Halifax is in the midst of a shift in the way that we think about our streets. In the newest round of ideas presented for the Integrated Mobility Plan, staff have made it clear that if we want to get more people out of their cars, we need to think about streets as places for people first. In response to public input, staff have proposed a Complete Streets policy, which allows them to consider how to design our streets to prioritize the movement of people over the movement of cars on certain routes. Cities across Canada have adopted this idea and it has transformed the way that people choose to get around.
As we all know, however, our sidewalks and streets become much different places in the winter. Ice and snow make it difficult for people to get around and can deter walking and cycling altogether. The curb cuts installed for people with mobility issues often become clogged with snow and slush. The city has taken steps to improve the overall process of clearing sidewalks, including accessibility training for its in-house maintenance staff and snow-clearing contractors to better understand the needs of those with mobility issues. While HRM should be commended for this action, Halifax could be doing more to make our winter sidewalks more walkable.
After a snowfall, snow-clearing priority is given to sidewalks along major roads and to streets with transit connections but residential streets are often last to see a plow. While plowing major roadways is crucial for the movement of emergency and service vehicles, the same thinking doesn’t necessarily apply to walking routes. The routes that people most often walk are different from the routes that they drive. As part of the Complete Streets initiative in Halifax, the city should identify where the major walking corridors are, including routes in school zones, how they may differ from major roads and how that might affect the priorities of the snow-clearing strategy for sidewalks.
Even after plowing, the actual user experience on sidewalks is not always great. In December, councillor Shawn Cleary asked for a staff report to determine what the price tag would be to uphold a standard of clearing to bare pavement every time the sidewalks are plowed. Without bare pavement, ice and compacted snow can become major barriers and make the sidewalks impassable. Better technology is needed to achieve the bare-pavement standard, but it will mean committing more financial resources to the snow-clearing effort. If we want to make it easy for people to walk regardless of the season, we should be willing to pay for the best service possible, especially on the most-travelled routes.
Bicycle lanes are a whole other ball game. There is no guarantee from the city as to when bicycle lanes will be cleared and they are often used as storage space for snow cleared from the road. For someone who relies on a bicycle as their main form of transportation, they are forced to ride in traffic or hang up their bicycle for the season. In other places with Complete Street policies, such as Edmonton, bicycle lanes are plowed at the same time as their adjacent roads.
To work toward a healthier, more sustainable Halifax, we need to ensure that people have transportation options. It needs to be easy, even during winter, for people to walk, cycle, or take transit. We should build on the Complete Streets approach to create a strategy for snow clearing that accommodates and balances the needs of all road users.