Riders pass the Moulin de Bangor Sawmill on the 2016 Gran Fondo.

Last fall over 800 people showed up on Nova Scotia’s French Shore to ride the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie, a mass-start 35- to 120-kilometre-long bike tour along coastal and country roads between Yarmouth and Weymouth. This September, even more are expected to register for the event, now in its third year.

On the south shore, the Rum Runners Trail connects Halifax and Lunenburg via seven different community trail developments. In 2016, the group commissioned an economic impact study to provide a baseline for their future growth. The study estimates just over 98,000 people used the trail system over the summer and fall, not including the Chain of Lakes trail closest to Halifax. About two thirds of those were on bikes.

It’s fair to say that taking to two wheels for fun is becoming a thing in Nova Scotia, and Ben Buckwold of Bicycle Nova Scotia is working to help grow that trend.

For the past three years, Buckwold has been working on the Blue Route, a proposed 3,000-kilometre long bike friendly route network throughout the province, from Yarmouth to Cape Breton. It’s an ambitious sounding project, he admits. “You talk about doing a 3,000 km bike network and you can almost convince yourself that you’re crazy just because it seems so different here,” says Buckwold. “But it’s not that far-fetched. We’re kind of joining the crowd on this one.”

Quebec’s Route Verte is about 5,000 kilometres of bike route all over southern Quebec, from the Laurentians to the Gaspé peninsula. The UK has a national cycling network of 22,500 kilometres. And I’m not even going to bother looking up the numbers on the mainland European examples, where regional cycling networks span countries.

Before you start to get really excited about the possibilities for the Blue Route, you need to understand that this is not about 3,000 kilometres of trails. Buckwold says that about 15 per cent of the proposed network will be separated trails, and the rest will either be on low-traffic rural roads, or on rural roads with paved shoulders.

So far, the 110 kilometres of designated Blue Route (from Masstown to Wallace, and from Pictou to just outside Truro) are almost completely on-road routes. This summer, the Rum Runners Trail will join as the first trail segment, and thereby doubling the length of approved, designated Blue Route.

“The on-road stuff might not be for everybody, even with paved shoulders,” admits Buckwold. But “the level of safety and comfort available for using those regional connections is going to be a lot higher than it is currently.”

And the safety and comfort level will not just increase for people on bikes. When it comes to shoulder paving, says Buckwold, “there’s improvements to the structure of the road that makes it more durable. And then of course, for a lot of rural communities these secondary roads are access roads with driveways along them. A lot of people can have trouble just going for a walk from their house. So it will benefit those people as well.”

Unfortunately, the pace of shoulder paving is slow. Similar to Halifax’s strategy of adding bike lanes along with other necessary street repairs or construction, the province’s paving of shoulders is tied to other road work priorities, and not what makes strategic sense for the Blue Route. Buckwold is hoping that will change.

Bicycle Nova Scotia is calling for a provincial bicycling strategy, which would include a provincial government commitment of $11 million per year until 2025 to go towards bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. “This level of spending combined with Federal and Municipal support could complete a province-wide cycling network connected to high quality bicycle facilities in cities and towns across Nova Scotia by 2025,” says the BNS proposal.

That amount would represent about five per cent of the current capital budget for highway construction, and that’s before counting the Liberals’ recent promise to spend an additional $390 million on highway twinning over the next seven years.

Provincial funding of $11 million may seem like pie in the sky for active transportation in Nova Scotia, but the Blue Route has something going for it that your average AT project does not, at least on the surface: the promise of economic development. If the government can be convinced that a Blue Route (and more events like the Gran Fondo Baie Sainte-Marie) can get more bodies on the Yarmouth ferry, they might just be convinced to invest. If the Blue Route can hit a critical mass of accessible, connected routes, then it has the potential to draw in tourism spending along those routes. It’s not a new call centre, but it has the same potential effect in terms of jobs, albeit spread throughout the province’s more rural communities.

The writers of the Rum Runners Trail economic impact study determined that trail users spent about $4.2 million over the summer and fall of 2016. They also pointed out that although few of the current users of the relatively new 110-kilometre trail were overnighting along the way, that picture is completely different over in PEI, where 47 per cent of folks on the Confederation Trail are on multi-day trips, spending their vacation dollars on hotels, restaurants, and presumably the odd bike repair.

Until a provincial strategy is in place, with some investment to back it up, the Blue Route will continue to grow slowly, with piecemeal shoulder paving projects. On the trails side, however, there are lots of low hanging fruit right now in Nova Scotia, because community trail groups have been working like dogs for the past 25 years to meet the province’s Trans Canada Trail obligations.

This July, Buckwold is gearing up to designate the 110 km Rum Runners Trail, and then continue to work on connecting it to the Halifax peninsula. Bicycle Nova Scotia actually commissioned a study to find the best way to connect the Halifax end of the Rum Runners (also known as the Chain of Lakes Trail) to the peninsula. The city’s AT department is currently considering it, as it is also considering making the remaining connections in Dartmouth to link the city with the amazing Salt Marsh/Atlantic View Trail system which extends out beyond Lawrencetown Beach. And up in Cape Breton, the Celtic Shores Trail between Port Hastings and Inverness is on tap for Blue Route designation, possibly also this year.

So there’s something that seems like momentum building in the building of the Blue Route, though it has taken three years to get here. Buckwold remains positive about the potential for progress, though to be fair, optimism is practically a requirement in his line of work. “Although we’d like to up our investment potential in this project and move things forward more quickly,” says Buckwold, “there’s a lot of positive stuff happening, and a fair amount that could be put down and designated in the very near future.”

Here’s hoping.

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  1. Any and all trails that are shared by pedestrians and bicycles should be built and/or upgraded to be at least 10-12 feet wide to afford good safety clearances for users of the trail. Safety should always be a prime consideration when designating trails for bicycle/pedestrian shared usage.

  2. If you want to entice new users to the trails, it would help to have a map and location markers along the routes to direct cyclists. I don’t advocate posting ads along the route, but a simple numbering system combined with a map (exit xxx for Queensland Beach; exit yyy for Hubbards Village, etc.) would make it easier for cycle-tourists to explore the communities adjacent to the trail.

    1. The maps do exist already. You can find them for different regions of NS here: http://www.novascotia.com/see-do/outdoor-activities/cycling . Also, some communities with trails do actually make little exit road signs along the trails indicating where you are, and some businesses do put up ads along the trails to try to soak up those cyclotourist dollars! (The Rail to Trail between Berwick and Greenwood are good examples of this).

      It’s a great idea. I hope it’s adopted more throughout the NS trail system.

  3. The lack of support from the provincial government for active trail networks is appalling. Having lived in several parts of Quebec for years, I can attest that the trail system is wonderful. It connects many communities and I believe the Velo-route system cost less than 150 million. Pennies for infrastructure that will last far longer than any road we can build for cars. With a poor rural population, giving people access to an essentially free mode of transportation is a great help. The transcanada trail can fall victim to new property owners at any time as the legal agreements for access are not strong at all. The Province could have come up with the land to help finish the TC trail in Cape Breton but they are only willing to take credit for things volunteers do. Now, instead of having a worthy project completed, we have to carry inflatable boats to make it to Sydney.

  4. Rural NS has something special to offer with it’s scenery, small towns, and low traffic. Lets hope it gets the investment it needs to attract cycle tourism, and not turn into the patchy boondoggle that is The Great Trail (Trans Canada Trail). Bicycle touring gives the rider a perspective that is much more intimate with their surroundings. It’s an incredible way to experience the area.