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Tristan Cleveland: Halifax blocking sidewalk routes doesn't make economic sense

Our businesses and neighbourhoods can't grow if we show complete disrespect for anyone on foot.

&quotSidewalk Closed" signs like this one in downtown Halifax have been common in Halifax this year.

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"Sidewalk Closed" signs like this one in downtown Halifax have been common in Halifax this year.

At Agricola and Almon last week, all four street corners were shut down for construction, blocking anyone on foot from passing at all - and yet four people were being paid to hold signs to ensure cars could still pass.

That’s a pretty big “screw you” from the city to anyone walking.

I have never seen pedestrians given absolutely no way to get through an intersection in another city, but I’ve seen it in Halifax more than once.

I called Victoria, B.C. to get a reality check on whether this is normal. Their head of engagement, Bill Eisenhauer, told me that for them, “keeping access for pedestrians is a priority.” Their strategy includes, “temporary sidewalks” and “people crossing to the other side of the street,” but just turning pedestrians around is not on the list.

Halifax spokesperson Nick Ritcey told me shutting down the intersection was not strictly necessary, and that they avoided it for other corners under maintenance on Almon, but that it was done “to accelerate the project timeline.”

I was bewildered to run into this problem in 2017. Just last year Halifax passed new rules that finally prevent developers from doing this kind of nonsense. Private companies can no longer just shut down a sidewalk, but must create a temporary passage for pedestrians separated from traffic with “a physical barrier.”  I guess the city doesn’t feel like following its own rules.

Agricola is one of the main pedestrian-friendly commercial streets in Halifax. Even here, a street where 70 per cent of customers walk, we can’t find the wherewithal to put people first.

For so many decisions, the operating assumption in Halifax seems to be that everything that really matters to the economy happens in a car, while all other modes we will accommodate where we can.

You can see it in the buttons pedestrians have to press to get permission to (eventually) cross the road. In how there are pavement roads everywhere, but few sidewalks. In how tiny our sidewalks are, even on our main shopping streets. In how speed limits prioritize drivers, not safety. In wide turning lanes that let drivers take corners at high speed, right over crosswalks. And, in those people we’re willing to block to “accelerate” timelines.

In a sense, I get it. By the last census count, 77 per cent of trips to work in Halifax were made in a car. The way we have built things, many people can’t get anywhere without driving.

But what that thinking misses, is that 100 per cent of people need to get out of their car before they can actually do anything. You can’t drive between the aisles of Local Source to buy groceries, and you can’t liven up a street or talk with friends while behind the wheel. The first and most basic thing a street must accomplish, is ensure people can use the sidewalk.

And keep in mind, a third of Canadians don’t even have a license, a number that is only rising. If nearly everyone can use a sidewalk, but only some people can drive, why is our default user in a car?

We all benefit the more everyone walks. You know the drill: less infrastructure wear and tear, less pollution, more vibrant streets, and lower health costs. I think most residents would like it if we had a more lively city full of people walking - but we can’t make progress if we show complete disrespect for anyone on foot.

The Centre Plan will establish a “Pedestrian First” policy. A good start would be to not tell pedestrians they are not allowed to pass at all.

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