The courtesy is Common, but is the sense?

Brought to you in collaboration with the Ecology Action Centre and Halifax Cycling Coalition, SpokesPeople covers all things cycle-related. From the principles to the potholes, we’re here to examine the realities facing the two-wheeled traveler.

HALIFAX – With debate still simmering after last week’s North Commons revitalization presentation, Spacing Atlantic is pleased to kick off SpokesPeople with a look at the place of cyclists in the Halifax Common.

An undisputed geographical crossroads in peninsular Halifax, the North Common is a figurative crossroads in countless other ways, too. Each day, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists criss-cross the Common’s various axes – and each other. Many are “straight-line” users, commuting to and from school and work via the shortest possible path between two of the Common’s numerous corners.

For others, the Common itself is the destination: a place for a relaxed stroll on a sunny afternoon, or a venue for youngsters to test the waters of life without training wheels, free of the worry of motorized vehicles bearing down on them. Add in concertgoers, picnickers and sports enthusiasts, and you’ve got a multi-use space that is brimming with Haligonians and visitors alike. Where else could a commuting high schooler, a left fielder, and a rabid rock fan make the same footprint within hours of each other?

Sharing the Common’s sought-after real estate is a delicate balancing act. Although the planned Common renovations call for wider multi-use paths and a new – and sorely needed – paved connection to the North Park and Cogswell corner of the park, breathing room on these paths will forever be at a premium as everyone from dawdling cloud-watchers to whizzing cycle commuters jockey for space on the pavement. If you have ever wondered why cyclists are required, by law, to have a working bell on their bikes, the Common should be Exhibit A.

But the real fun begins on the Common’s periphery, where cyclists find themselves hemmed in by poor park-street integration. Virtually all arms of the Common’s spiral of paths dump cyclists into crosswalks on exit, forcing them to choose between the utterly impractical dismount and the illegal alternative of staying astride. The proposed park redesign is incomplete without the inclusion of infrastructure at the Common’s major gateways to accommodate cyclists’ safe and legal transition from street to park and back. Two critical trans-Common axes — the through paths connecting Welsford to Cornwallis and Agricola, and the link from Cogswell to Bell and all points south — are book-ended by a quintet of locations that demand treatment to bring the law and the logistical realities of cycling in line with each other.

These awkward transitions partly explain why this contributor rarely finds himself plying the Common’s paved and unpaved paths, opting to share the surrounding arterial roads with motorists instead of navigating all manner of slow-moving obstacles within the Common. But not everyone is as comfortable on the four- and six-lane boulevards that frame the Common – not to mention the unwieldy, multi-pronged paved deltas that join them. On other occasions, there’s little choice in the matter. A friend who commutes from Agricola to Summer, for example, chooses to travel through the Common from Cunard Street to Bell Road because she prefers the calm park over the busy street. But when heading northbound, she has no choice, as the Common paths are the only direct alternative to one-way Trollope Street that doesn’t involve backtracking down Bell Road to travel north on Trollope’s twin, Ahern Avenue.

What does all this mean for the common Common cyclist? For starters, a little bit of courtesy goes a long way toward maintaining harmonious relationships with our pedestrian friends who – lest we forget – are at the top of the right-of-way heap. In addition to providing audible warnings through bell-ringing and cheerful calls of “Excuse me!” and “Thank you,” cyclists need to realize that the Common is no place for whipping past foot traffic at thirty kilometres per hour.  (And yes, it is understood that suggesting cyclists should limit their speed on any occasion is a cardinal sin of sorts, but the assertion stands.) Pedestrians, after all, are far less predictable than motorists, so “defensive cycling” is as important here as on the street. In short, the Common is a rare chance for cyclists to escape the pulse of motor traffic, not replicate it.

The Common is, by its very nature, a place for all. As long as three-pitch, ultimate and Sunday afternoon picnics have a place there, so, too, will cyclists. With its high volumes of traffic, the Common is also a key podium in the realm of cyclists’ public relations. Nothing less than ambassadorial behaviour in this critical crossroads of intermodal interaction will suffice if cyclists are to earn the support of the non-cycling majority as they pursue their dream of making Halifax a haven for cyclists of all ages and abilities.

photo by Mark Lasanowski

4 comments

  1. Great article Mark.

    There should be far more thought into putting bike lanes through the Commons. In Edinburgh, Scotland there is a park called the Meadows that is very similar to Commons — mostly open spaces, sports fields, tennis courts, pathways — and has beautiful ‘bike-only’ paths that are tree-lined and well lit running across the park.

    See a photo: http://bit.ly/9KMBUv

    This kind of path, technically for bikes only but still used by pedestrians just as streets without sides walks are used by pedestrians, would be ideal for the Commons.

    Having seen many cyclists — myself included — get covered in dirt riding across the Commons from Cunard and Robie to Cogswell and North Park, this is exactly the kind of use that could animate the park. Not only would it be picturesque (see the photo) but it would nicely delineate the park into sections and uses, not to mention encourage active transportation.

  2. Great article, Mark. Especially the comments about park-street integration. I asked HRM Planner Peter Bigelow about this at the open house, and he said they’re working on it but I couldn’t get any more than this.
    I encourage anyone who feels strongly about this to email Mr Bigelow at: bigelop@halifax.ca and let him know.

  3. Excellent observations. I very much support your positive cyclist-pedestrian interaction: it is mainly this “traffic climate” that will ultimately promote the cause of cycling in our society.

  4. Great article.

    In addition to the biking issues, one really should examine the lighting too. I personally am a person who walks through the Commons frequently (usually with my two very friendly dogs) at night as it’s the only really “viable” green space we have left (and therefore frustrating to hear losing more of it for events when we have a perfectly good venue in the Metro Center – sheesh).

    But not to deviate – the sporadic lighting they have proposed, in addition to the new trees (great idea in itself though, I love the idea of more trees!) will allow for more “shady areas” for folks with less than honorable intent. Having been threatened twice (and thankfully safe as a result of said friendly dogs who are also large enough to be protective as needed) I can definitely say there is already risk after dusk walking there as a young smallish lady, even with two “large breeds” at my heels. With the addition of these lovely and much needed horticultural changes, there will be added dimension to the park – but also added risk without sufficient lighting. This would also help would be bikers, skaters, etc – something we could all benefit from.

    I’d very much like to see this put in place with a more safety minded approach. Otherwise we’re likely to see assault/rape/theft increasing around our neighbourhood. And it’s high enough as is even with many of the injured not reporting what happened.

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