Ottawa thinks about doing something brilliant

So over the summer Ottawa City Council is going to be grappling with the revolutionary idea of perhaps forming an advisory committee to consult with various factions to float the proposal of a pilot project to construct segregated bicycle lanes in a section of Centretown.  

There’s a lot of congested traffic in that part of the city and the idea is to turn some two-way streets into one-way streets to accommodate bike lanes. Well, some of the city counselors (Centretown’s Diane Homles in particular) reckoned people were going to go crazy if parking spots and driving lanes were going to disappear in favour of new bike lanes.

And she’s probably right. Motorists always go mental when it means they can’t drive somewhere fast or when they can’t park (for free) right in front of where they want to go when they get there. And Centretown businesses will presumably plummet into bankruptcy if fewer cars are able to drive by their shops.

First of all, I’d be willing to bet that the patrons of Centretown shops and restaurants are mostly local – people who live in the area or people who live just outside the area. I don’t think a lot of folks drive in from Kanata or Barrhaven to get their groceries at Hartmans.

Second, Centretown (and as far down as the Glebe) is really the only urban community this city has. Cutting back on vehicular traffic and promoting bicycle and pedestrian traffic in that area is the best idea I’ve heard come out of city council yet….okay maybe even the only good idea.

In fact, I think there are way too many cars and not enough people in the whole downtown core. There’s a whole chunk of prime downtown land on one side of the canal that’s entirely taken up with office buildings and streets. Land that’s used for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, not including holidays. The rest of the time it’s deserted. How crazy is that?

I can’t tell you how disappointed I was, when I first visited Ottawa, to see the famous Sparks Street – touted as Canada’s first pedestrian mall.  It looked so innovative and exciting on the website. I got there on a Sunday afternoon. Not a soul in sight. All the shops and restaurants were closed. Debris, like tumbleweed, wafted around the gloomy, empty square.

If we want to revitalize downtown, we need to move more people into the area and make it as easy and safe as possible for people in the area to get around without having to drive. At least half the space in any downtown core should be residential – both affordable housing complexes and higher- end residences. Once you have people there 24-hours a day, like you do in Centretown, then you attract more shops and restaurants and you cut down the need for ever bigger and wider roads.

I think a downtown core needs only a network of one-way, single-lane streets with segregated bike paths (paths with curbs so cars can’t veer into them or park in them). Sidewalks should be widened to accommodate not only pedestrians but also benches/rest areas, sidewalk cafes, small green spaces, bicycle parking, outdoor shops, buskers, etc. And there would still be room for parking between the road and the bike paths for residents and those who absolutely must drive their cars downtown.

I’ll be interested to see how these “public consultations” on the bike lane issue are going to be conducted. I hope business owners take the time to survey their customers before declaring out-of-hand that no one will show up if there’s less traffic. I hope motorists who just use Centretown streets to drive through on their way to somewhere else aren’t consulted. I hope people with a little vision get the final say. And I hope fellow blogger and avid cyclist, Julia Ringma, is elected to city council in the fall to help keep this project moving.

If any of you live in a city with a vibrant, thriving downtown core, I’d love to hear how your city has accomplished that.


30 responses to “Ottawa thinks about doing something brilliant

  1. Ours was done almost single-handedly by one family, actually two of the Bass brothers. There is a good 1997 article from the Houston Chronicle about how it started it here:

    And it has greatly changed and improved since then.

    And here in a nutshell, is a blurb from Wikipedia’s entry on Ed Bass:
    Urban redevelopment
    Bass is a long-time supporter of downtown redevelopment, and has been described as a “leader in what is recognized as one of the most successful urban revitalization efforts in America”.[19] He and his family began the Sundance Square development in 1982. It combines commercial and residential space in the central business area of Fort Worth, and it received the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit of Enterprise award in 2004.[20] He led the development of Bass Performance Hall,[19] financed without public funding,[21] which opened in 1998.

    I absolutely love to go downtown and enjoyed working there back when I worked.

  2. There are big plans afoot by the mayor of Paris to make wide walking areas along the Seine and reduce the amount of cars. He’s really a “green” mayor and many bike paths are now in place.

  3. Our city government hates out downtown area. Which is fine by me since I live near it. The less traffic downtown the better.

  4. You’re right. I’ve gone on long bike rides and downtown sucks. You can cycle from the East End, along the Parkway, and easily get downtown within 45 minutes.

    But once you’re downtown, you have to run the gauntlet of traffic, traffic, traffic, and traffic lights. And constantly getting off and on your bike, till you reach the Western Parkway near the War Museum.

    There’s really no nice bike paths to by-pass that or go through the whole downtown areas.

    Though I suppose it’s better than what we have here. Once I’m out of the 2-km vicinity of Splat Creek, there isn’t much to cycle on except the Trans-Canada Highway.

    It’s a 40 minute drive to get to areas with quiet farm roads to cycle on…which kinda defeats the whole purpose.

  5. When I lived in Chinatown and worked in The Glebe I used the exclusive use bike lanes on Percy Street every day, coming and going. It was so wonderfully convenient, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t put the lanes in the rest of downtown.

    As far as businesses go, I will say that personally, if I am on a bike, I’m more likely to shop in the downtown core. It’s easier than finding parking for a car, and faster than walking.

    And I’ve always been jealous of Montreal’s bike lanes. Bike lanes in Ottawa would be a dream come true.

  6. Hitching posts. THATS what Ottawa needs. I couldn’t care less if bicyclists have a freer reign of downtown. I just wanna ride my horse in, tie her up to a hitching post and get my shopping done. Shy of one horse, I’d rather then pull up in my 550 horsepower car.

  7. Ottawa is already blessed with so many miles of bicycle lanes but by all means get more. Centretown would definitely benefit from cycle lanes though and I totally agree with what you said about Sparks Street. I used to enjoy cycling along the canal and along the Rideau River.

  8. They definitely need to do something! As well as heavier fines/penalties for the a-hole cyclists who zoom down sideWALKS, sometimes literally crashing into pedestrians!

  9. Whenever a new bike lane is proposed, it becomes labelled a ‘war against the car’ issue. There is a new one planned for a major arterial road in Toronto and now, with the mayoral election looming, it threatens to become a big political issue. Very definitely a ‘us vs them’ attitude when it comes to modes of transportation. There are a few candidates who say they would rip out the bike lanes if it goes ahead and they are later elected.

  10. I just can’t figure out why many of the roads that have recently undergone construction have gotten less bicycle-friendly than they were before. Wellington West was torn up last year and now it has all kinds of bumpouts that squeeze bikes closer into cars in a fairly erratic way. I have biked and driven this road many times, and I don’t feel safe as either a cyclist or a driver when the road is being shared by both.

  11. When cycling from the Chinatown area to the ByWard Market area, I usually avoid Centretown entirely by taking the river path. It is longer, but there are no cars and lights to deal with.

    Segregated bike lanes on one way streets would be welcome and convenient.

  12. Thanks for the shout-out and the discussion. Recreational pathways are fine – for recreation. But when you bike because you don’t drive, you want to get where you are going in the shortest possible way. Let’s go, bike lanes!

  13. Geetwits – Very cool. Here they would tie a private developer up in so much red tape, he’s die before the blueprints ever got commissioned. I don’t think a lot of people “love” going downtown here. The young people like going to the clubs and the tourists like going to the Parliament buildings, but that’s about it.

    Linda – Paris, and most European cities are light years ahead of North America. The car isn’t as important in Europe because it’s all so compact and the countries weren’t built by car manufacturers like ours were.

    Dr. Monkey – Why do they hate it? Because there’s no traffic?

    Friar – Ya, rural areas have never been much for bike paths…probably since they don’t really have the traffic problem. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a bike path all along the TransCanada highway?

    Jennifer – It’s funny because there was a story in the Globe today that Toronto wants to pilot a bike path down University Ave and one of the city councilors called the idea “sheer madness”. All they’re thinking of is how it will slow down traffic. They should think that maybe that’s not a bad thing. If the going is too slow people will stop driving that route and start finding routes outside of the city core. I agree that business will not suffer and maybe even increase if there was less car traffic in Centretown.

    Lebowskie – What are you implying?

    LGS – Our bicycle paths are pretty much limited to the Riverside trails, which I might add, are in pretty rough shape. Those are nice for scenic cycling and will get you close to places, but then you have to battle highways and city traffic.

    Friar – It had a peak?

    Grouchy – Sorry. I didn’t realize I was being redundant. Where are the other bike lane discussions.

    Pauline – Stands to reason that if we have pedestrians, motorists and cyclists there should be 3 different areas on which they travel.

    Violetsky – Yes, I just read that today as I mentioned to Jennifer. I don’t know if it’s a “war” so much as realizing that our overuse of the car can’t continue for a lot of reasons. And that more biking and walking aligns with ever other value being promoted these days – revitalizing downtown cores, better health, lowered pollution, etc.

    Finola – I don’t feel safe cycling around Ottawa either, which is why I quit doing it shortly after I started. It really doesn’t make sense. The city has this 20 year plan for cycle paths…I don’t know what that means either…maybe it means let’s let the people 20 years from now worry about it.

    Milan – I know, eh? I fail to see what all the fuss is about sharing a bit of the road. The fact that there’s such vehement opposition to it would make me extra scared to try and ride on those streets now.

    Julia – Yay, Julia. Have you been following Toronto City Hall’s similar discussion?

  14. No, it’s not you. It’s just that it comes up in most of the meatspace circles I’m involved with, and I’ve gotten rather sick of it.

    – RG>

  15. Sounds like a good idea to me, but I probably won’t ever use them. The girls and I do all our biking in the village. I can’t see us doing the long trip into town any time soon.

  16. Last year they introduced the Bixi (bikes you rent) in Montreal. Everyone was screaming about the loss of parking because the Bixi stands (which hold about a dozen bikes I think) would take up 3-4 parking spaces. Who, I thought, would rent a bike for 15 minutes? Why not have your own if you’re going to bike somewhere? I thought it’d flop.

    But it didn’t. It was a huge success. No one is screaming now. I think you just have to force them into it….

  17. Amen. But I still remember my struggles to get my mother to her dentist on Sparks Street; she could not walk much more than a block if it was flat and could not handle stairs. Moral, move demned dentist to more accessible location; he finally did so but by then my mother had a different dentist. On Baseline Road.

  18. I went to the Cycling Advisory Committee a couple of weeks ago – where they discussed the studies that had been started on the best streets to put a bike lane in. The news stories out now are just playing catch-up. If you go here:
    you can find all the cool committees the city runs.
    Real Grouchy was even there!

    The problem with cycling is it tends to divide along the converted v. everyone else lines and not every often shall the twain meet. It’s like “helmet wars” within the cycling group itself. For example, see:

    I am aware of the Toronto discussion, yes. I downloaded a 38 page PDF on the Bloor Street bike lane proposal and have read most of it. None of it is new stuff however, as they have had this in Europe for years, but I suppose it’s new to the unconverted.

    I think Real Grouchy is suffering from discussion fatigue and would like to just get on with it already. Me to.

  19. Centertown is the only real urban community Ottawa has eh?

    I’ll just tell my folks in Westboro, West Wellington, and Hintonburg that we aren’t real enough for you. Read up. We’re real, we’re here and we’re urban and we are most definitely a community.

    Also think the folks on Somerset West, Preston St., and Sandy Hill might have issue with this as well… just saying. (I’m missing a few here)

  20. We have anti-cycling screamers here in Portland too, arguably the most bicycle friendly city in the US. Somehow because 6% of the population commutes by bike (as viable “transportation,” not as recreation) it becomes some dark “social engineering” plan to want to spend 1% of the budget on biking infrastructure. The New World Order shall arrive on a ten speed, people.

  21. I will vehemently oppose the bastardization of Ottawa’s downtown core with bike lanes.

    There is snow and ice on the ground for 6 months of the year here (normally, this year is an exception). Cyclists sharing the road with even 1 car during that period is needlessly dangerous. So many cyclists are hurt in the winter here, I’m amazed our mommy-knows-best city council even permits bicycles to be ridden with city limits from November until May.

    The absolute last thing we need downtown in the winter is a greater traffic snarl caused by the combination of bike lanes, and the resulting cyclist-slides-into-traffic that would come with it.

    What Ottawa needs to concentrate on first is getting proper public transit moving people around. Once we have that, there will be less car traffic in the core. Then bike lanes might be a consideration if they’re fully segregated.

    I’d really, really love (i.e. I’d pay increased taxes for it if they’d do it) to see Ottawa police crack down permanently on cycling road offences. Cyclists want all the privileges of riding without the responsibilities. It’s well past time they started getting tickets for failure to stop (at lights and stop signs), riding without lights at night (although that’s a Darwin issue that will correct itself eventually), failure to share road (when they’re weaving around downtown) and so forth. Far too many cyclists seem to think that their bicycle gives them divine providence to ignore traffic laws.

  22. Before someone mentions Montreal and compares their weather to ours, please note that Montreal has decent public transit. Ottawa does not. A lot of people MUST drive in Ottawa due to the way the city is organized.

  23. Grouchy – Well, it’s nice to see there’s some interest in it anyway.

    Alison – You prove my point that people from outside of the community don’t spend much time in Centretown whether they’re on their bikes or in their cars.

    Jazz- If you build it they will come.

    Mary – It’s not a very walkable city.

    Julia – Everything requires decades of discussion, consultation, committee meetings, etc. etc, in Ottawa and then it’s still a major screw-up when it’s finally done.

    Brett – Halifax has that in the summer, too. It’s called FRED and provides service around the downtown and surrounding area from about April/May through September/October.

    Nat – Okay, I don’t know those areas that well. I’m thinking of a community where people can live and work and do most of their day-to-day business without the need of a car. I singled out Centretown because it’s actually and easy walk to downtown and even Gatineau where a bulk of the population works.

    Heather – It’s bizarre how deeply, deeply North Americans are attached to their automobiles.

    Squid – I totally agree that cyclists need to be held to account on safe cycling laws. Too many of them seem to think they’re invincible and are entitled to ride wherever they want and however they want. I also agree that any bike lanes that are established will need to be fully segregated. Stupid white lines painted on the side of the road are not bicycle lanes – they’re recipes for disaster. And absolutely the transit system needs a major overhaul. We need to get cars out of the downtown core. Part of the thinking, I suppose is if we establish segregated cycling lanes, more people will use their bikes rather than cars, eliminating some traffic, but also that traffic will slow down to such an extent that people will think twice about using that route and find alternate routes that do not take them through the downtown area. However, since council has decided to shelve the idea and ”look into it further” I’m sure we won’t have to worry about any progress in our lifetimes anyway.

  24. XUP – would you please tell Squid that I’m not going to respond to his flamebait about winter cycling?

    Streets are for people, not cars.

    – RG>

  25. Streets are for motor vehicles. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have lane markers and speed limits faster than 15 km/h. That anything else can be done on the street other than operate a motor vehicle is a lucky bonus.

    Winter cycling is dangerous in Ottawa’s climate. Even if the cyclists don’t care about their own lives, when a cyclist gets hit by a car, the driver of the car suffers with the knowledge that they injured someone. The driver of the car usually (but not always!) gets blamed, despite the fact that the cyclist is doing something rational people consider to be monumentally crazy. I can think of two cyclists who owe their lives to the fact that I drive an appropriate vehicle for this climate and was therefore able to stop in time when they dumped their bikes in front of me on the bridge at Eddy. I’ve often wondered how many aren’t so lucky.

    If people want to cycle in the winter, that’s a choice, but it shouldn’t be done on the road. Of course, I’m sure RG is a perfect cyclist who obeys every rule of the road and rides with the utmost caution and safety at all times. He is, most certainly, a high-quality role model for cyclists everywhere. Unfortunately, a good many – I’ll even boldly say “most” – of his co-cyclists are not such archetypes.

    In any case, that’s all beside the main point here. Ottawa needs good, reliable public transit first and foremost. When it has that, then there will be less cars in the core. When there are less cars in the core, some of the roads can be re-purposed for cycling. It’s ass-backward to munge the roads for cycling while not providing a realistic infrastructure for people to get into, out of, and through the core.

    The other way to get cars out of the core, of course, is to move all those government buildings out to the fringes.

  26. The first street paved in Ottawa was Sparks Street around 1900. There were no motor vehicles in Ottawa at the time. Streets were paved for cyclists.

    The “Ottawa’s climate” stuff is bullshit. Two of the last five winters barely had any snow for most of the winter. If you’re afraid of riding a bike, or of driving a car on the same roads as bikes, maybe you should be the one evaluating your transportation choices.

    – RG>

  27. Grouchy & Squid – I don’t know why it always has to be an “us against them” scenario. We have public transit, automobiles, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians who all need to get around downtown. Good urban planners will design a downtown core that can safely and efficiently move people around the downtown core accommodating all those modes of transportation. The best urban centres find ways to restrict automobile traffic and encourage other modes of transportation. Because, a thriving downtown is not a thoroughfare. The idea is to have people moving around the city, in and out of the shops and businesses — not driving through the core to get somewhere else. Of course a good public transportation system is the key., but no one seems willing to tackle that so the half-hearted suggestion of segregated cycling lanes is the panacea. that I guess they hope will keep the disgruntled happily arguing about for the next 10 years.