To bike lane or not to bike lane, is that really the question? How we will get around in the future in HRM.

I get a lot of thoughtful letters from folks concerned about traffic and how the city.  Some folks don’t see the point of bike lanes or bus lanes when traffic is “already bad”.   Some people are justifiably worried about the impact of a project, like the recent Brunswick Street complete streets project, and often it is because they don’t have any context for the systematic changes in HRM.

It is true that traffic has gotten worse, and realistically it will continue to get worse.  No growing city has made traffic “go away”.  Growing cities that are successful find alternatives to driving single-occupant vehicles.

Additionally, much of what is “slowing” traffic are safety measures that years of experience around North America show will make pedestrians and bikers safer.  The “cost” of less injury and death for those folks is truly marginal increases in drive times.

HRM has been on a path since 2004 to reign in and stop car-dependent sprawl.  HRM started to put this into law in 2006 with the Regional Plan, and strengthened it in 2014 with the regional plan update.

The core of the plan is what planners call the Generalised Future Land Use Map.  

This plan controlled sprawl by designating the green areas as non-development zones, the taupe and grey areas as rural communities, and the yellow as rural commuter.  The orange is the serviced water and sewer area and pink is future growth areas.  Our goal is to have at least 75% of our development happen in the serviced area.

This does not mean stopping growth in rural – 15-25% growth in rural would double the rural population very quickly, with tremendous strain on schools, parks, rec, roads.  Rural will continue to grow but at a sustainable pace.  All of this is once again under periodic review.

In the Regional Plan, there are designated areas for growth and densification.  The Centre Plan enables the population of the peninsula to more than double.  The more people living here, and not out in the suburbs, the fewer cars on the road coming into the core.  The next step is to do a suburban plan.

To support the Regional Plan, HRM has functional or implementation plans and the one that talks about mobility is the Integrated Mobility Plan (IMP).

The IMP is a plan to manage traffic and to create and support new modes of mobility.  It is not in and of itself an Active Transportation plan.  Some of its actions support the 2014 Active Transportation plan that calls for a region-wide bike network.  It also calls for a Rapid Transit Plan that calls for bus rapid transit and a new ferry service (see map below)

How does all this relate to Brunswick Street?  This multimodal streetscaping plan does a couple of things:

  • it makes the sidewalks wider which is important, especially around Scotiabank Centre. Anyone who has come out of the arena after a game knows it is too crowded.
  • It plants trees and meets our urban forest goals.
  • It makes needed safety changes at two dangerous intersections (Duke and Sackville) and finally,
  • it puts in a protected bike lane.

This project has the support of the Downtown Business Commission and Parks Canada.

This is a part of the IMP goal to complete an All Ages and Abilities (AAA) bike network in the regional Centre.  The dotted lines are not yet complete, the solid lines are.  This is one of over 100 actions in the IMP, that include top priorities like building new sidewalks and bike lanes on the 500 block of Herring Cove Road (which is done) and Dutch Village Road (which is planned for this coming year and next, pending budget).

In the case of the AAA network, HRM has secured Federal and Provincial funding to cost share this to $25 million dollars, meaning HRM only pays 17 cents for every dollar spent on this project.  That Federal and Provincial money cannot be spent on other projects and would be lost to us if HRM decided for some reason not to proceed.  This project is sadly 2-3 years delayed, due somewhat to lack of internal capacity, but mostly due to COVID impacts on labour and supply.

The reason why I feel investing in biking and walking is important is we know it works.  StatsCan shows that in some census districts of the peninsula, 70% of residents bike or walk to work or school.  We are in the middle of a very deliberate plan to grow the areas where that kind of option is attainable.  Better bike links into Burnside like the Dartmouth North connector, sidewalks in Burnside, better connections off the peninsula and Dartmouth inside the circ all mean it is getting easier and easier for folks in Fairview, Spryfield, Woodlawn and many other places to get to work in downtown, the shipyard, the dockyard, and Burnside.

There is a lot of evidence that bike lanes help retail businesses, rather than hurt them, here is an article from Strong Towns, a great summary of impacts from Cambridge MA, and a report from Medium.

Hilly cities like Montreal are successful with bike lanes.  Snowy cities like Montreal and Edmonton & Calgary are successful with winter biking.

Studies show that a small shift of 1-2-3% of people to a bike and out of a car can actually unclog the roads for cars.  It’s a fluid dynamics piece, where small changes in input make big changes in flow through.  Even winter cities like Edmonton and Montreal are seeing significant growth in winter biking.  The cost of this infrastructure is relatively modest, I think the impact is significant.

The rapid transit plan was completed in 2019.  It’s being funded a piece at a time by the Feds and Province.  In 2022 Council voted to submit a revised fast ferry plan for funding to the Province.

Unlike much cheaper bike infrastructure, the cost of a fast ferry could be $120-290 million.  Rapid transit investments are expensive but the payoffs are immense.

Rail is off the table because the cost was astronomical and CN would not be willing to prioritize our passenger trains.  After studying it extensively it has been determined bus rapid transit and fast ferry are our best options.

We all would love to have LRT (trolleys) or subway or similar someday, but no city our size in North America has done that successfully.  Costs are 30-150 million a km for LRT.   But like Ottawa, we can secure the right of way for bus rapid transit now, and then as we grow to 800,000 people, with density on our corridors and centres that justifies it, we can look to put LRT in those bus lanes.

But really, there is no growing city where traffic “gets better”.  It only gets busier.  It is a consequence of growth.  We continue to work to accommodate that growth, but I don’t see an end state where it is not more congested.

Some other things to consider when we plan for what HRM will look like and how we will get around in 25 years:

  • The Mackay will probably be replaced with an 8-lane bridge built to accommodate more cars, and BRT or even LRT, within the next 15-20 years.  This is a 2-3 billion dollar project.
  • A tunnel under the harbour is possible someday but that is so far away that it is beyond any reasonable planning window now.
  • Windsor Street Exchange is being redesigned and funding is in place to rebuild it –
  • Rapid ferries are coming, but we still don’t have a commitment to cost-sharing on bus rapid transit, which is critical.
  • Reversing lanes are unlikely as the volume of cars at peak on most streets is high in both directions, and if you can’t do them all the way through a route, it just creates new bottlenecks where traffic has to merge again.
  • Today’s BRT lanes can be tomorrow’s LRT lanes.

When you take this all together, HRM has a workable plan to address traffic issues caused by current and future traffic

Promoting and expanding alternatives to cars to get people out of cars and into other modes is the ONLY sustainable way to solve our current and future traffic woes.