HALIFAX - On September 19, 2011, traffic patterns in Downtown Halifax were altered in an attempt to ease congestion in the city’s core. In this first of three planned phases, a number of streets that currently allow two-way traffic now only permit one-way traffic (including sections of Blowers, Market, Sackville, George, and Granville streets), while a section of Grafton Street will now allow two-way traffic. Subsequent phases in October and March will see Lower Water Street becoming one-way north bound, signals added to the Duke and Lower Water Street intersection, and bike lanes added to both Lower Water and Hollis streets.
In a report to Council, HRM Staff claim that “the highlight of this plan is the creation of new bike lanes on Hollis Street and Lower Water Street”. Why then does this plan sacrifice the safety of cyclists and efficiency of both its active transportation and public transit network?
In November 2010 HRM Staff released a plan illustrating proposed changes to traffic patterns in Downtown Halifax. This plan illustrated a complete “loop” – a south-bound bike lane on Hollis Street to Terminal Road, providing a connection to both the Halifax Farmer’s Market and NSCAD, and a north-bound bike lane on Lower Water Street to Duke Street, linking the George Street Metro Transit Ferry Terminal entrance and looping back to the south-bound bike lane via Duke Street. However, in the August 2011 update to the plan, two blocks of the bike lane on Lower Water Street disappeared.
In response to an enquiry, HRM Staff state that while they would prefer to complete the bike lane, “after more detailed survey information was collected as the project proceeded from conceptual through to detailed design, it was found that we actually did not have the sufficient width…and in an ideal world, bicycle infrastructure would terminate at logical destinations, rather than appearing and disappearing randomly, however the challenges of retrofitting an existing city, while balancing all the competing demands on a limited roadway do not always make that possible”. While spatial constraints may be of concern, far more constrained cities have managed to add proper bike lanes to their circulation networks.
HRM Staff don’t see this discontinuity of the new bike lane as a significant issue as “cyclists can and do leave Lower Water at Prince and use the parking lot corridor to get to the ferry terminal”. But encouraging cyclists to cut along sidewalks, over foot bridges, through parking lots, surely isn’t sound policy, does little to encourage responsible cycling, and arguably discourages cyclists from abiding by regulations as laid out in the Motor Vehicles Act (concerns recently expressed by HRM Regional Police in the media).
As the success of bike lanes is primarily based on connectivity (even the 2002 HRM Bike Plan lists “connectivity” first in a list of 14 criteria for decision making regarding the implementation of bike lanes), justification for removing this short section seems to be lacking. And sacrificing the safety of those who are actively removing themselves from traffic – and doing, a small part, in helping congestion issues – shouldn’t be an option. By ending the Lower Water Street bike lane at Sackville, cyclists will be effectively dumped into two lanes of one-way traffic, as drivers make their way out of the city after work.
While there are spatial limitations “on the ground”, these limitations seem to only ever affect those actually “on the ground”. Ending the bike lane at Sackville Street is sure to result in frequent conflict between drivers and cyclists. In such a situation, if the only option is to end the bike lane abruptly, the addition of the bike lane should be reconsidered.
These proposed changes come at the expense of the safety of both cyclists and pedestrians in what should be one of most the most pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly areas of the city. This extremely short-sighted plan sacrifices the safety of cyclists for the sake of an extra lane (for only two blocks) for motorists and traffic flowing mostly eastbound on Sackville Street. And despite claims by HRM Staff, there is the choice – a very slight increase in road capacity for those vacating the city at 5pm or improved safety for those who actually live in it.
The Lower Water Street changes, including the incomplete bike lane, are expected to be implemented on October 16, 2011.
Images from HRM. While HRM Staff promptly responded to requests for clarification and information, the Councillor for the area did not respond to expressed concerns.