The Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) has taken a surprise position on the expansion and improvement of the South Park Street bike lane: they’re against it. At least they are against the disruption to available on-street parking that it might cause.
In a letter to city council dated March 5, 2018 (the day before council gave the project the official green light) the Vice President of Integrated Services for the health authority, Paula Bond, carefully outlined concerns over the plan to “eliminate 50 parking spaces on South Park Street to create dedicated bike lanes.”
The position is surprising coming from a health authority. In general, organizations with health in their mandate are supportive of bike lanes, particularly the protected kind that appeal to all ages and abilities of riders, thereby tending to increase their numbers. (Here are a couple of doctors explaining in the Toronto Star the widely held position that, “cycling is very effective in promoting good physical and mental health, and it’s precisely infrastructure like protected lanes that makes widespread bike use possible.”)
But we don’t even need to go westward to be surprised. The NSHA position seems contrary to many a provincial strategy document as well. Both “Thrive! A plan for a healthier Nova Scotia (2012)” and “Choose How You Move: Sustainable Transportation Strategy (2013)” call for growing the number of us using active transportation to get around by building biking and walking into our infrastructure.
The “Choose How You Move” strategy is even so bold as to suggest the province can “lead by example”:
But really, we don’t even need to go outside the health authority to be surprised about the letter opposing the South Park bike lane. In 2012, Capital Health, the IWK, and Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s Universities created a bikeways plan for what they called the “urban Halifax institutional district.” It included, you guessed it, bike lanes along South Park Street.
“The Institutional District has characteristics that make it unique within HRM as a destination able to attract a significant increase in cycling with the proper support,” reads the plan.
Those unique qualities include the central location of the area, the power of institutions to enact transportation demand management strategies, and the high number of low-hanging fruit (with 40,000 single occupancy vehicle trips per day.)
To be fair, the NSHA letter does not directly disavow bike lanes or active transportation. The letter congratulates council on passing the Integrated Mobility Plan, saying the IMP is “aligned with our organizational vision.” (That makes sense, since an NSHA staffer was actually a member of the team that wrote the IMP.)
But then the litany of disadvantages begins, starting with, “the QEII Health Sciences Centre is a very busy place,” and going on to describe the very real problem of parking overcapacity at the VG site during peak clinic hours.
Of course, patients, staff, and doctors do need to get to the hospital. But will this protected bike lane plan make that easier or harder? How much will it exacerbate parking overcapacity? How many spots are we even talking about? The NSHA’s letter says 50. The city staff report, which has been publicly available for many weeks, says 55, so we’ll go with that.
Of that total, 25 spots will be lost north of Spring Garden Road, placing them over a half kilometre away from the VG site, and very close to the YMCA/Pavillion development, which will include 70 new public parking spots.
The street parking along South Park directly in front of the VG site (or directly in front of its surface parking lot, with 1,043 off-street spots) will remain. That’s because the vehicle lanes between Morris and South Streets are currently a whopping 6.1 metres wide, with plenty of room to accommodate parking-protected bike lanes. (The width of those lanes might explain why South Park’s speeds are so darn high. The city measured an average speed of 41 km/hr and an 85th percentile speed of 51 km/hr, meaning 15 per cent of people are driving faster than that.)
The remaining 30 on-street spots will be lost from South to Inglis Streets, where only one side of the street will retain parking.
So it’s fair to say that this bike lane will cost the NSHA about 30 on-street, time-limited parking spots south of South Street. Meanwhile, the Margaretta development on Clyde Street will add 104 underground, all-day, public parking spaces.
Bond also expresses concern over the added complication of the QEII redevelopment, wherein the VG and Centennial buildings will be demolished, and services moved to the Hants Community Hospital, Dartmouth General, Bayers Lake, and the Halifax Infirmary. It’s hard to see how 30 street parking spots south of South Street will help or hinder that process, but Bond and the NSHA seem to think they will.
There are a couple of key things to be concerned about here. One is the questionable method of cost-benefit analysis that is being used by the health authority. It is reminiscent of the one applied during the locating of NSHA’s new outpatient clinic in Bayers Lake. That is, a high premium is being placed on parking spots, and a low premium on safe, connected active transportation options.
The other is the apparent inability to see the bike lane project for the opportunity it could be, especially at the outset of this QEII redevelopment.
HRM is not aiming to increase the number of us using active transportation simply for our health or to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s aiming to increase active transportation because we’ve finally figured out we can’t afford to build enough roads to keep up with demand, and so we desperately need to diversify how we get around. If its letter to council is any indication, the NSHA has yet to see (or has forgotten) that it cannot possibly afford to build to accommodate demand for parking.
This bike lane, or more precisely the network it will be part of, has the potential to convert well over 30 NSHA staff to another trip mode for their commute. Instead of listing concerns over a few dozen parking spaces, the letter should have committed the NSHA to its part in reducing parking demand and shifting staff and healthy patients to active modes of transportation. And it should have demanded that the city take it one step further, by bringing the full protected network to fruition, so that the doctors, nurses, staff, and patients of the QEII have a viable alternative in cycling.