied by Statistics Canada, as far as it goes. It refers to the 1% of working people over age 15 in HRM that reported their main mode of commuting to work was by bike during the 2016 census.

Which 1% is that, exactly?

If you follow Councillor Matt Whitman (assuming he allows you to follow him), you will see that “the 1%” gets mentioned a lot in his social media feeds, apparently alluding to the term as coined during the Occupy Wall Street movement, which during the protests referred to the richest 1% of Americans, who own about 40% of the country’s wealth. I guess Whitman’s idea is to paint people riding bikes as wealthy elites.

It’s a clever joke, but the reality is likely very different. A study out of Simon Fraser University surveying people in three mid-sized Canadian cities including Halifax, found that the lower the household income, the higher the rate of bike-riding as primary mode of transportation.

It appears unlikely that 1% of people who bike to work in HRM are the same 1% controlling an outlandish share of our wealth.

Though, to be fair, sometimes cycling advocates themselves can help feed this perception.

Who are those “best people”, and what makes them better than all the others?

— robert devet (@DevetRobert) July 18, 2019

Here’s journalist Andrew Keatts quoting cycling advocate/anthropologist Adonia Lugo back in 2015:

“A number of people are wondering how we can do more comprehensive bike advocacy that includes people who can’t afford to get involved,” said Adonia Lugo, an anthropologist who left her job at the League of American Cyclists earlier this year because of a disconnect she perceived between bike advocates and those who ride bicycles regularly. “They’re on bikes, so they should be involved.”

“The big issue with why this matters is, there’s this cultural gap between bike advocates and others who bike,” she continued. “The strategy became, to market bicycling as an urban lifestyle. You don’t do it because it’s cheap and you need to get somewhere. It’s presented as an opportunity to be part of urban chic fashion.”

Is 1% the right number?

There are problems with using the work-commute 1% as the actual snapshot of people biking in Halifax. First and most obviously, it outright excludes kids, students, and unemployed people, and since all these groups share the need to move around on a daily basis, that’s a pretty significant gap.

The census question on commuting also poses an issue for multimodal commuters. Personally, over the course of a year I use an almost an even split between transit, biking, and walking to get to work, with a sprinkling of driving thrown in. But despite that mix, I have to just pick one main mode on the census questionnaire.

Luckily, where the census drops the ball on actual mode share, the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC) is picking it up.

In 2018, DalTRAC spearheaded a Halifax Regional Municipality Travel Activity Study, a randomized survey of over 2,300 HRM residents looking at all the trips they make in a sample day.

DalTRAC found a mode share of 1.6% for bike trips (60% higher than the rate of bike-to-work commuters), and a mode share of 14.4% for walking trips (75% higher than the rate of walk-to-work commuters.)

When you look at the breakdown by type of trip, the DalTRAC numbers for “home-based work” trips are much more in line with the census numbers, which show Halifax with 77.7% of people commuting by car, 11.8% commuting by transit, 8.2% commuting by walking, and 1% commuting by bike. It’s the other types of trips that seem to upset the work-commute pattern, particularly home to school trips, which have a whopping 31% active mode share.

An interesting note: the average transit mode share for all trip types was only 6%, even though 8.5% of respondents owned a monthly transit pass, showing that Halifax’s transit system really is geared towards work commuters as opposed to all-purpose riders.

While there are still gaps in DalTRAC’s survey coverage (information on trips for 1.8 persons per household was provided, when average household size was actually 2.7), by including all trip types, and not excluding students and unemployed people, DalTRAC gets a much more complete picture of how people are getting around in HRM.

Regional centre versus region

Of course, looking at the numbers for all of HRM might present its own problem, especially when discussing infrastructure designed for moving around the regional centre, such as the currently proposed minimum bike network. HRM is roughly the size of PEI, so how people move around from one area to the next is bound to be different.

Unfortunately, more drilled-down data from DalTRAC has not been released, so it’s back to the 2016 census for a look at mode shares for work commutes. Let’s use one of the best tools on the internet, Censusmapper, to visualize all this.

Drilling down to the regional centre, you can see significantly higher bike-to-work populations, with the highest being the census tract bordered by Quinpool, Robie, Jubilee and Connaught, at 9% mode share. As for the average across the regional centre, I’ll go with 3%, which is the number reported in this active transportation report from the Nova Scotia Health Authority, based on census statistics (so excluding kids, students, unemployed people, and multi-modal travellers.)

Who’s this network for, anyway?

So, say we’ve decided on 3% biking mode share for Halifax. If we spend $25 million building a minimum bike network in central Halifax and Dartmouth, are we spending that money on just 3% of the centre population? If things go as planned, not for long.

The goal of growing Active Transportation (AT — biking, walking, etc.) infrastructure is generally to change our mode share distribution, so a minimum protected bike grid is actually aimed more at luring people away from car trips than it is about rewarding those who’ve already chosen a different mode.

Halifax’s Regional Plan sets a goal to change our mode share distribution to grow the sustainable modes — walking, cycling, and taking transit — to 30% of trips by 2031. It sits now at about 22%, according to DalTRAC’s 2018 survey.

The goal is modest. If we updated it to reflect the projected costs of continuing to grow a city dominated by car trips— both in terms of climate change (remember that emergency?) and the sheer cost of building roads to accommodate all that vehicle traffic — we would be aiming closer to 40% by 2031.

But no matter how modest or ambitious the goal, we need to work towards it. Which is why this proposed minimum AT network (it includes multi-use trails as well as protected bike lanes) is aimed squarely at the people who are not already riding their bikes.

It turns out the relevant number is not 1% or 3%, but rather something more like 58%, which is the proportion of Haligonians that researchers found were “interested but concerned” in using bikes to get around Halifax. The same study, Impacts of Bicycle Infrastructure in Mid-sized Canadian Cities, found that 80% of people who had not ridden a bike in the past year would be “more likely to cycle in the future if more cycling infrastructure (e.g. separated bike lanes) is built.”

And some of the major factors in people’s decisions whether or not try riding? Separated and connected bike routes both weighted heavily.

Back in 1998, before the bridge bike lane opened on the MacDonald bridge, exactly zero people biked across the bridge. In 2014, digital counters counted over 100,000 people riding across the bridge, an average of almost 300 a day. This despite the fact that the bridge bike lane is poorly connected on both sides of the harbour.

It’s hard to predict what sort of mode share changes a minimum, protected bike network could bring to Halifax. It could take some time before those “interested but concerned” folks actually make a change in how they get around, and inevitably, the network that gets built won’t suit everyone. But we do know the streets we have now work for only a small fraction of people on bikes. And if the goal is to change that, then we know we have to change those streets.

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  1. I grew up biking around Halifax in the 80s to school and stuff. I don’t feel my kids are safe walking, let alone biking to school today. I just watched a couple of pedestrians nearly get hit at a crosswalk on Hollis by an older couple in a large pickup. The city needs to make the streets far safer (narrower, bumps, chicanes etc.) before I’d change my mind. I still think the rail cut would be the best route on/off the peninsula. Anything else involves too many intersections.

  2. I see the bicycle, and every bicycle ride, as an end in itself. I think the focus on commuters is missing the point of bicycles… and life…

    It’s passenger is its engine; it is the vehicle of novelists, poets and dreamers; it has the swiftness of motion that is perhaps the most fascinating feature of material life; as other forms of transportation grow more nightmarish it remains pure of heart, but it has a thin edge of danger that keeps you alert and alive – it turns dogs into dogs and makes potholes personal; it is not that expensive but it is the possession most likely to be stolen;

    It is completely incompatible with melancholy; it’s a conveyance of precision and balance that puts us in competition with any animal that has ever lived and in spirit puts us in mind of flight; we use it to avoid exertion but the more we use it the more useful it becomes and the more healthy we become; after we use it the memory of the motion lingers in our muscles and often in to our dreams – as is often observed that feeling is never forgotten as long as we live; it does no harm and is of little offence to anyone; it carries kings and kingpins, socialists and sexpots equally well, it provides the very best way to learn the contours of a country and the limits of love;

    It’s a flight from sadness; it has a humane almost classical moderation yet it has been to war, emancipated women and ushered in sensible dress; it asks for and in return gives the gift of balance – one of the great accomplishments of early life; it must surely be a part of the future; it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever – ride-able art and while you’re on it the world is breaking someone else’s heart; it is freedom in machine form; it is a bicycle.

  3. So, we don’t really know the number of bikes currently on our streets OR the effect of those numbers when new bike lanes (of various types) are opened. We don’t know the monthly distribution on biking and whether all bike lanes are needed all the time.

    Why not then employ some very inexpensive student counters to summarise these and do a brief survey if possible on the before and after totals following installation of a new improved bike lane AND keep up the survey for several years.

    Set up video and rubber strip counters. We might then get some proper data to evaluate and shape policy.

    Not expensive and a nice way to spend time for the in situ bike counters.

    That way we might get some relevant data and counts and find out where, when and if protected new lanes are needed. Data driven decisions anyone?

  4. Great article and very good comments from Peter Ewert, trc and DamnYankee. As a cyclist myself, I’m very pleased to hear about the added funding to cycling / walking infrastructure in HRM. I know some friends of mine would cycle if they felt safer.

  5. I concur wholeheartedly with Peter Ewert and Tim’s comments. My primary means of transport are walking and cycling with a once a month mass transit or CarShare trip and my income is at the poverty level and bus passes make no sense for me. I cannot afford the $8,600 to $13,000 a year to own a car. So, cycling is my primary form of transportation to do grocery shopping, to get to the doctor, to get to my part-time job and anyplace that takes more than 40 minutes to walk to. I hope that the cycling infrastructure includes many more residential bikeways (where the streets are open to local car traffic only and to cyclists and pedestrians) and that the residential street bikeways connect to wide well protected bike/slow mobility lanes. Given that the percentage of HRM residents over the age of 50 is growing, cycling infrastructure should be able to accommodate those folks who are slower, are carrying cargo or who are uncomfortable in fast-moving traffic. Our cycling infrastructure should really be mobility lanes able to accommodate slower moving traffic, like electric cargo trikes, e scooters, bicycles and tricycles. Finally, Ms. Butler is correct in her assessment that if Council believes there is a climate emergency, we should be designing cycling infrastructure to have all HRM residents take at least half of their trips by active transit or mass transit in the very near future.

    1. HRM’s bike study leading to the Brunswick St bike route is a good example of a successfully traffic calmed bikeway. Once bridge traffic was not permitted to exit and enter onto the bridge via Brunswick St, it became a walkable and bikeable street. The Brunswick St neighbourhood starting at the bridge head is full of kids and seniors safe from traffic threats .The air is even less dirty..

  6. One of the problems with the bus routes is they favour commuters who work downtown, Monday to Friday, 8 to 4. We are already seeing signs of the same favouritism in the bicycle network – Gottingen street has a bicycle lane only for people leaving downtown weekday afternoons (notwithstanding the foolishness of a shared lane for bicycles and buses). We also have bicycle lanes that are too narrow for cargo bikes, and barriers that are difficult to navigate with bike trailers. Hopefully the bike network will recognize that people travel to different places at different times for different reasons, and aim to serve everyone – not just the folks biking to their downtown office jobs.

    1. One of my big concerns for pedestrians and cyclists in the peninsular Halifax city is the dirty air they breath from emanating daily from commuter auto exhaust to diesel fumes from tour busses..all that particulate…on a hot heat domed day.I have to power wash the house from the dirt left by shortcutters. The largest group of peninsular landowners are homeowners.Halifax peninsula residents have far more issues with respiratory diseases than rural HRM. You don’t need to smoke to have discolored lungs here. Yet the talk is of tired old high density health and crime risking HRM costly visions and misguided visions of active transportations role in this.. We need a new form of municipal government in the city giving homeowners and all residents a stronger voice.

  7. I started biking again in the city 3 years ago after abstaining for close to 20 years. I felt the negligible changes made by the city allow me to cycle more comfortably.

    I cycle to work, I cycle to visit friends, I cycle to get groceries. I am certainly not in the elite 1% economically but it sure helps me save cash. I am healthier, happier and wealthier because I do it. I also like to think I am modestly contributing to a healthier planet.

    I’m sorry Councillor Whitman if you find that objectionable. (By the way Councillor, you did see that Uber lost $5 billions right?)

    1. Uber didn’t register a cash loss of $5 billion; an explanation is here ” The numbers for both companies look a lot better when adjusted for things like amortization of intangible assets and stock-based compensation for employees post-IPO. Excluding those expenses, Uber lost $1.3 billion and Lyft lost $197 million.”

      I assume you have a basic understanding of financial statements/reports
      $3.9 billion of the loss is attributable to IPO stock compensation.

      1. What’s a few billion between tech buddies.

        From the Verge:

        “Look out the window. If you live in a big city, you can probably see a lot of cars driving for Uber and Lyft out there. The vast majority are 2,000- to 3,000-pound vehicles carrying one to two passengers at most. Now imagine these companies growing by a factor of 10 or 20 even, as they predict they can. What does traffic look like then? What happens to our air? Our streets? This isn’t some NUMTOT-inspired aside; there is a real price associated with this “growth at all costs” mantra from Uber and Lyft.”

  8. Your arguments support the HRM and its’ bike lobby groups but it omits much. The bike lobby groups deliberately confuse commuter and recreational bike use.

    Residents on family streets in the city want no shortcutting commuters
    ….auto drivers invading peninsular city neighbourhoods full of kids and seniors.

    Cycling lobby groups have always gone for marketing cycling lanes without ever understanding how to make them safe.

    Painting cycle lanes on busy streets has no safety value.

    Prospective bikeways should be traffic calmed first and needn’t be
    striped if kept to residential streets parallel to major streets. HRM
    knows this but goes for the absurd anyway.

    The value of bikeways in the city as a transportation demand measure is to stop commuter shortcutting. This means a bikeway has high safety value for cyclists and residentsonly if it is traffic calmed first.