Halifax, Nova Scotia, urban development

Decreasing traffic by increasing traffic… thoughts on Halifax’s future

I noticed in yesterday’s Chronicle Herald that Halifax city planners are once again considering to alleviate traffic congestion in the city by building a third harbour crossing, this one from Woodside to around the South End container pier. CBC is also carrying it here.

My immediate instinct is that this is a bad idea. I seem to remember hearing and reading in a number of places that increasing the traffic network simply delays the traffic problem a couple of years and that this is a bad idea. A few years after the third crossing is built and Eastern Passage becomes the hot new residential area and Porter’s Lake gets dozed by one of those goddamned development companies that brought us the disaster that is Hammond’s Plains and Timberlea and voila, traffic is as bad as ever. My first instinct then goes on to say “wouldn’t it be more useful to actually plan urban development with extending public transit in mind rather than building more suburbs?”. Isn’t building a new highway or bridge just a band-aid?

I mean, a billion dollars can make enough buses that even the fat-ass city councillors who whined and moaned about parking at City Hall might even find it convenient enough to use.

Right?

Thus, me and my first instinct head to the internets to find a pithy quote proving my thesis when I come across this arresting quote by the late Jane Jacobs:

It’s really surprising how few creative, important cities Canada has for its size, its population, and its great human potential and attributes. There’s a whole region of Canada, the Atlantic Provinces, that has a lot of pleasant little places but doesn’t have one single really significant creative city. And the whole area is very poor as a consequence. It would be like a Third World country, that whole area, if it wasn’t getting transfer payments and grants of various kinds from the rest of Canada.

Woah, there, woman, that’s my homeland you’re talking about.

Umm, is she right?

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know diddle about urban development, except that which I’ve witnessed personally. I have seen the HRM council hand out development rights to huge parcels of land that have basically turned Halifax into an aglomeration of hideous taupe suburbs (with streets named after the trees, creeks or hills that used to be there) connected by roads on which passengerless vehicles pass near-empty buses on their way to work in Burnside or downtown. I have heard the councillors, amid howls of protest, propose turning Chebucto Road effectively into a highway at the expense of front lawns, to provide better connection between the unrestrained growth of Bayers’ Lake (and the suburbs surrounding it) and the downtown. I have seen the downtown gutted by lower-tax shopping malls, which in turn are decimated by still-lower-tax big-box behemoths on both sides of the harbour. (In fairness, at least you can get a bus to the new one in Dartmouth.)

All of this development points to one thing – poor urban planning has our elected representatives repeatedly bending over for the monied developers, chasing new developments with services that are much more expensive to provide suburbs than cities. Meanwhile, they provide retail space in low-tax districts that further increase the city’s service load while simultaneously reducing it’s tax base. All of this gets made up by little residents like me with their ever-increasing property taxes. Oh that my salary increased at the same rate as my taxes have!

And this doesn’t even touch on the environmental load this kind of development carries. Shopping in Bayers’ Lake effectively requires a car, as buses are as rare as good food out there. (Sorry folks, Montana’s sucks ass.) Metro Transit provides bus service to most suburbs, but buses come rarely enough that actually using them requires serious life-altering adjustments in habit that only $2 gas will provide. Soon, my pets, soon.

So I throw this out to the public sphere, to those that I hope know more about this than I: How do we create a city that is vital and creative while at the same time makes sense at economic and environmental levels. More ferries? Bike paths? More buses? Congestion tax?

Somehow I don’t think it involves the Commonwealth Games or building a tunnel to Woodside.

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4 thoughts on “Decreasing traffic by increasing traffic… thoughts on Halifax’s future

  1. I’m sadly unknowledgeable on this topic as well but I’m clever enough to make observations. One of the things I’ve observed is that municipal councils will cheerfully hand over defacto responsibility for urban planning to Vogons.Or is it developers, I’m never 100% sure. In any case they’re a group that is not well known for their sense of aesthetics, long term vision or belief in the common good. We then wind up with situations like Moncton having to redo the roads at their own horrifying big box development because the developers built as little as they could get away with, then acted surprised when traffic volumns overran the lousy road they put in . We also get the low density OSB housing developments that you’ve mentioned but you forgot Clayton Park, the best example of quick-buck development I’ve ever seen. Examples of this thinking are 10-a-penny around here.
    I guess that what I’m getting at is that if you want a vital, creative city then you counter business and developers when they encourage people to effectively abandon the city. Bayers Lake and suburbs in Tantalon aren’t examples of growth. They’re examples how a city abdicates responsibility for self-direction.

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  2. The transit system in HRM is designed as an afterthought, an adjunct service that we have because other cities have ’em, and we have to be like them. A billion-with-a-‘b’-dollars could go a hell of a long way to creating the effective commuter rail service the city needs, along with another ferry terminal or two for good measure (I must admit, I love the ferry).
    What about a London-style downtown car ban during certain hours? A few more transit buses as shuttles from parking areas, and you’ve got a less-congested city core. A more extensive pedway system linking parking areas to the larger office buildings downtown would improve things too – maybe the asses would get a little skinnier along the way. I’m not a city planner either – it’s hard to know which I know more about in that regard: 1) diddly; or 2) squat.
    Planning city growth without planning effective transit, especially with the recognition of the environmental damage done by millions of cars, is like planning chairs without legs. None too bright. If the will to invest is there, we need to take advantage of it creatively and effectively.

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  3. Both Edith and I, now living in Edmonton, have now been able to see the difference between a city that has been well planned and one that has not. Halifax’s Transit system is pathetic. I do not know why they ripped up all that rail track that led almost directly into downtown. They should have been modified for a light rail system connecting Sackville, Bedford and other bedroom towns outside the city. Living in Edmonton, I have found that the bus system is very good (not perfect!). Their light rail system is being extended further outside the city and it has plans to connect to small nearby towns like Leduc and Beaument (distances similar to Halifax – Mount Uniacke.) Edmonton is not perfect by any stretch (Gas is just $1.03/litre and is not a factor yet) as it ignores other ways to increase ridership with their transit system. They can do a lot more.
    Edmonton, is also talking about making their downtown a pedestrian zone, which has attracted a lot of opposition. I hope it goes through!
    Unfortunately, for Halifax (and other cities) it will be the price of gas that will decide our fate in the traffic circle. Here is to $2 or even $3/ litre gas. I wont be sad to see that day.

    Paul

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  4. Paul,
    Halifax is still too small a city to make a light rail system economically viable, at least so say most evaluations. The numbers I’ve seen say that 600,000 people are required for this to become at all a consideration. The population might become more amenable to it if the price of gas goes up, but as it stands right now I don’t see any massive infrastructure developments on this scale in our future. (Except those involving Fred MacGillivary trying to get more hotels into the downtown core and government money to his business crony pals.) I think that sensible investment in the existing public transportation system might go far.

    Or not. I dunno.

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