Complete streets in Ottawa: test driving the proposed policy on Main Street

Main Street is one of the first major street reconstructions in Ottawa where the preferred design includes a segregated cycletrack, an upgrade to standard width sidewalks and a reduced vehicle lane capacity in the rush hours to prevent rampant speeding in the off-peak hours. Who could argue with any of these things?

Co-existing.

The project (if approved) will put Ottawa on the map much like our Laurier Segregated Bike Lane did. The potential to have the project lauded in centres across Canada is as valuable as any tourism campaign. If you want to be seen as a progressive city, you need to be known for some serious city building projects – not just glass towers.

Brewer Market bikes! People on bikes do shop. A lot.

The downtown is expanding

Our suburbs are expanding and so too is our concept of “downtown Ottawa”. Once confined to the Parliamentary Precinct, Centretown and the Byward Market, downtown has grown to include the near south (Glebe, Old Ottawa South), the near west (Hintonburg, Westboro) and the near east (Beechwood, Vanier and Old Ottawa East). Some of areas became part of the “new downtown” quicker than others – mostly due to the ease of access through walking, transit and biking. With more people choosing to live centrally and rely on cycling or transit to get around, the size of the downtown has grown as more than walking becomes an attractive option.

With the right infrastructure, everyone can be safe.

Our current Official Master Plan already supports complete streets

Our Official Master Plan has called for prioritizing walking, biking, and transit in Ottawa since 2008. And our draft Official Master Plan strengthens this line of thinking with clear policy proposals including one for “Complete Streets.” But not everyone on council is fond of the direction that they are supposed to have been following since 2008. (That was a tongue twister.)

When the complete street proposal for Main Street arrived at the Transportation Committee on Friday, everyone involved in the project planning leading up to this meeting knew it would be controversial – it is after all, a first for Ottawa. It didn’t take long for councillors to resort to fear mongering and the curse of “social engineering” – thinking they could perform a hit-and-run on the city’s policies and make it home for dinner.

Safety vs. Speed

Only the urban councillors seemed to grasp the problems faced by residents or those arriving to Main Street by other means than a private car. Speeding, lack of safe cycling space, inferior sidewalks, lack of parking for businesses, no bus shelters, no greenery… the list went on. But the only thing many heard was that the reallocation of road space for cycling and pedestrians would result in a 3 minute delay during the afternoon commute.

No one spoke of the current delay to pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians can easily be waiting a minute and a half (or more) for traffic signals to turn in their favour. Cyclists choose longer detours to avoid dangerous road conditions. Why do we not account for their delay in our planning? Are they not equal?

Not a road warrior.

Half of the committee was ready to sell out Main Street’s future to have a safe and economically vibrant street for the sake of three minutes. Apparently, when you choose to live downtown, you also forfeit your right to live and move safely in your neighbourhood.

Students cycling to Main Street’s university campus – despite terrible conditions.

Councillor (and Deputy Mayor) Steve Desroches, even showed up to do a cameo anti-lane reduction performance. (It would save a lot of money for him as a dad to twins to purchase two bikes rather than two cars in their future. Imagine how expensive cars will be in 16 years. Yikes!)

The Main library is easily accessible by bike. Not every destination is a workplace.

Traffic calming is good for my ward (and votes), but not yours

Of course, when there is speeding in Mr. Desroches’ ward, out come the speed boards, radar guns and calls for traffic calming measures. He was quick to put his foot down about increasing Main Street’s capacity to serve pedestrians and cyclists, without ever knowing that Main Street has a severe speeding problem in the 22 off-peak hours of the day. He confirmed that he would not back this project when it reached council and then exited.

The “not until we have transit options” excuse (AKA gosh we’re kicking ourselves for cancelling that north-south LRT now)

The call to halt reducing car lanes until there is an increase in public transit is airless rhetoric. Those doing the huffing about the lack of transit have not acted to secure more funding or divert road building dollars into transit. We could see council pressure the city the change the development charge structure with the province (like Toronto did) so that the city CAN spend money on new transit options. But instead, we are forced to watch councillors use the lack of transit as a distracting volleyball in order to maintain the status quo. This leaves those who want complete streets spinning their tires in the resulting goop from council mud flinging meeting after meeting.

Young people don’t all drive. They bus. They walk.

Diane Deans, our current chair of the transit commission and councillor to the ward just south of Main Street spoke passionately about her ward’s needs to commute through Main Street by vehicle. Indeed, her first question to Old Ottawa East president, John Dance, was to seek his support for an alternative new highway (not transit). She put forth a motion (which ultimately failed) that would have directed staff to re-evaluate the lowest ranking option for the street rebuild (AKA the “Bronson – put it back as it was” option). Despite the fact that her ward was represented through their community association at the working group meetings and an open house for the project was held in her ward (where feedback was far from being a wall of negativity), she preferred to try and broken a deal to let Main Street have their complete street if they supported a 60 million dollar 1.2km new highway through Alta Vista.

Deans suggested that the city shouldn’t be pursuing a complete street option until it was approved in the new Official Master Plan (even though it has been in the Official Master Plan since 2008 just without using the term.) She questioned whether a four lane arterial could be a complete street. In theory, it could, if there were no other users competing for the right to use the same space. But that is not the case on Main Street.

Yes, even in the winter.

She continued to report that ‘her’ residents aren’t interested in complete streets – except for the ones in Blossom Park where “community safety remains of paramount importance.”

Bloess as well tried to bargain for a Nicholas Street bridge in return for a complete street on Main. In the end, he chose to support a complete street option when others dared not break the cardinal rule of Ottawa transportation planning, “drivers must never lose“.

Choking downtown traffic and killing children

Perhaps the most spirited exchange came between Kanata South councillor, Allan Hubley and Ecology Ottawa’s Trevor Haché. Hubley led his questioning with a statistic about the rate of car commuting – unfortunately he chose to quote the overall Canadian number and not that of Ottawa. (Yes, we know that many use the road for more than just “commuting”.) He also tried to pursue the myth that biking is not feasible all year round (despite the success of winter clearing on the Laurier Bike Lane).

He predicted dire consequences of “choking” the supply of goods and services (by that he meant commuters). Haché replied that the city has 5000km of roadways and we’re talking about an 800m segment. He then threw Hubley a curveball – he was speaking not only as a proponent of complete streets but as a resident of Hubley’s own ward. Zing.

Hubley tried to again redirect the discussion into the impending doom of the cycletrack’s tentative design that is flush with the sidewalk. Despite the fact that the city already has other cycle track projects in the works, including Churchill Avenue and Laurier Avenue. Would pedestrians be run down by “road warrior” cyclists? Are we going to see an “increase in bikes nailing children”? You start to get the impression he’s never seen anyone use a bicycle other than in the Tour de France. Grocery shopping, doing the school run, biking to University and getting to work can actually be accomplished without flattening pedestrians in the process. Does anyone think that having elementary kids walking to Lady Evelyn alongside traffic moving at 70km/h is a safer alternative?

The school run. Downtown is for everyone.

The only resident who signed up to speak from Alta Vista was in favour of the complete street option. Not a single community group from south of Main Street came to speak. In fact, not a single speaker at the meeting was opposed to the plan.

Oh, we do support complete streets… just not now.

Peter Clark asked about speeding and the planners were happy to remind the committee that the 85th percentile speed was 70-75km/h. Well over the road’s 50km/h speed limit. Clark recognized immediately that the motion to “re-examine” option 3 would effectively kill the prospect of not only turning Main Street into a complete street for at least 20 years, but any street in Ottawa. He called the council members out on their feigned interest in complete streets – just not here and just not now.

People are fragile. Let’s not see this again.

The ‘just not now’ excuse came up several times. The problem is, the project has funding now, not in 2017. Would the city fund a redo Main Street three years from now? Meanwhile, the decisions for drainage for the sidewalks and cycletracks need to be made now. To retrofit Main Street from four lanes to cycletracks would be extremely costly (this is why Laurier Avenue won’t get its lanes raised until it comes up for renewal in 2018). If they are concerned about completing construction efficiently and using our tax dollars wisely, redoing a brand new road is not a sound financial decision.

Winter “warriors” wear rubber boots.

Friendly reminder, the road will still function for everyone

Marianne Wilkinson attempted to inject common sense into the debate. But by this point, no one seemed to really be listening to anyone else. Wilkinson reminded everyone that the road would still function, albeit with some delay at the peak hour. The flow of vehicle traffic was not being cut off. The street is still open for driving.

Social engineering? Or simply modern transportation planning?

Hubley returned to question the project’s attempt at “social engineering” behavioral change. (As if returning the street to a car dominated road wasn’t socially engineering users to opt for their cars. The idea of deliberately putting a cap on the road’s vehicle capacity seems beyond imaginable. Unlike in his ward, our downtown streets cannot continue to grow wider, so we are choosing to grow them smarter.

Holt Renfrew promotes cycling as chic.. not psycho.

Scott Moffatt remained quiet – perhaps due to the concerns over speeding and pedestrian safety on his ward’s main street where residents and business owners have been asking for a safer, calmer street as through traffic increases. He too has chosen the “I support it, but just not now” approach.

Cool heads prevail

Luckily, Keith Egli, the new transportation chair, demonstrated that not only had he read and understood the city’s Official Master Plan and Transportation Plan, but he was prepared to stand up and defend these plans. When the Deputy Mayor offered his opinion without hearing any of the preceding evidence, Egli quickly called him out on it. He relied on sound information from his staff and the backing of Citizens for Safe Cycling that the cycletrack was a safe option.

Just people moving. Where choice is possible.

The final vote came in and passed 6-4.

Those opposed to a complete Main Street included:

  • Tim Tierney
  • Diane Deans
  • Scott Moffatt
  • Allan Hubley

Those in favour:

  • Mathieu Fleury
  • Marianne Wilkinson
  • Keith Egli
  • David Chernushenko
  • Peter Clark
  • Rainer Bloess

In the end, a complete street isn’t about converting everyone to go car-free. A complete street allows residents an equal opportunity to choose their preferred method of travel where no option feels more unsafe than another. For Main Street, it gives the majority of residents who identify as being interested in biking but concerned for their safety, an equal amount of confidence in their choice of transportation as someone traveling in a protected metal box surrounded with air bags. It will enable Main Street to become more attractive and walkable, which will lead to a more vibrant and economically robust economy. There will be more jobs. There will be more people.

Bike friendly business districts see more shoppers arrive on bikes. Saving many parking spots for those who need them.

The future residents on the Oblate lands are going to love their new neighbourhood – thanks to the hard work of current residents.

If you support the idea of complete streets for your area too – tell your councillor. If this fails for Main Street, it fails for everyone.

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