Ride Hailing in HRM: Uber, Lyft, and the like were front and centre on Council’s agenda on Tuesday as staff returned with a report on recommended bylaw changes to facilitate ride hailing in HRM. There is technically nothing preventing ride hailing companies from operating in HRM right now as conventional taxi companies with licensed drivers, but that’s not their business model, which is why ride hailing has been unavailable. There is a clear public appetite for ride hailing services so the challenge for HRM is to workout what the rules should be. At the end of a long debate, Council passed an amended motion directing staff to prepare bylaw changes to allow ride hailing companies to operate here. The motion passed 16-1, with just Councillor Whitman voting against the changes.
So what exactly did staff recommend and what concerns did Council have? The staff recommendation was that HRM should:
- License both ride hailing companies and taxi dispatchers
- Continue to license cab drivers, but not ride hailing drivers
- Collect a per trip fee for ride hailing ($0.20), a portion of which would be used to create an accessibility fund
- Write the Province in support of allowing both ride hailing and taxi drivers to operate with a Class 5 license rather than a Class 4
Council’s debate focussed mainly on what oversight should exist over ride hailing drivers, and what license class should be required. I’ll start with the drivers.
Under staff’s proposal, ride hailing companies would be 100% responsible for controlling who can drive for them. HRM would require drivers to pass a vulnerable sector check and the responsibility for compliance would be on the ride hailing companies. HRM would not have any direct say in who is behind the wheel. This to me is problematic, especially in how it potentially relates to the taxi industry.
The taxi industry in HRM has been under the microscope over the last several years after a number of female passengers were sexually assaulted by cab drivers. Many have argued that Uber and Lyft would be safer, but the reality is that people get assaulted in ride hailing vehicles too. Uber recently disclosed that there were over 3,000 reported assaults in the US in 2018. Since we know that the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported, the numbers for both ride hail and taxis is undoubtedly vastly understated. Since sexualized violence is tragically still part of our society, it’s very likely that, when ride hailing comes to HRM, someone will eventually be assaulted by their driver. As the regulator, HRM needs to do what it can to reduce that risk, recognizing that we can’t eliminate it entirely.
My biggest concern with HRM not exercising any real oversight over ride hail drivers is what happens when the municipality suspends a taxi driver? Can a taxi driver that’s suspended for inappropriate, but not criminal behaviour, or criminal behaviour that a victim opts not to pursue, just turnaround and become a ride hailing driver and be back on the road as if nothing happened? The answer to that question from staff was a troubling yes, under the recommended approach suspended drivers could do just that. Also, since ride hailing companies are competitors that don’t cooperate with each other, a driver that is suspended by one could simply become a driver for a competitor. Neither of these situations are acceptable outcomes, but the potential for suspended cab drivers to get right back behind the wheel as ride hailing drivers as if nothing happened is especially problematic.
HRM needs to have some sort of veto over who is allowed to drive to ensure that drivers who have violated the public’s trust can’t just get a do over by moving from taxi to ride hailing or from one company to the next. This shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle since other cities where ride hailing exists, such as Toronto, have some control over who is behind the wheel. I was pleased that my colleagues supported my request for a supplemental report seeking more information on what municipal control we can exercise over who can drive. I’m hopeful that staff will figure out a way to ensure that we’re not creating a revolving door for the taxi industry’s bad apples to become ride hailing drivers.
The other big topic of discussion was the debate as to whether a Class 5 or Class 4 license should be required. The Class 4 category in Nova Scotia is for drivers who transport passengers and it includes taxis, small buses, vans, and ambulances. Large vehicles such as full-sized buses and trucks are licensed in Classes 1-3. The requirements of a Class 4 license is to be over 18 with at least one year’s worth of experience as a Class 5 driver, have a medical check, and pass the Class 4 test.
It’s important to note that HRM has no say over which class of license is required. None. Zero. Zilch. The Motor Vehicle Act sets out which license is required and the Act is 100% controlled by the Province. HRM staff recommended that the municipality write a letter to the Province in support of reducing the requirements for vehicles carrying passengers to Class 5, but Council ended up deciding not to do that by a narrow 9-8 vote. I was one of the 9 who voted not to write the letter and I did so for a few reasons:
- It’s not HRM’s decision to make
- Class 4 has some good things that go with it such as needing a year’s experience, having to be at least 18, and having to periodically pass a medical test
- Despite lobbying by Uber and Lyft, ride hailing companies are operating in other cities where Class 4 type requirements exist including Calgary, Edmonton, and soon Vancouver
- Council wasn’t actually saying Class 4 should be required, the motion was to not offer a position on the subject
After the vote, some have portrayed Council’s decision not to write the Province as blocking ride hailing from coming to HRM. That’s false. Council voted to direct staff to prepare bylaw amendments to enable ride hailing to operate! Our motion was to make the changes that will open up HRM’s vehicle for hire market! It’s frustrating to see the alternative narrative being spread without any context as to what was actually being decided.
To say Council is blocking ride hailing because we opted not to write a near powerless letter that could very well be rejected, as others from HRM have been, is a nonsense argument. The Class 4 versus Class 5 decision isn’t HRM’s to make because it has implications for the entire Province, not just HRM. If a letter from HRM Council is what made change in Nova Scotia, we would have noise standards for motorcycles, 40 km/hr residential speed limits, inclusionary zoning, tougher protection for heritage buildings, etc. Class 4 versus Class 5 is firmly Provincial jurisdiction and it’s the Province’s job to weigh the evidence and decide what’s appropriate for licensing across Nova Scotia and to do so in a timely fashion. They don’t need hand holding from HRM. Given that ride hailing companies are operating elsewhere with stricter requirements than Class 5, I’m also far from convinced that it’ll be a deal breaker for ride hailing if the Province opts to keep Class 4 requirements. Much ado about a letter.
Staff will return with draft bylaw changes in the future, hopefully later in 2020.
Sea King Drive Townhouse Zoning: Now for something completely different. Harbour East Community Council held a public hearing last week to decide on whether to approve rezoning of a large block of vacant land at Lancaster, Sea King, and Woodland from R-1 to the townhouse zone (TH) and to increase the allowable lot coverage for all townhouse zones in Dartmouth from 35% to 45% (50% if the townhouses are one storey tall). In assessing the issue, it really came down to two questions
- Is 45-50% lot coverage appropriate in the townhouse zone?
- Is the townhouse zone appropriate for the vacant land at Sea King, Lancaster, Woodland?
The answer to the first question around lot coverage is a pretty simple yes. The lot coverage in Dartmouth’s R-1 zone is also 35%, and it’s really paradoxical that a somewhat denser development form, townhouses, would have the same lot coverage provisions as single-family homes. Dartmouth’s Main Street area has separate zoning from the rest of Dartmouth since Main Street has had the benefit of a relatively recent comprehensive planning exercise, and the townhouse zone in the Main Street area allows for coverage of 45%. It makes sense that townhouses would fill more of a lot than R-1 and it makes sense that the townhouse zones in Dartmouth would be consistent with one and other. Yes to question one.
The second question about whether townhouses are appropriate and desirable for Sea King, Lancaster and Woodland is more complicated. I have thought about this property off and on over the last three years as I expected that, at some point, a development proposal could come forward (there aren’t many big blocks of vacant land around). What I anticipated as an eventual ask was either commercial development (something the neighbourhood and Council had already rejected), or higher density residential development. I fully expected that some developer would eventually buy the land, and propose a multi-storey residential project on the site, possibly centred around the lost marsh and possibly using Elmore or Brannon for access. A sort of Belchers Marsh from Clayton Park in Dartmouth. What was no where in my mental list of scenarios was that someone would buy the property, fill in the marsh using Sobey’s already existing Provincial permit, and instead propose to fully develop the site with much lower density townhouses.
So what to do with this unexpected proposal? I have door knocked in Lancaster three times over the last few years and one-thing that I have heard from seniors in the area is a desire for options that would allow them to stay in the neighbourhood. Not everyone wants to move to Baker Drive. We need more housing (vacancy rates are rock bottom) and more variety in housing types. Senior-focussed, single-level townhouses is definitely something new, and my sense is it will fill a niche that really is going unaddressed. There aren’t many development proposals where I’m left fielding calls from people who want information on how to get in touch with the developer because they’re interested in living there, but I had calls on this one from several seniors throughout District 5.
From the previous 1st Baptist Church rezoning across the street, it’s also clear that the neighbourhood is concerned about height encroaching on the community from the Mic Mac Mall side of the highway. How the transition from higher density around Mic Mac Mall to Lancaster’s lower scale is managed is important. In terms of compatibility, townhouses are a really good fit. There are, in fact, already similar style townhouses at the top of Tudor and Chinook Courts in the middle of Lancaster Ridge! Of everything that someone is likely to propose for the Sea King, Lancaster, Woodland property, single-level townhouses are by far the least intrusive.
Then there is traffic. 100 townhouses will generate additional traffic, but it’ll be staggered over the course of the day. Not everyone is going to leave the house at the same time at 8:00 causing traffic chaos. If the developer’s plan to make the development senior-focussed pans out, then the traffic impact would be even less than expected since a community that has a lot of retirees is going to be made up of people who travel outside of peak hours, who don’t go out everyday, or don’t own cars at all. In terms of any other possible development for this land, including the 70 plus single-family homes that could go on the site as-of-right, senior’s townhouses will have the lowest possible traffic impact.
Finally, there is the status of Brannon and Elmore Drives on the Ernest Avenue side of the land. When Brannon and Elmore were developed decades ago, they both ended as dead-ends, not cul-du-sacs. The intent was clearly to eventually extend them into the adjacent vacant land. Residents on Ernest, Elmore, and Brannon, however, have understandably gotten use to their streets being really quiet dead-ends. The Sea King, Lancaster, Woodland developer could connect to the end of Brannon and Elmore in an as-of-right proposal and HRM would have no planning rationale to reject. The developer has indicated through the rezoning and work on their concept plan for townhouses that they have no intention of putting vehicle access on Brannon or Elmore and that their preference would be to connect to Lancaster Drive as a second access point. Would that remain the case in a different development scenario? It’s impossible to say. I would rather work with a developer that is keen to build a relatively modest development and that wants to connect onto Lancaster rather than take advantage of the Elmore/Brannon possibilities.
All and all, the Sea King townhouse proposal is, by far, the least intrusive potential use for the vacant lands. Council unanimously approved the change in townhouse lot coverage and the rezoning.
Dartmouth Post Office Heritage Protection: Finally, I was pleased that my colleagues supported my motion to seek heritage protection for the Dartmouth Post Office. Just before Christmas, Canada Post announced that they were moving out of the Post Office for a new location at King’s Wharf. Canada Post is moving because the old building is far too big for their needs. The old Post Office was built for a different era and postal operations have changed considerably over the years. All Canada Post really needs in Downtown Dartmouth today is a retail type presence, and the old Post Office is far too big a building for them.
With Canada Post moving, the question is what happens to the old building? The likely outcome is Canada Post will sell it, but government real estate processes aren’t known for their speed so a listing is likely sometime off. By registering the building, I’m seeking to set the expectation now for whoever buys the property that the old stone building is to remain. Since the property runs the whole block along Queen from King to Wentworth. there is more than enough space to retain the old stone building and still have new development. This isn’t either or, we can most definitely have both.
So what’s next? With my motion approved, staff will research the property’s history and prepare a report for the Heritage Advisory Committee. The Committee will then assess whether the post office meets HRM’s criteria to be registered as a heritage building and that recommendation will then be forwarded to Regional Council. Council will then decide whether or not to hold a hearing to register the building. Given all of that, it’ll likely be sometime in late 2020 or early 2021 that this returns to Council.
Still on the Post Office topic, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the folks who have contacted me suggesting that the old Post Office could make a good home for our lost heritage museum. It’s an idea that has come up a few times before, including when I was a board member at the Heritage Museum Society prior to 2016. I get the appeal. The Post Office is a key part of Dartmouth’s built heritage so why not locate the heritage museum there as well?
At this point, I’m not ruling the idea of HRM buying the Post Office for a museum out, but I think a decision one way or the other is premature. The old museum was closed nearly 20 years ago now, but HRM has never actually done the needed planning work to identify what we need for a new museum. One of the key questions is, are we building a new museum to house the Dartmouth collection or are we building a new Regional Museum that will serve all of HRM since there are many stories that are going untold? If we’re building a home for the Dartmouth collection alone, the space needs are much smaller than what they would be for a Regional facility that includes other stories.
In the home for the Dartmouth collection scenario, one possibility would be to build behind Evergreen House. Evergreen House could then become fully a period-home/Helen Creighton museum with the new building being home to the Dartmouth collection. They would work well together, creating a sort of campus setup that would draw more visitors than either would by itself. The harbour views from a new building behind Evergreen would be spectacular, it might be possible to make the new building minimally intrusive by building into the hill, and a connection to the Harbour Trail should be possible, which would help address Evergreen’s lack of visibility and ready connection to the wider community. Alternatively, there could also be opportunities to house the Dartmouth collection in Alderney.
If, on the other hand, we’re building a Regional Museum, than the Evergreen or Alderney scenarios start to fall apart because of space constraints. A Regional museum would likely need a larger site. Possible locations for a Regional Museum could be the vacant fleet vehicle parking lots at Ochterloney and Alderney, somewhere in Dartmouth Cove, or, possibly, the Post Office.
Council will grapple with the museum question later this year as HRM staff and consultants are working on a museum report that will hopefully come to Council mid-2020. Once HRM has answered the big question of what we’re looking for in a museum project, we can start to think about sites. Given the typical pace of government real estate, the option to buy the Post Office should be available for a while. I anticipate HRM should be able to finish its high-level report, which would then shape whether the Post Office property makes sense to pursue, before the Post Office is listed.
- Enacted HRM’s newest heritage district, the Old South Suburb (south end of Barrington and Hollis Streets)
- Granted an appeal of the Design Review Committee regarding a development on Barrington Street that was then made redundant hours later with the Old South Suburb Heritage district
- Approved an eight storey building on the Bedford Highway near Flamingo
- Directed the CAO to look at expanding waste pick-up in Eastern Passage to weekly from its current biweekly schedule (Eastern Passage is the only part of the urban area that doesn’t receive weekly pick-up)
- Amended Council’s procedural bible, Administrative Order 1, to streamline the committee review process for the Centre Plan’s Package B
- Approved new local improvement charges for street paving in a number of suburban/rural locations
- Entered into a formal management agreement with Events East for the Scotiabank Centre (it’s been an interim agreement for a while now)
- Awarded a tender for a new fire station in Williamswood
- Reviewed police service recommendations
- Established a staff board to review applications to HRM’s new Womden’s Advisory Committee
- Authorized a grant from the Hammonds Plains Area Rate fund to the Highland Park Rate Payer’s Association for trail/park construction in the community
- Declined Councillor Cleary’s request for a staff report on a cooling off period for former councillors and senior staff (I voted in favour, but the majority was opposed)
- Directed the mayor to write a letter asking for a moratorium on houseboats until regulations can be crafted (there are no rules and one has appeared on Lake Mic Mac and more might be coming to Porters Lake)
- Requested a staff report on HRM taking over some community-managed trails (Bayers Lake, Shearwater Flyer) where the community group that has been doing it has hit the limits of what they have capacity for