NACTO's Urban Bikeway Design Guide covers the bases from signals to cycle tracks.
NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide covers the bases from signals to cycle tracks.
NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide covers the bases from signals to cycle tracks.

North America has a deservedly lousy reputation for transportation design, but the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) seems on a mission to change that.

A coalition of dozens of large and small US cities, along with a handful of international members including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, NACTO has published several design guides (all available free online) and hosts training, peer support, and an annual conference dedicated to creating “safe, sustainable, multi-modal urban transportation.”

Halifax Cycling Coalition‘s Ben Wedge calls them “the gold standard for North American cities,” and the group has been lobbying Halifax to join NACTO for several years. And it looks like city staff are open to the possibility.

“It’s anticipated we would apply for membership by the next fiscal year, if not sooner,” says city spokesperson Tiffany Chase, citing “no downside” to joining, except for the $8,000 US membership fee.

NACTO design guidelines, unlike those of the Transportation Association of Canada, are decidedly urban, and treat streets as public spaces, not just corridors for vehicles. It’s no coincidence that NACTO is chaired by transportation superstar Janette Sadik-Khan, former Commissioner of New York’s transportation department during some transformative years on NYC streets.

Although member cities have no obligation to follow them, NACTO guidelines are prescriptive, defining things like a maximum car lane width of three metres. TAC guidelines are descriptive, outlining a range of specs and treatments for streets. NACTO goes a step further, saying if safety and sustainability are your values, then this is what your streets should look like.

“NACTO’s done the research and said, ‘stop building wide traffic lanes. Stop using people on bikes to protect parked cars,’” says Wedge. “NACTO does allow painted bike lanes, but they recommend them as a last resort option.”

But if/when Halifax does join NACTO, there’s a lot of stuff in guidelines that we can’t actually do. Not if we want to stay on the right side of our provincial Motor Vehicle Act (MVA), anyway.

Heck, there’s even stuff in the TAC toolbox which goes against the grain of our MVA.

Three years ago, shortly after the TAC released a new set of bikeway guidelines, city staff outlined potential MVA conflicts with the new tools in a memo to the Active Transportation Advisory Committee. This year they finally got around to sending a written request to the province asking them to make the necessary changes to the MVA, so that Halifax could at least keep up with the national standards at TAC.

Things that are included in TAC guidelines, but which city staff worry our MVA interferes with or prohibits:

  • Bicycle crossing lines (similar to pedestrian marked crosswalks)
  • Bicycle Boxes
  • Contra Flow Bicycle Lanes
  • Shared Use Lanes (cars and bikes going single file)
  • Buses stopping in bike lanes
  • Three-wheeled bikes

Things that are not yet in TAC guidelines, but which city staff worry our MVA interferes with or prohibits:

  • Parking Buffered Bicycle Lanes
  • Bicycle Signals

The HCC’s preferred solution to the Macdonald bridge bikeway approaches will likely involve treatments that are currently prohibited by the MVA, says Ben Wedge.

“It’s disappointing that the city’s been sitting on this staff report for three years and only sent the letter to the province two months ago,” says Wedge. But now that they have sent it, the ball’s in the provincial government’s court.

Considering that last year the government took the time to legalize Segways on sidewalks, you’d think they would be able to spare a few moments this fall to let us catch up to national bikeway standards. These changes are not the complete overhaul that HCC has also been advocating, which would involve province-wide consultations and probably take several years.

“We’re not asking them to be leaders or reinvent the wheel,” says Wedge. “But the really simple stuff like lights to allow bicycle turning movements that everyone else is doing… let’s just get that done so the city can build a nice project and stop using the MVA as an excuse.”

But what if the province doesn’t respond? Will we deny ourselves nationally standardized, practical solutions on our streets just because the provincial government has bigger fish to fry? I don’t see why we should.

Of course, it’s not like we haven’t skirted provincial law before. We illegally dumped raw sewage into our harbour for decades without apparent concern for the provincial laws we were violating.

But our city culture is conservative. Staff are extremely cautious when it comes to anything involving provincial legislation (which, considering the city is “a creature of the province,” is almost everything.)

If you need some evidence of staff being cautious to a fault, just take a peek over at our new low-income bus pass pilot program. Staff saw fit to delay a simple six-month trial project for two years until the city passed a simple Transit Fare By-law. Although we have been charging transit fares for decades, even negotiating different fares with different groups, when it came to this six-month-long pilot, the legal staffers at the city declared we needed a new bylaw before proceeding.

What if we could stop waiting for the province to get with the times?

“Vancouver is a great example of a place that just started putting stuff in, saying the legislation is dragging behind, so we’re going to do what’s right,” says Ben Wedge. “We would like to see Halifax do that. Halifax has never opted to take a leadership position on stuff like this.”

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  1. The whole municipal-provincial relationship needs an overhaul. We need to get away from the setup of municipalities are simply “creatures of the province.” HRM is almost half the provincial population and is bigger than PEI and yet it has basically the same authority that Lockport has (in some areas less authority). The Province has more than enough to be getting on with in health, education, social services etc. They should stop butting into local matters and stop making it difficult for municipalities to govern themselves. Other places in the country are slowly getting away from this by giving their municipalities a more general grant of power. The idea is you give the municipalities subject areas that they can make “local” decisions in and let them figure out what works best. They’ll make some mistakes (all governments do), but they’ll also come up with solutions that would otherwise not be permitted. Barring that, the province and HRM need some kind or regular process for amending the Halifax Charter. The multi-year process (unless it’s a private members bill about the landfill apparently) is way too long. Anyway, I wrote a detailed piece on the matter back in 2013

    1. Sam, now would be (yet another) good time to have the conversations about home rule and power granted to Municipalities. This is because the Municipal Government Act is undergoing a substantial review and potential amendments.

      Perhaps Halifax needs to repatriate it’s Constitution, er Charter. Bring out the long knives!

  2. All traffic planning and regulation in this municipality and Province is based on the unfortunate premise that priority must be given to motor vehicles and everything else is an accommodation that must not interfere with the flow of traffic no matter what. I think what is required is a fundamental restructuring of that baked-in mindset and traffic planning should give top priority to active transportation followed by motor vehicles.

    1. Reverse the traffic pyramid! 🙂 Incidentally, the pyramid also reflects cost: lowest at the top down to most expensive at the bottom (cars and planes)