Ottawa City budget for Active Transportation challenge to figure out

Flora foot bridge
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The City of Ottawa’s budget is notoriously hard to decipher. While it does give some detail by means of the line items mentioned in the budget, it is still very hard to figure out what’s actually going to be done in 2021. I took a look at what’s in the budget for active transportation for 2021 and tried to come up with a dollar figure.

No cycling budget

The adopted City budget in 2020 was just over 3.7 billion dollars and 312 pages. Approximately CAD 1.7 billion goes to compensation (salaries, overtime (CAD 50 million), OMERS, group insurance). I once saw councillor Leiper in the bus with the budget document under his arm. It was several inches thick. Fortunately the city also makes the several draft budgets available in PDF on the website, which at least allows you to search a bit more targetted for keywords such as ‘cycling’ or ‘pedestrian’ or ‘sidewalk’. CNTR-F is your friend!

Unfortunately though, there is no such thing as ‘a cycling budget’, a ‘pedestrian budget’ or ‘an active transportation (AT) budget’. Worse, the larger AT infra improvements our city makes are often ‘hidden’ in other projects.

If we’d postpone CAD 45 million in road surfacing by one year and put it against AT, we’d make a giant step forward.

Hans on the Bike

The Transportation Services (not to be confused with Transit Services) budget is our go-to budget where we can find the monies allocated to active transportation. I choose for AT as some of the monies go to pathways and/or bridges, used by pedestrians and cyclists alike.

You will find in the Transportation budget a number of headings such as Transportation Services, Growth and Service Enhancements. A line item like ‘Cycling and Pedestrian Major Struct’ is part of the funding for the bridge over the Rideau River near Carleton. Cycling Facilities Program is another obvious one.

New bike and walk infra at UOttawa station

Budget 2021

So what did I find in the Transportation budget?

There are four main envelopes. The total Transportation budget is 335,700,000 dollars. It is broken down in these four headings (you might not be able to see the table on your smartphone, check on a laptop or desktop instead):

Fleet Services23,495
Integrated Roads, Water & Wastewater Services142,853
Transit Services30,310
Transportation Services139,042
Items from the 2021 City budget x 1000

I found a number of line items that likely go to AT. Sometimes it is a bit of a guess such as Transportation Demand Management (the Ottawa Cycling Map and the e-scooter project are in this budget, but also ride share initiatives), but as mentioned above, others are more obvious. See my screenshot below of the spreadsheet I put together.

Summarised in three subsections, this is what I found:

Transportation Services10,404
Service Enhancements6,052
The relevant amounts I found in the budget

That comes to a total of around 28 million CAD, where I see the first two mostly as ‘shovels in the ground’ hardware type monies. The last one is more a ‘careful on the road’ type messages budget, the software side of AT such as Safer Road Ottawa’s support of Bike Ottawa’s annual ‘Lights on Bikes’ event. In that 6 million is 4 million for the Road Safety Action Plan, that includes educational elements such as the ‘Act Safely, Think Safety’ videos. You can read more detail in the budget at pages 123-ish and 130-ish where the line items are explained in more detail.

An image of the spreadsheet with data I extracted from the city budget

Hidden ‘budgets’ for AT

But that’s not all. It becomes a lot less obvious when a separate bike lane is not mentioned as such as a line item, but integrated in for example the Bank street renewal between Billings Bridge and the Home Depot under project number 908583 under Integrated Roads, Water & Wastewater.

This project will include raised bike lanes and Dutch style protected intersections. With the entire street being rebuilt, it cost not much extra to build raised bike lanes, but it is impossible to add a price tag to it. So there we might have 2 x 3 km of raised bike lanes eventually that never showed up in a budget with a dollar value.

The sewer is a cyclist’s best friend

Other examples where sewer replacements initiated bike infra are for example Main Street, with a road diet and raised bicycle lanes and Dynes, which got Dutch style intersections on both ends in 2019 after replacing the sewer. As my friend Alex deVries (claim to fame: bike lane in front of Lansdowne north of Bank St bridge) famously said: ”The sewer is a cyclist’s best friend”. Next week, I will publish a list with sewer projects I found that will include AT updates, although they will not all be finished (or even started) next year.

LRT construction

Another piece of AT investment that is harder to find are the pathways that are included in building the LRT. Again, this is not directly visible in the city budget, but we got some nice new infrastructure out of LRT, such as the MUP from Laurier Ave to Hurdman Station.

Pathway underneath Pimisi station

Road surfacing

Part of the city budget goes to road resurfacing. Road surfacing does give an opportunity to add bike lanes when the striping is redone, which we saw on Fisher north of Baseline (although imperfect). I found the following:

The resurfacing program includes enhancements of $950K for new paved shoulders and $50K for renewal of existing paved shoulders.

And then there is the National Capital Commission, which recently released its long term pathway plan. This year the NCC added a link between the Aviation Parkway and Cyrville Station. Not in the city budget of course, but still built in our city.

More than meets the eye…

It is virtually impossible to calculate how much goes into AT every year. The announcement of ‘X dollars goes in to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure’ can therefore be taken with a grain of salt. I think it is actually more than is usually announced. But how many new kilometers of bike and walk infra we will see is close to impossible to figure out unless you are a retired geek who enjoys going over every single line item in the 153 pages of the Transportation budget.

The new path underneath the Hurdman Transitway bridge
The new path underneath the Hurdman Transitway bridge

Possibly the only way to get a somewhat accurate picture is careful tagging in OpenStreetMap (OSM) and somehow extract the numbers from OSM and compare year over year data. Fortunately BikeOttawa has a fantastic data group that might be able to figure this out.

But is it enough?

My math shows that CAD 28 mln over CAD 335 mln comes to around 8.5% of the Transportation budget. That is a fairly descent percentage. But bear in mind that that is a very arbitrary number at the same time.

To put this amount in context: the resurfacing of existing roads alone is bigger than everything I was able to cobble together for AT: CAD 45 million for resurfacing and CAD 57 million for road growth. If we’d postpone CAD 45 million in road surfacing by one year and put it against AT, we’d make a giant step forward. But then again, road growth might include new MUPs, such as Bank St further south near Findley Creek.

Is it enough? Many cycling and walking advocacy groups in North America will be drooling over such an amount. With all the talk about prioritizing walking and cycling over motorised traffic though, one would expect more than 8.5% would go to active transportation. But the city chooses for piecemeal. We could take a page from Seville, Spain.

Unfortunately COVID has also postponed a number of changes I noticed, such as Albert and Slater bike lanes. Other monies were reallocated to COVID measures too. And what will happen with the O’Connor extension and Wellington’s MUP in front of Parliament Hill is anyone’s guess now.

What is the lesson here?

It is impossible to put a dollar figure on AT. Some projects are spread out over several years and that makes it even harder to pin a cycling component to a year. There is also funding requested for ‘detailed studies’ (that is a strategic move to have shovel ready projects ready on the shelf when federal and provincial money might be doled out as stimulus money).

New situation: Main Street at St Paul.
New situation: Main Street at St Paul.

My best guess is around CAD 28 million for 2021 that is somewhat obvious from the line items. Add some from the ‘hidden projects’ and we are probably ending up with around 30 million dollars.

Therefore it is so important to be tuned in. Make sure you are on top of budgets. December 10 is the day you start discussing the 2022 (!) budget with your local councillor. Start your wish list today. And become a member of Bike Ottawa if you aren’t yet.

Time line:

2 December: Transportation budget being discussed and likely accepted

9 December: Council – Budget Consideration / Adoption

10 December: Start preparing for the 2022 (!) budget

I am interested in what you think. Am I missing something? Am I too positive? Too negative? Let me know.

Budget highlights here:

Transportation Committee budget here:


  1. This is all very interesting although hard for a beginner to understand. My only question, and not sure it belongs here is….with the pressure on for more people to get out and use the walking/biking paths, are there going to be any extra places for toilets along some of the routes. We want seniors in particular to partake of exercise but seem to forget they can’t go far without a bathroom break.

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