The New Elgin Street. Can we do it?

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Elgin Street, Ottawa in 1901. The sidewalks were already not too wide, but at least they were paved.
In 2018 Elgin Street will get new sewers.  A major section of the Sens Mile will be ripped up. This is usually a once in a lifetime (literally) opportunity to reconfigure the street. This happened to Bank Street downtown, Preston Street and more recently Churchill Ave, which has become a much more visually appealing street, with raised bike tracks no less. Main Street in Old Ottawa East is currently undergoing a metamorphosis and will get raised bike lanes, street art and wider sidewalks too.

So you might expect that as a cyclist (noooooo, not ‘avid’) I’d suggest bike tracks for Elgin too. But for me, it doesn’t have to be the starting point perse. Elgin can become a different street if the political will is there to accept Elgin as a destination and not as thoroughfare for commuter traffic.

Indeed, Elgin is a typical destination street. There are shops and restaurants and during the good times, Ottawa’s local hockey (note to Dutch, don’t call it “ice hockey”) fans go to Elgin, which for the occasion is baptised the ‘Sens Mile’, after local hockey club the Senators.

Destination streets should be complete streets and serve all kinds of traffic, particularly pedestrians, who should be able to walk around freely, without having to be afraid for their lives. It doesn’t have to be another Sparks street though, but a four lane road through a destination area is probably a bit much. Hence, I think a number of issues should be addressed to make Elgin a great street. A place to see and be seen. It can be done.

First, the road should be narrowed to 1 one way lane;

Second, the sidewalks should be wide and spacious, so that people can walk next to each other. There should be space for big patios, bike racks, benches, tables and chairs, and snow storage in winter;

Third, there should be greenery, and even a swale here and there;

Fourth, intersections should be raised to further slow traffic down;

Fifth, it should be a 30 km/h zone.

I am sure you can think of a few more.

I hear some traffic engineers balking: “But, but we have x1000 cars a day going through Elgin”. Yes, because they can. Because we designed it so they they could. The number of cars should never be the starting point for a main street design. And as we all know, there is the law of induced demand: built more roads, and you attract more cars. The solution is easy: there is a highway like arterial only 700 meters away. Why not whisk traffic via Laurier in front of City Hall to Nicolas to the Queensway instead? Local traffic can take the Queen Elizabeth Driveway.

Witte de With - Elgin Street 01
The Rotterdam Nieuwsblad complains about the new Witte de Witt street on August 2, 1933 that the sidewalks have been narrowed, the trees have been removed all for “Gobble Up Traffic” It further goes on saying that “Traffic is not only a glutton, but also a shameless bandit”. Newspapers from that time read like poems….

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In 1940, Witte de With street, located in the centre of Rotterdam, was heavily bombed by the Nazi’s.
Does that sound impossible to you? Let’s have a look at the Witte de With straat in Rotterdam. Its history in a nutshell: Witte de With has always been a blue collar street, not far from the harbours.

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Witte de With street in 1954. The trees are back again. Pedestrians are no longer standing in the middle of the street and street signs start to appear.
In the 1980’s, the street was slowly turning into a place with drugs and prostitution and shady characters. The locals eventually stood up and protested against the dilapidation of their hood. In my youth, it wasn’t a place you’d go, other than for a late night shoarma.

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Witte de Witt street in 1958. On the far left some post war, post bombardment buildings. Note the street still has pavers.
But at the same time, a museum was built on one end and another was existing for a long time already at the other end. All of a sudden the street found itself as an axis between two musea. What more could you ask for?

nrc 2008
A 2008 Google screen grab of a stretch of Witte de With. This is a former building of a Dutch newspaper. Note the awful and awkward concrete benches and the loading area in front of the building.

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The same location in 2015. When I sat there in June 2014, there were large umbrella’s out too. Note the loading zone is gone. Earlier, the street was already narrowed to a one way street and bike lanes were added.
They capitalized on it. The street got an overhaul, more trendy cafe’s and galleries moved in. This all happened when I lived in Canada already so when a friend of mine suggested we should meet in “The Witte” I was somewhat surprised. Why go there?

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There is still some street parking and a counter flow bike lane. Patios are introduced big time. Photo: Hans Moor
But as you can see in the pictures, a lot has changed. It is now a popular destination, even on summer weekday nights.

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Pedestrians first. The sidewalks continue at side streets. This is an indicator for drivers to be careful. The raised sidewalks also slow down cars. The blue sign on the left means one way traffic, except bikes and mopeds. Note the bike is not hooked up to anything. That is not uncommon in the Netherlands. Google screen grab
Having a cool local beer on a terrace with my friend Nick, whom I rely upon for some of the more laid back trends happening in the Netherlands, I realised that -with the right configuration- Elgin could be the Witte de With street of Ottawa.

And no fence to keep the patrons in.....
And no fence to keep the patrons in…..

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It is not always orange, but it so happens that the Netherlands was playing in the world championships (or was it European, I can’t remember) Photos: Hans Moor
It may take a lot of discussion but the local Elgin area residents should be all over it and email councillor Catherine McKenney ( with ideas. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck with four lanes for the next 50-70 years. So let’s take a last look to how Elgin looks like now and weep:

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Lots of opportunities for this 50’s main street.
Source: Black and white photos plucked from the Internet. Some Google screen grabs and some photos by myself.


  1. Hi Hans,

    Great article. Often the big challenge in reconfiguring streets like Elgin is the disproportionate clout that Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) wield in the decision making process. While a few show modest signs of balanced, progressive thinking, the fact is, as a whole they are one of the roadblocks to getting past the idea that main streets are for driving customers. While some of the resistance can be mitigated with #ibkieibuy type campaigns, the evidence is out there that cyclists are spenders, and often spend more than motorists. To get projects like this implemented, we need a shift in BIA thinking towards a more balanced, place-making way of thinking, as well as a rebalancing of political priorities at City Hall, so that our main streets are though of as more than commercial corridors, and are valued as destinations.

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