Main Street Will Become a Complete Street and Here is Why

My 82 year old mother-in-law bought a Spark. The target group of Generation Y buys bikes instead.
Shopping for flowers and annuals by ModalMom and her son in a Dutch cargo bike. (photo: Modalmom.com)
Shopping for flowers and annuals by ModalMom and her son in a Dutch cargo bike. (photo: Modalmom.com)

Update July 17, 2013: council passed the proposal for Main street with 18 in favour – 6 against (Moffatt, Blais, Hubley, Desroches, Deans, Harder: worries about traffic flow from suburbia to down town and timing of reconstruction).

The City of Ottawa has active transportation high on the agenda. The highest priorities are pedestrians and cyclists. After active transportation comes public transportation. At the bottom of the pile is the car, the 3000 pound gorilla that has shaped Ottawa over the last 60-70 years or so. But the car’s hegemony over infrastructure is starting to show cracks. Rescue Bronson Ave has already shown that Ottawans are increasingly restless about the dominance of the car. Not that they are against it, but can it be a little less please.

The City of Ottawa's couple of years old bike cage, built to withstand a nuclear attack from North Korea, is already too small.
The City of Ottawa’s couple of years old bike cage, built to withstand a nuclear attack from North Korea, is already too small.

Rightly so, because Ottawa’s 20/20 Growth Management Strategy reads:

  • A Focus on Walking, Cycling and Transit – Ottawa implements policies that favour walking, cycling and public transit over the use of private motor vehicles, thereby facilitating the use of modes of transportation that are socially accessible, environmentally healthy and economically feasible.

The Ottawa Transportation Masterplan is brimming with lines like:

  • Providing high-quality services and facilities for walking, cycling and transit
  • Improving road safety
  • Supporting a vibrant downtown by preserving multi-modal access, with a focus on walking, cycling and transit
  • Maximizing the use of walking, cycling and transit through supply and demand management
  • Maximizing access to community services and facilities by walking, cycling and transit
  • Reducing public and private costs by promoting efficient modes of transportation
  • Promoting active transportation as a component of healthy lifestyles
  • Providing comprehensive walking and cycling networks
  • Minimizing air pollution from transportation

More asphalt

The Ministry of Highways Engineers Transportation of Ontario is working hard to get more cars on the road. The Queensway gets wider and wider, and is at ten lanes out in Kanata. The 174 will be widened and work is on its way at the split in the east end. Hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, are thrown towards car infrastructure in our region alone, to alleviate two hours of traffic in the morning and two hours in the afternoon for only 5 days per week and not even year round. We are probably talking less than 200 days a year. That is 800 hours of the 8760 hours in a year or less than 10% of the time.

Although this looks more like a post Katrina landscape in New Orleans, it is the current exit at Parkdale. The empty space on the left used to have houses, but they are razed (not that I would want to live between a highway and an off ramp) for a wider off ramp. It is apparently the only off ramp in North America that runs past houses.
Although this looks more like a post Katrina landscape in New Orleans in the Lower Ninth, it is the current exit at Parkdale. The empty space on the left used to have houses, but they are razed (not that I would want to live between a highway and an off ramp) for a wider off ramp. It is apparently the only off ramp in North America that runs past houses.

And that is not all: there are plans to widen the off ramp to Parkdale to two lanes and widen Chamberlain to three lanes. The province appears to have lots of money. (If you are into conspiracy, one might think that the province helps creating a bigger market for the car industry in southern Ontario, but of course, that would go too far). As you remember from a previous blog they also set aside 50 million dollars for cycling for the entire province to be shared with other infrastructure demands. 50 million dollars is roughly the equivalent of 1 kilometer of road.

This building needs to go in order to allow traffic coming from this off ramp towards Bronson to cross Bronson to flow straight into Chamberlain, that will be turned into a three lane one way road past the Bytowne Urban Gardens (check the lead in your organic  lettuce) and the Glebe Memorial Park.
This building needs to go in order to allow traffic coming from this off ramp towards Bronson to cross Bronson to flow straight into Chamberlain, that will be turned into a full three lane one way road passing the Bytowne Urban Gardens (check the lead in your organic lettuce) and the Glebe Memorial Park.

Pushing the problem ahead

We all know -and city council knows it too- that wider roads will attract more traffic thereby pushing the problem forward rather than solving it. The province is simply serving up more and more cars to downtown Ottawa.

l’histoire se répète

Yet, eventually the larger supply of traffic will gridlock the city’s core and older burbs. Bronson has its share, Parkdale gets more congested and let’s not even start about King Edward. Preston gets clogged now because more and more people seek alternative routes. I have experienced it in the early years of my working life in the Netherlands, when I saw the highway getting clogged, then the arteries to bypass the highways and eventually the side streets. In three years, I went from 110 k/hr on the highway to winding through industrial areas of Schiedam to find my way home. One of the solutions in the Netherlands is to bring the speed limits on highways down to 80k/hr in rush hour as lower speeds move more vehicles, as they roll more constant rather than speeding up and slowing down again. (we are going to figure that out in Canada in 2025)

After the highway got clogged I ended up commuting through an industrial area in the Netherlands. Note that this is still a compete street, as narrow as it is. It does handle large trucks still.  (Google Street view)
After the highway got clogged I ended up commuting through an industrial area in the Netherlands. Note that this is still a complete street, as narrow as it is. It does handle large trucks still. The red pavement are bike tracks. (Google Street view)

A finite amount of space

Currently, Main Street in old Ottawa East is being redesigned. It went from a complete street design to ‘too many cars, can’t do it’ back to a complete street design again. This is the problem. Our starting point remains the quantity of cars. Rather than trying to address the cause, we keep accommodating the effects: the ever increasing supply of cars. If we want to be the healthy city we claim we are, we must redefine the starting point. That is not a certain given amount of cars, but a given amount of space. The starting point has to be that space is finite in the city and that this space needs to be primarily designed for the people who live in a certain space.

Main Street in Ottawa is not a pretty place.
Main Street in Ottawa is not a pretty place. (Google Street View)

Leeks and Baguettes

Currently Main Street is not the pleasant main street as we imagine it. Mention main street, and we think of rocking chairs on porches, small retail selling flowers and knick knacks, side walk cafes where the Ottawa Sun lies on the table next to the Ottawa Citizen, where Yasir Naqvi meets David Chernushenko over chai. A street where dad comes home on his cargo bike after picking up the kids, where students check their Nokia Blackberry HTC Iphone Samsung in the local park and dog owners complain about the lack of dog runs. The mayor cycles by and waves to old ladies in flower dresses, returning from the opening of an envelope. A street where the SUV owner accidentally drives over the pink bike that his neighbour kid carelessly left on his drive way and apologizes profoundly. A street where bicycles are parked with leeks and baguettes sticking out of the basket on the handle bars. A place where kids play games on the side walk.

You get the picture.

Potential

Ottawa Main Street has this potential. With neighbourhoods on both sides Main Street should not become the great divide. Build a wide road, you’ll attract more cars and in a few years you are back at square one plus two lanes of traffic each way. Build a narrower road with bike lanes and you’ll attract more life. I just read a tweet that the introduction of bike lanes and other improvements in NYC Union Square decreased business vacancies with 49%. Space is in demand again! It is not unlike the Byward market: as long as it’s car dominated it won’t get anywhere.

Interested in cycling is rapidly increasing. This is at the noon hour Envirocentre Bike mobile info booth.
Interested in cycling is rapidly increasing. This is at the noon hour Envirocentre Bike mobile info booth.

Concerned car dealers

There will be new developments along Main Street too. There is concern that this will add traffic. But it will likely attract a demographic that is happy with all new conveniences of Main Street, and a two kilometer safe bike ride to the light rail station. Like in other western countries, among Generation Y (let alone Z), the appetite for a car is rapidly decreasing for the huge financial burden it brings.

My 82 year old mother-in-law bought a Spark. The target group of Generation Y buys bikes instead.
My 82 year old mother-in-law bought a Spark. The target group of Generation Y buys bikes instead.

That is why GM is advertising the Spark for $97 dollar biweekly. The Spark is an attempt to get kids in cars. I am happy to report that my 82 year old mother in law bought one after her Buick died. Here is the concern of the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association of Ontario:

One of the biggest challenges faced by dealers and manufacturers is attracting Gen Y or younger buyers to their showrooms. According to R.L. Polk & Co., in April 2007, buyers aged 18 to 34 represented approximately 17 per cent of new car purchases, whereas in April 2012, the percentage of buyers in that age bracket fell to 11 per cent. This desire to reach Gen Y buyers will continue to be a challenge for our industry, but I am confident that we will continue to find new and creative ways of reaching this emerging market. Source: Tada.ca

That is why you see more and more cycling out there. It has nothing to do with being green, it is the of result job insecurity, contract work and lack of benefits. A car is becoming a liability. Ottawans are cycling again, despite efforts from car dealers to condition Gen Y into a car by giving free demo rides at schools in Ottawa. Yes, you read that right.

No impact on traffic on Laurier

The Laurier bike lane pilot evaluation (PDF, 7.2 Mb) has shown interesting stats: there was hardly any loss of travel time, emergency vehicles have not seen an increase in response time, car accidents were down and cycling quadrupled. The world din’t stop spinning.

Adding it all up

  1. Ottawa’s growth strategy points to integrated active transportation and transit as the future of Ottawa;
  2. The Transportation Masterplan puts the focus on cycling and walking and transit;
  3. Gen Y aren’t buying cars like their parents did. They’ll move into town and demand more cycling, walking and transit options. Growth in car sales (read: cars on the road) is not a given anymore.
  4. Cycling in Ottawa is growing much faster than foreseen
  5. The Laurier Pilot has shown that the world is not coming to an end if we reduce car lanes.

There is no doubt in my mind that Main Street will become a complete street. There was hardly any discontent about the new proposals for active transportation accessibility at the two open houses this week. After the Bronson Blunder, there is no reason why we would rebuild 60’s infrastructure. But make sure your councillor in Transportation Committee knows that too. Send them an email.

5 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on yowLAB and commented:
    A really great read about Main Street’s upcoming transformation into a Complete Street.

    If we want to be the healthy city we claim we are, we must redefine the starting point. That is not a certain given amount of cars, but a given amount of space. The starting point has to be that space is finite in the city and that this space needs to be primarily designed for the people who live in a certain space.

  2. Hans – great article. I look forward to re-reading it in 2016 from a patio on Main Street while sipping a cold frothy beverage. The street will be buzzing with people and conversations – sigh. Here’s to innovation and leadership right in our own backyard.

  3. We’re rooting for you Main Streeters! It will be a model for the city and countless other cities across Ontario and Canada. Main Street Rising? Yes!

  4. Excellent blog. Here’s to a Main Street where people feel comfortable walking, cycling, maybe even stopping to have a chat with friends and neighbours.(Unlike what we have now, where cars speed through our neighbourhood on Main Street, which acts as a barrier that cuts our small community in half, and where pedestrians and cyclists feel completely marginalized.)

  5. Couldn’t agree more … very well written. City staff and Councillor Chernushenko (and I hope Mayor Watson) deserve a lot of credit for developing the plan. it will be interesting to see if Transportation Committee approves the “preferred design” at their July 5 meeting. If they don’t, king car will have triumphed again, to the ever-lasting detriment of the city and I don’t know what sort of future other complete street proposals will ever have.

    john dance, chair Old Ottawa East Community Association.

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