Reader response: Transit and urban sprawl

Halifax Magazine reader Anthony Tucker submitted this letter in response to the Editor’s Message in our November issue, which argued for the adoption of European-style transit that serves all of Nova Scotia. To comment on anything you’ve read in the magazine, email
Dear Sir:
You are correct in stating that the provision of a transit service that regularly serves the whole province, that runs efficiently linking rural areas and urban cores ‘doesn’t require Nova Scotia’s brightest minds etc. … Look at just about any Western European country, and you’ll find easily exportable models …..’ True, however, the cost factor is prohibitive, especially considering the current economic climate.
To compare our situation in Canada, and in particular in Nova Scotia, with that of Western European countries is not even like comparing apples and oranges ~ it’s more like comparing apples and walnuts based on the fact that we eat both. The comparison fails partly because of the disproportionate population densities.
We have a much criticized commuter bus service for Halifax Metro and suburbs which has a population density of 73.4 persons per square kilometer (2016 statistics). The population density for the remainder of Nova Scotia is 10.4 persons per square kilometer. In comparison the population densities in four representative European countries are: Germany 233, the United Kingdom 267, France 119 and the Netherlands 393.
Even with our higher population density in Halifax it is readily apparent that the cost factor for us, based on cost per person for the provision of the service, is considerably higher than in Europe. To provide a similar service to the remainder of Nova Scotia is unthinkable ~ such a move would not be supported politically or by the general public based on the prohibitive cost.
Apart from the disparity in population densities there are other factors which enter the picture. The mindset of Canadians is, for the most part, geared to independence from other means of transportation as a result of the automobile. This attitude has created the framework within which we have developed the infrastructures in which we like to live. This framework, which has essentially developed over the past eighty years or so, now presents our elected officials and planners with the problem which has been recognized in some European countries for at least the same length of time. Our framework is one of a scattered population which requires the inefficient and costly provision of connecting roads and their maintenance as well as the costly installation, maintenance and upgrading of the utilities necessary to provide for the comfortable living of the residents of the dwellings. Apart from ribbon development, wherein homes are built along local or collector roads, there are also subdivisions located outside of the towns, the cities or the developments which have sanitary and water services. The homes built in such developments, which have been approved in the past and are still receiving approval, require several acres of land per home. The net result is a requirement for long roads incurring the expensive installation of utility services, continuing road maintenance and snow and ice control services. (Ribbon development in western countries actually began following the industrial revolution when such development followed the rail lines).                                                                                                                                                               
From mid nineteen seventy to mid nineteen eighty I was employed by the NS Transportation Department as the Division Engineer for Annapolis and Digby counties and the Municipality of Clare and a part of my responsibility was for the review and approval of subdivision developments. In this capacity I met with other provincial and federal government representatives and municipal staff including counties’ planning staff. Annapolis County had hired two planners from Ontario and I recall the first meeting with them in which they promoted the promulgation of regulations which would, with respect to subdivision developments, include the provision for ‘Designated Growth Areas’. My thought at the time was ‘Yes, that’s required but it will never fly in Nova Scotia’. If adopted, such a regulation would essentially prohibit ribbon development and require the development of subdivisions within designated areas where sewer and water services would be provided. The net result would be developments with approximately ten times the population density meaning a much less costly provision of all the necessary services.¹ However, landowners would never tolerate such a restriction on the use of their lands and the needed formulation of regulations never materialized on a province wide basis while I was privy to proceedings.
Planning Acts which applied to towns and rural areas of England and other European countries were enacted beginning in the 1930’s, if not before, to control ribbon development and urban sprawl. Subsequent legislation tightened the initial restrictions by refining the zoning and land use provisions. Similar provisions exist in Nova Scotia but they have not, in general, contained the same constraining principles that are widely included in the European statutes. Outside of the serviced areas, such as the developments in much of HRM, development agreements limiting lot size and stipulating target densities are not, in general, a part of the equation.² Around Halifax, Bedford, Dartmouth, Sackville etc. one can see many older and newer developments with scattered housing on large lots which are not serviced by sewer and water infrastructures. Developments such as Bedford West, which are serviced, are subject to a different development agreement with target population densities which must be met.
The provision of a commuter bus service in areas with target densities of 20 persons per acre or above, as in Bedford West, is economically feasible. Even a target of 20 persons per acre is well below the European average and I believe that the typical planning numbers there are in the range of 60 persons or more per acre (or the equivalent in their usage terms).
The result of the very different approach taken in Europe is evident when one drives around France or Germany on the rural roads. Apart from the farms, one does not see the scattered developments which are evident here in our province. The towns and villages are very concentrated. We value our freedom ~ a sentiment that extends to not wanting neighbourly intrusion into our space, we like big lots on which to build our sometimes very large homes and that is a part of the problem. It is certainly very natural that with lots of open space and inexpensive land prices, relative to European land values, that it all developed in the manner that it has. The  differing end results on each side of the Atlantic are evidenced by the numbers and here are a few examples of the population densities in comparable rural towns ~ persons per square kilometer:
            Nova Scotia ~ Berwick 381; Annapolis Royal 241; Oxford 111; Shelburne 197
            England ~ Bude, Cornwall 2,953; Burford, Cotswolds 1,685; Hawes, Yorkshire 2,089; Epsom, Surrey 1,746
            France ~ Dinan, Brittany 2,698; Vannes, Brittany 1,600; Beaune, Burgundy 710; Château de Thierry, West Champagne 870
            Wales ~ Dolgellau 2,452
(The town boundaries of each of the above appear to be similar with respect to the populated areas ~ i.e some towns have boundaries which extend far beyond the populated area giving low population densities).                                                                                                                                                                                                    
As a direct result of the higher population densities in town and villages of these European countries, the ridership potential on the commuting services offered, which often includes train travel as well as by bus and/or coach in integrated systems, exceeds our potential in Nova Scotia by a significant margin.
One must wonder what the impact would have been on our lifestyle in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax Metro if developments had concentrated the construction of new housing, commencing almost a century ago, within existing towns and villages. With a few exceptions, we have witnessed the decline of populations in towns resulting in some instances in their inability to continue functioning with independent town status. With the movement of our population mainly to the Halifax Metro area it has been necessary to centralize schools and hospitals throughout the province. Would this have happened had different planning strategies been implemented starting 80 years ago? Would this have impacted the feasibility of a more widespread provision of commuter bus services? Kings Transit has prospered (I believe) because there is a sufficient population concentration in the Annapolis Valley and people have become accustomed to using the reliable service.
It is unfair to point the finger at the government of the day, no matter what the stripe, and accuse it of withholding the funding necessary to provide the ‘basic services they need and deserve’ as you have stated. That service may be a benefit to a very small percentage of our population. It is a real stretch to claim that the service is deserved. The financial barriers exist, as indicated by our present government officials, and one can imagine the hue and cry that would ensue if funds were to be diverted from health care or education to provide an all-encompassing bus service.
           Anthony Tucker P. Eng (Ret’d)

  1. A lot without sewer or water services, depending on the lot location and soil type, must typically be a couple of acres resulting in a density of about 2 persons per acre on average. The overall target in the serviced area of the development in Bedford West, i.e. essentially a designated growth area, was set at 20 persons per acre when I was Chairman of the Bedford West Public Participation Committee which concluded its mandate about 10 years ago. That population density target may have been increased after our committee disbanded and the Annapolis Group sold the major portion of Bedford West to a partnership between Clayton Developments Ltd. and Cresco named West Bedford Holdings Ltd.
  2. There are examples where Municipal Units have adopted policies governing land use. For example, the Village of St. Peter’s in Richmond County adopted a Residential Development criteria as a part of the Municpal Planning Strategy. The policy sets out priority areas for residential development although it does not appear to curtail development in areas where services do not exist..


This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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