Infrastructure Roads Travels Walking

The Halifax Department of Silly Walks


As part of our trip through the Maritime Provinces a few weeks ago, we visited Halifax. Nova Scotia’s capital and largest city is the economic, cultural and transportation hub for Atlantic Canada. In 1996, the City of Halifax was merged with surrounding towns and suburbs, as well as rural Halifax County; the Halifax Regional Municipality is now 5,490 square kilometres, nearly nine times the size of the City of Toronto.

Like many amalgamated cities in Canada, Halifax has a historic, densely populated inner core, surrounded by urban neighbourhoods. Beyond the old cities of Halifax and Dartmouth is a ring of suburban homes and businesses, such as Bedford, Cole Harbour, and Bayer’s Lake. And like Hamilton and Ottawa, there’s another, even larger ring of rural farms, woodlands, small villages, and exurban estates. Peggy’s Cove, for example, is near Halifax’s eastern boundary. Councils of these amalgamated cities must reconcile the needs and desires of the urban centre with those of suburban and exurban residents. In Toronto, bike lanes are held up, or even removed, for the benefit of motorists living outside the urban core. The debate over Hamilton’s LRT has pitted suburban councillors against those representing the lower city. Halifax is no exception.

Halifax’s urban core is worth exploring, despite construction detours around the new convention centre, the waterfront, and new condominium development. Downtown includes the historic Citadel, Province House, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, among other museums. Halifax Common and the Public Gardens are welcoming public spaces in the classic New England style.

Halifax Transit operates a ferry service to Dartmouth — only $2.50 per person, with the return trip free if taken within 90 minutes — which offers great views of the city and the various commercial and naval ships in the harbour. The ferry is also fully integrated with the local bus system. The new Halifax Central Library is one of Canada’s greatest new public buildings: the five storeys are bright and user-friendly, and there is even a rooftop patio and café to visit.

Downtown is compact and a pleasure to walk abound.

IMG_0903-001.JPGThe spectacular new Halifax Central Library

But once you stroll beyond Halifax’s urban core, the landscape changes. Signed crosswalks are fewer and farther between, even in older residential neighbourhoods.

Maritimers are famously courteous to pedestrians; most motorists will slow or stop if they see a pedestrian about to cross the street, whether or not there’s a marked crosswalk. But that slower pace of life in itself does not prevent collisions. As in any North American city, Halifax’s arterial roads and suburban streets are built to move cars through quickly and efficiently.

That’s where the flags come in. What was intended as a well-meaning, inexpensive measure to promote pedestrians’ safety at crosswalks has become one of the most ridiculous pedestrian initiatives.

Crosswalk flags were the idea of just one man, Norm Collins, a Dartmouth retiree. The flags and buckets only cost $200 per crosswalk, compared to $15,000-25,000 per crosswalk for proper signal lights. In 2015, municipal staff were cool to pedestrian flags, though the idea enjoyed support from HRM councillors, particularly suburban politicians, and the flags were approved by council.

Now, at most crosswalks outside Halifax’s urban core, there are buckets of bright orange flags for pedestrians to take when crossing the street. These buckets and flags can even be found at signalized crossings with flashing amber lights activated by pressing a button. Each bucket has instructions printed on how to “be cautious…be seen…be safe.”

One of the buckets, with instructions on how to use the flags left inside

Yes, even when there are flashing lights at an intersection, Halifax Regional Council expects pedestrians to use these flags (even if city staff disagree). The instructions above clearly indicate that the onus for safety is entirely on the pedestrian crossing the street, not on motorists taking care by driving safely and attentively.

Vision Zero is the Swedish road safety philosophy that seeks to end traffic fatalities by minimizing the effects of mistakes made my all road users. Lower speed limits, enforced by road re-engineering works (such as bump-outs, speed humps, and tighter corners at intersections) that slow down cars and trucks is one such effective measure. So are complete streets, designed to improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians and cyclists. Cheap pedestrian flags, which do not address the root problem, are not within the spirit of Vision Zero.

If Halifax Council — or any municipal government — was serious about improving pedestrian safety, features that would help include improved lighting, narrowing the roadways at pedestrian crossings, and raising the crosswalks closer to the curb level, forcing motorists to slow down (and also improving drainage. Flags and high-visibility clothing are useful for temporary conditions and for traffic control personnel, but not for everyday conditions and everyday people. The onus should always be first on the licensed motorist to be attentive to the road and drive according to the conditions.

A ridiculous pedestrian safety measure deserves a ridiculous walk, as I demonstrated in Dartmouth.


Canada History Travels

A visit to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

IMG_0319-001New Glasgow City Hall

After our wedding, we went away to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I’ve been to Halifax and the Annapolis Valley once before, in April 2004, but I’ve never been to Cape Breton (which has become one of my favourite places in Canada), or PEI.

It was a wonderful trip. We drove the Cabot Trail, hiked several trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, enjoyed great meals featuring local seafood, visited restored historic sites such as the Fortress of Louisbourg, and spent some time wandering around Halifax and Charlottetown. I’ll write more on those adventures later.

Driving through Nova Scotia on the way to Cape Breton, you must pass through Pictou County on Highway 104, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Most travelers pass through, or stop off the highway for gas or food. But the region has an interesting history, and we visited two historic sites there which are off most tourists’ radar.

Once an industrial powerhouse, settlements such as New Glasgow, Stellarton, and Trenton have been hit by the closures in the steel industry and in coal mining. Trenton had a large steel mill; the TrentonWorks plant produced rail cars until 2007. Coal mining was also important to both northern Nova Scotia and in Cape Breton, but today, only one surface coal mine remains in the province near Stellarton. Today, Stellarton might be most known as the hometown of and headquarters for the Sobeys supermarket chain and its parent company, Empire Corp. The town of Pictou was known for its shipbuilding industry.

New Glasgow, which we visited, is the largest community in Pictou County, and the regional centre for central Nova Scotia. We stayed in New Glasgow overnight, as we were to take the Northumberland Ferry to PEI early the next morning.

In 1947, Viola Desmond, a successful Black entrepreneur, was removed by police from the Roseland Theatre for refusing to sit in the upper segregated seating area, but in the ‘whites only’ section. She was charged and convicted for tax evasion – the one cent difference in the provincial amusement tax between the ticket she was sold and the lower level seating. Despite this injustice, the apology and pardon from the Nova Scotia government didn’t come until 2010. That year, a plaque was unveiled in New Glasgow. Since then, there has been more recognition of this injustice and of Desmond’s importance — a new ferry was named for her in Halifax, and she will appear on the next issue of the $10 bank note.

Roseland Theatre building, June 30, 2017

Today, the Roseland Theatre is closed (the theatre later became a club). I found the building (which is being renovated, and the marquee removed), but I had trouble finding the plaque. I found out it was located two blocks away from the theatre building, next to the public library.

The plaque commemorating Viola Desmond is located two blocks away from the Roseland Theatre



On May 9, 1992, sixteen miners were killed in a methane and coal gas explosion at the nearby Westray Mine. News of the explosion, and coverage of the attempted rescue efforts was one of the first major news stories I clearly remember, and the first I really understood. I was eleven when it happened. (Though I also remember the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, I was eight years old at the time, and I couldn’t understand the significance. Westray was the first news story that I remember and which I could understand clearly.)

Tragically, eleven bodies remain underground. The mining company ignored unsafe working conditions, and the government was complicit in knowing about the problems but not forcing changes — the Westray mine promised jobs, not only in the mine, but in other local industries, such as TrentonWorks, which was contracted to supply rail cars for shipping coal to a nearby power generation station. The mine had lots of support at all three levels of government; this likely contributed to pressure to keep it open despite serious safety concerns. Furthermore, criminal proceedings against the company and its management were botched.

IMG_0316-001Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park, New Glasgow

Though the main Westray Mine site and shaft were located at Plymouth, to the south of New Glasgow, the explosion took place north of Highway 104, within the city limits. Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park is located close to the site. Besides a garden and a monument with all sixteen men’s names, there are several interpretative plaques on the history of the Westray Mine, the explosion, and the aftermath.