SAINT JOHN – We are now a few months into the City of Saint John’s experiment with bike lanes on Main Street in the city’s North End and, from all reports, the world hasn’t ended yet. Traffic has naturally slowed to non-freeway speeds without backing up (or really being noticed at all) and the route sees many cyclists use it every day. It has even been popular enough with pedestrians that the City thought it was necessary to issue a statement saying that the bike lanes are approved for – you guessed it – bicycles only. Too bad for the pedestrians in need of a safer walking route, but that’s another story.
So if these new bike lanes have worked out so well and so naturally, why then did it take more than a year of negotiations to put them in place after the temporary closure of Harbour Passage and 30 years of lobbying to reduce the number of lanes on Main Street? Considering the fact that the Province of New Brunswick put the kybosh to its six-lane Route 1 highway expansion a few months back, was it really that hard to determine that all 6 lanes of this unnecessary inner-city freeway weren’t needed?
The trouble is that Main Street is considered to be, like many streets in Saint John and other New Brunswick cities, a provincially designated highway. This means that the Province is in full control and the municipalities must bend to the their will or negotiate and battle for changes.
And the trouble isn’t that municipalities aren’t used to inter-governmental cooperation, it’s that the Department of Transportation (DOT), the department responsible for Main Street and others like it, has an extensive yet very narrow mandate to the point of being flawed. In short, the DOT’s mandate is limited to highways, ferries and bridges. Not a single word relating to transit, rail, air, or active transportation is even mentioned.
So, can a department of transportation that doesn’t actually consider and encompass all modes of transportation truly be called the “Department of Transportation?” In New Brunswick’s case, it should be renamed “The Department of Cars and Things That Carry Cars.” With a more honest title like that, more of us would be dubious and it is no wonder why negotiations for new bike lanes took so long. The DOT has no reason to consider anything but the movement of cars.
Cities are, first and foremost, built to accommodate people. Roads, on the other hand, are secondary and built for the sole purpose of servicing and connecting those cities and not the other way around. Yet with the DOT controlling streets that are of prime importance to these cities, the needs of the people are effectively secondary to the needs of moving cars. Although transportation is without a doubt critically important for the movement of goods, people and the economy, it shouldn’t be to the detriment of cities and the people who live in them, nor should it ignore all other viable means of transportation. The fact that this is the case in New Brunswick shows that there is something fundamentally wrong. Our cities and their residents are the true economic drivers, not the cars on our roads.
In the meantime, its too bad that all of this progress appears to be temporary. We’ve been promised that Main Street will go back to being a virtual high-speed inner-city freeway once Harbour Passage reopens and the repairs to the Province’s other “thing that carries cars,” the Harbour Bridge, are complete. The Province appears anxious to return to its familiar modus operandi.
To be truly successful, the DOT must change its M.O. and have a holistic view of transportation along with its full effects on, not only the Province, but individual municipalities and, most importantly, the people who live there. And who knows these effects better than the cities themselves? Give the cities the necessary control they require to serve the needs of their residents first. New Brunswick’s DOT needs a broader mandate, one that encompasses and actively considers all forms of transportation and prioritizes the needs of a municipality over the needs of cars. If nothing else, the DOT, in the province with the most roads per-capita, must realize that car-centric policies are proving to be unsustainable on so many levels, from finances to the environment. We’re moving into a new era of planning and personal priorities. Bike lanes on Main Street mean progress and these are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Department of Cars needs to get with the times.
Morgan Lanigan is an award winning project manager with a local Saint John architectural firm. With a lifelong passion for architecture, urban planning and design, he has served on numerous boards and commissions with an urban focus and currently sits as a member of the Planning Advisory Committee for the City of Saint John.