Photo of the MacDonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The view is from a downtown street that is lined with tall buildings, and the street is full of traffic.
Explainers

Demystifying HRM’s traffic planning

Why traffic is getting worse
 | February 3, 2021

Go to any public hearing in the HRM and you’ll hear a common refrain. ‘The traffic is already bad and it’s going to get worse with this development.’ Usually followed by an incredulous ‘how won’t this have an impact on traffic!?’ traffic is by far one of the hottest points of contention in HRM public meetings.

People are angry and frustrated. When a public information meeting happens for a large condo or apartment building in their neighbourhood, people are already dreading increased traffic. So, when a developer or city planner invariably says ‘the traffic impact statement found there would be no significant impact’ people start to see red. ‘How could that be true!?’

With traffic impact statements, when a city planner in a committee meeting says ‘the traffic impact statement found there would be no significant impact’ people hear ‘congestion won’t get worse.’ Even though what the city planner is actually saying is closer to ‘the traffic impact statement found that the cars being added during rush hour are physically capable of fitting on the streets, safely.’ This leads to an unbelievable amount of confusion, frustration and anger.

After many years of half-hearted research and a few months of intensive research (a lot of it waiting for experts to return calls), I’d like to demystify and explain the often hated, often misunderstood ‘traffic impact statement.’ 

Why do we have traffic impact statements?

The incredibly boring, but extremely important first step in explaining these documents is setting definitions. The word ‘traffic’ means different things to traffic engineers than it does to non-traffic engineers. Just so everyone’s on the same page for this story: traffic = cars, volume = number of cars, congestion = cars moving slow.

Most cities have some form of traffic impact statement as a requirement for development applications, but what gets considered in one of these statements is completely up to the city.

“Take Washington D.C.,” explains Kevin Hooper, Strategic Projects Consultant for the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE). “Their requirement is access only. So they’re not worried about congestion, they figure you’re mobile, you’ll switch to the right mode of transportation and it’ll work out fine.” 

He says the important part of traffic impact statements is that everyone understands what the impact is, and how it’s going to be dealt with. 

In the HRM, traffic impact statements are designed to tell the city if things are safe. “We’re looking to make sure that there are no adverse conditions being created,” says Sarah Rodger, a program engineer in Infrastructure Planning with the city. 

Those adverse conditions can be issues like intersections being over capacity, excessive speed or not enough street infrastructure to handle the predicted increase in traffic. The city also has guiding documents, like the Integrated Mobility Plan, which outline how council expects people to be able to move through the city. All these considerations are then duly incorporated into traffic impact statements.

“We want to know when we’re adding new developments, how they fit into our plans,” says Rodger. 

How do traffic impact statements work? 

In order for a development to need a traffic impact statement, there needs to be 100 people leaving the proposed building in an hour, by any mode of transportation. If a development is projected to have that many people leaving in an hour, it requires a traffic impact statement. 

However, that’s not a hard and fast rule. “There’s a slew of other factors that we might consider that require a TIS to be submitted,” says Rodger. “Like if they’re on a major arterial road, if we have intersections nearby that we’re concerned about, if there’s transportation plans in the area that we would like to know the impact that the development on.” 

Once a development is required to do a traffic impact statement, the developer (or realistically the traffic engineer they hire) will lay down those little black tubes and count the volume of cars on the street. Although if the city has done a recent count, they’ll provide it to the developer. 

They’ll also use the ITE’s Trip Generation Manual to predict how many vehicles will leave the development once built. Then they’ll add those two numbers together and see if the streets around the proposed development can handle that many cars. 

For example, say they count 50 cars with the tube count, and predict 50 cars with the book, that gives them a total of 100 cars. So long as the streets around the development can safely and physically deal with 101 or more cars, then it’s fine. 

In spite of how people read the word ‘traffic’, these impact statements do not evaluate or predict congestion. 

If city staff then have questions about the TIS, they’ll send it back to the developer for answers. Once city traffic staff are satisfied with the TIS, they’ll give it to the planner who’s responsible for the development and include it as a part of the planner’s overall recommendation to council. 

The problem with numbers

There are two big problems with the Traffic Impact Statement process. The first problem is with the quality of the data. And the second is with the relevance of the data. 

The first failure in the process happens when developers initially count the traffic on the streets next to their planned development. The issue is that traffic can fluctuate wildly from day to day, month to month and season to season. For example, traffic counts done in the summer are almost always less than those done in mid-September. Traffic counts during March Madness could be lower than other weeks due to men staying home after getting vasectomies

The point is traffic counts aren’t necessarily accurate. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be done or are somehow bad, they’re the best we got. 

The second failure happens in the Trip Generation Handbook. In order to make the handbook, ITE does not go out and collect data. They work with what is sent to them, or data that is otherwise already available. This can result in a massive data scatter that isn’t accurately reflected in the handbook. 

This problem is best explained by the data of high volume warehouses, think Amazon warehouses. In the handbook they’re all called ‘high queue warehouses’ “of which there’s a half dozen or more different types,” says Hooper. “Some are automated, some are super duper automated, and some of them are human-autotrons packing little stuff with very little automation.” They each generate a very different number of trips (more humans, more trips, fewer humans, fewer trips), but go into the handbook as one number for one land use. This problem gets exacerbated the fewer data points ITE has to work with. All of the land uses in the Trip Generation Handbook potentially have this issue to some degree.

The other problem Halifax has is the pace of the development process. And this one is best explained by banks. “Banks. Banks, we changed,” says Hooper. “Because things changed, you used to go to the bank, to cash a cheque, deposit a cheque or get cash out. But now with ATMs everywhere and online bank transfers, there’s really nothing much to go to a bank for.” So, with fewer people making trips to banks the ITE removed a bunch of old data and added new data. “It’s the biggest change from edition to edition.” 

The development process takes so long in the HRM that by the time a development is built the predictions from the traffic impact statement are often as useful as an RCMP emergency alert. The five condo towers going up at Robie and Almon Street, for example, are using traffic data from 2012, and ITE manuals that are at least one edition out of date. Let’s hope the data is still relevant.   

To be clear, the ITE’s books are the industry standard for a reason. They’re very good and their expertise is second to none. The problem is we just don’t know if the data is applicable to Halifax. 

We don’t know if the industry standard should be our standard.

The price is on the can though

There is a serious problem with the language in Halifax’s traffic impact statements. It’s not the data problems above, it’s the AriZona Iced Tea problem. Everyone knows AriZona Iced Tea costs 99 cents because the price is on the can. So when a cashier rings up a can and it’s more than 99 cents (plus tax), red flags start flying. 

Most of the councillors interviewed for this story couldn’t specifically say what traffic impact statements do. “I don’t think they study anything useful,” joked Waye Mason. “Overall traffic on the road? I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he continued before explaining more or less what traffic impact statements do. Councillors generally understood what was being studied and relayed to them in traffic impact statements. (Since it took me roughly two years to fully grasp what these things do, I only asked incumbent councillors who had completed a full term.

The councillor with the best understanding of traffic impact statements was Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit. But even though we both had a good understanding, it still took a couple of minutes of him explaining before we were on the same page. It’s a communication nightmare. 

Oh, and a couple of councillors believe — like most people — that these things study congestion. If they work with these things day in and day out and still have misconceptions, what chance do the rest of us have?  

And we don’t have space in this story for the fact that these traffic impact statements only study their specific development in isolation. They don’t account for developments that aren’t built yet but are in the development process, unless specifically instructed by staff. How can there be no significant impact with the other developments in the area? Easy, don’t factor in the other developments. 

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The good news is there are some pretty easy fixes, well as easy as fixes can be in politics. 

The potentially bad data from the ITE’s handbook can be replaced by Halifax specific data. Kevin Hooper, the ITE engineer, recommended the city collect its own local data. What this means for the HRM is city council requiring developers to track the trips generated by their development once it was completed for a set amount of time. Not to get the developer in trouble if the numbers are off from their traffic impact statement, but just so the city could get HRM specific data. 

This data could then be used in place of the Trip Generation Handbook. Not only would it give Halifax specific information, but as more developments happen the better the data gets. The city could start to identify regional differences to better understand and identify problems with city planning assumptions. Did increasing bus service to an area get people out of their cars? Did making a community walkable decrease car use? For every development built the city could get data to check the planning assumptions against real behaviour.   

Council could also direct staff to make their presentations, or recommendations in reports, in plain language to eliminate some of the confusion, like the traffic, volume and congestion misconceptions. We don’t want to let Calgary beat us on this one, do we

The bad news though is that sometimes congestion is a good thing, especially in preventing climate change. If congestion is bad, but bus service is good, then keeping congestion is okay because it passively encourages people to take the bus. Higher bus ridership (on electric busses) is part of the HRM’s Integrated Mobility Plan and the HalifACT 2050 climate plan. So it would be legitimately weird if council changed the traffic analysis process to try and reduce congestion, undermining their goals elsewhere. 

But here again, is more good news, there are changes coming to the way the city does traffic impact statements. Although it’s not public yet (and so has no public timeline) city staff will be giving a report to council recommending changes to the traffic impact statement process and how it fits into city planning. And if you’re the type of person who likes to call their councillor about traffic getting worse, why not tell them what you want to see change (once the report gets to council)?

There’s no real good way to end a piece that focuses on policy for policy’s sake without a narrative built-in. Like a real traffic jam, you’ve slogged through, slowed down, and gotten a really good look at the problem, and now the road ahead is clear. What you do with this from here is up to you.

Photo by PhotosTheArt (@photostheart, https://photostheart.com/)


A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.

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