“When you look at any city from the air, the biggest public space is the streets. And the streets belong to everybody.”
That’s Gil Penalosa, formers parks commissioner of Bogota, Columbia, where he helped pioneer Ciclovia, a weekly event that sees 121 kilometres of city streets closed every Sunday morning to vehicle traffic, and opened up to people walking, riding, or rolling.
I spoke to Penalosa back in 2012, the first year Halifax hosted its very own Ciclovia-inspired event, Switch: Open Street Sundays.
The idea behind Open Street Sundays is beautifully simple and efficient. Once a week, at set times (usually Sunday mornings or afternoons) close off some of your city streets to cars, and open them up to people, creating a sort of linear pop-up park in your city.
Choose the right route, through dense residential areas and connecting to high activity areas, and put out the call for community groups and organizations to help animate the route, and you will have created physical activity and recreation opportunities for thousands of people. More than that, really.
”This is almost like an exercise in social integration,” Penalosa told me. “It’s great for developing a sense of belonging, for improving physical activity and public health, and also from the point of view of mobility. All of a sudden people realize how close things are within their cities.”
Back when it started five years ago, Switch founder and then-director of the Planning and Design Centre Ross Soward told me he hoped Switch could become a civic event for Halifax. That aspiration, for city-sponsored weekly Open Street Sundays, is now languishing underneath a bureaucracy whose over-the-top concerns for public safety seem completely detached from reality, and also firmly obstruct the path to better public health.
First of all, there’s the provincial government, which says it “has no plans” to rationalize our traffic laws and allow for folks other than police officers to perform traffic control duties at special events. The required use of police officers, usually at overtime rates, grossly inflates the cost of street closure events like Switch. The events, in turn, are much shorter versions of a Ciclovia, more akin to street parties than corridor parks.
The province refuses to amend these rules despite the fact that construction companies long ago received an MVA amendment to make it possible for them to use trained flagpeople to work the stop signs and barricades around construction sites. And despite the fact that there are orange-vest donning crossing guards with a hand-held stop sign at every corner surrounding my kid’s school every weekday morning.
Brian Taylor, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, says that special events “present unique challenges” that require someone with the authority of a peace officer, i.e. someone able to make arrests or hand out tickets, present.
Having walked and peddled around my share of Switch events, I gotta say, NSTIR officials are just wrong about this.
Tim Rissesco, director of the Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission, and enthusiastic supporter of Switch, puts it much more delicately:
“I would think there will always be a role for police, but a lot of these side streets that we close could probably be done with trained volunteers or flaggers from construction companies. My thought would be to go to some sort of hybrid approach,” says Rissesco. “Ideally I’d like to see the business district empowered to pull across the barricades and have a street party once a week,” says Rissesco, at least for the bottom blocks of Portland Street, similar to a street party event on June 30th.
But for a Switch event to happen more often in Dartmouth, the civic fees price tag of $12,000 needs to get lower, and changing the rules for traffic control is part of that.
“It would be nice if the province listened to residents on this issue,” says HRM councillor Waye Mason. “If they did this simple thing then it would result in community event organizers saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.”
So is this a case of the evil province preventing the city from doing wonderful deeds? Not exactly. The city has its role to play in making Switch prohibitively expensive and bureaucratically challenging.
We should give HRM credit: after setting up near impossible requirements in the first year of Switch (requiring signatures for all residents adjacent to the route) the city has relaxed somewhat, even providing some multi-year funding to help pay for Switch events.
And last year, at the direction of council, the city formally requested the province make the necessary amendments to the MVA to help reduce the prohibitive costs. So, good for them. (It only took them four years!)
Except… The city, while supporting Switch on the one hand, is also setting up needless obstacles and costs on the other.
In Dartmouth, the city’s Special Events Task Force decided not to approve the previously well-used route from Portland to Prince Albert up to Lake Banook. Citing traffic issues at Hawthorne Street, the city would only approve a shortened route, cutting off Lake Banook, but still at a cost of $12,000 in fees for police and for city staff to put bags on parking metres, a job Rissesco says he would like to get done by the small army of volunteers available for the popular Dartmouth event.
In Halifax, after taking a year off in 2016 due to high costs and issues with the construction of the roundabouts at the Common, Switch’s ideal route for 2017 includes Agricola Street, the Common, Rainnie and Brunswick Street and Spring Garden Road up to South Park Street. It would be an ambitious comeback: a 3.5 kilometre route from the north end into downtown. But it will almost certainly not happen.
First of all, North Park Street is out of the proposal because the city will not consider closing off one of the exits of the Common roundabouts. In my books, roundabouts actually lend themselves well to the odd street closure, since drivers are never dead-ended, but can just continue on to the next exit. But, well, roundabouts are new in Halifax, so maybe we’ll give traffic services a pass on this one. The Switch organizers certainly did, choosing simply to use the Halifax Common for this stretch of the route.
The real obstacle comes into effect on Brunswick Street. The proposal is to close off vehicle traffic in one direction only, but in order to do so, the city has required that Switch erect a six-foot high fence along the length of the corridor. Yes, that’s correct. Easily moveable (and enormously cheaper) barricades or pilons will not do, as they do for highway construction on the 100-series highways. But in this case, a fence, of the type that surrounds long term construction sites, is required in order to “ensure the safety of residents,” according to city spokesperson Lucas Wide. And six feet, it turns out, is the height of absurdity.
When I enquired about the requirement for the fence, Wide informed me that the height was actually bumped up from four feet to six feet, due to the fact that “the last time a street was split and allowed shared use for pedestrians and vehicle traffic the four-foot fencing was not deemed adequate.” Wide didn’t respond when I asked for further details on what experience or incident led to this conclusion.
At the risk of exhausting the word and rendering it meaningless in Halifax context: This is absurd. It’s absurd to require a six-foot fence be erected in order to close one direction of traffic on two blocks of Brunswick Street for a Sunday morning.
Our entire city mixes pedestrians, bikes, cars, buses and trucks on a daily basis with only the use of four-inch-high curbs or painted lines.
But in this case, for a mere half-day, the city would have an organization like Switch shell out $20,000 (the early ballpark estimates attained by Switch) to erect a fence. And that is in addition to the $20,000 the city itself estimates it would charge for traffic control, bagging metres, and putting up signs.
And that is why our Switch will not be the Switch it should and could be.
When I spoke to Gil Penalosa back in 2012, he repeatedly mentioned that in order to make Open Streets events truly successful, they need to connect people from where they live to where they want to be, and they need to happen regularly and predictably.
Here’s the wishlist I came up with back in June 2015, when writing in Metro Halifax:
Switch: Open Street Sundays should be a weekly event that creates dozens of kilometres of car-free routes throughout Halifax every Sunday afternoon.
Switch season should start on Victoria Day and stretch to Labour Day. It should connect residential areas with popular summer destinations like Point Pleasant Park or the waterfront.
It should be predictable and reliable. Drivers should expect it, and people using other modes should rely on it.
Switch should signify summer to Haligonians, and it should shape the way we get around for the season.
If only our municipal and provincial bureaucrats would have a little faith in their citizens, they would let this happen.