That Wellington Street in front of our Parliament Hill in Ottawa is closed for motorised vehicles is welcome news.
In the summer the sidewalks are crowded and until recently the STO (Gatineau) buses would pass the vehicular cyclist with sometimes inches to spare. I can speak from experience. Creating more space for people living in downtown is a good idea.
During and after the blockade in the winter of 2022 it became clear that “Canada’s main street” is not the place to move large numbers of vehicles. The call for less motorised traffic on Wellington Street is not new though: several parties have suggested ideas, such as a pedestrian and cycling promenade and a tram or streetcar type loop between Gatineau and Ottawa.
Safety and Pollution
Safety concerns is one reason to close the road. Pollution is another one. We have a large number of historic buildings along Wellington Street, built with Nepean sandstone. You only have to look at the renovated buildings on the Hill to see how dirty the buildings become overtime. Particles in exhaust fumes are part of that problem.
Some Ottawa city councillors and the mayor lamented that there was a time that “you could just drive up to the Peace Tower”. Indeed, back in 1995 I drove (!) on the grounds of Parliament Hill to enjoy the views over the Ottawa river. But the closure will also bring new opportunities for public animation on Wellington Street.
No overnight change
Wellington Street will not change overnight. Expect jersey barriers and if we are lucky, a few planters. It will take time to come up with a plan, designs, open houses, procurement and implementation. Think years. Ideally, one lane from Rideau St to the closed part of Wellington is set aside asap for a separated bidirectional bike lane to connect the Market with downtown, because we don’t need all that road space either anymore. That could be implemented overnight and would connect to O’Connor’s bike lanes. The construction of the missing blocks of bike lane between Laurier further north to Wellington should be expedited to create a wonderful continuing connection. I can finally bring guests by bike to Parliament Hill without risking their lives.
There are always naysayers. The concern is that the downtown will clog. But just as new roads and the widening of roads attract new traffic (induced demand), the opposite is true too: removing roads let traffic magically evaporate (reduced demand): people will find other ways to get where they need to be, such as transit, bicycles, work from home (or retire 😁). Working from home might actually mitigate the ‘loss’ of Wellington as a through street. Wellington is not really a street though anyway. It is really a road, a corridor to move traffic through.
This is not the first time that a city has removed space from motorised traffic. A well known example is San Francisco where the Loma Prieta quake damaged autoroute 480 and the elevated double-decker Embarcadero Skyway. The Skyway was replaced as a boulevard only. It now has miles of new public space for walking and cycling.
Another example is the famous removal of a highway in Seoul and ‘daylighting’ a lost waterway. Fewer people are driving and more are taking transit apparently.
Canal replacing a road
More recently, the Dutch city of Utrecht removed a 1960s highway that ran right through the city. The space was converted back into a canal with green (and blue) space. Mark Wagenbuur documented the process here: Utrecht corrects a historic urban design mistake – BICYCLE DUTCH (wordpress.com)
Closer to home, on a smaller scale, Churchill Ave in Ottawa was converted to a complete street with separate bike infrastructure around 2015 with one lane of traffic each way.
Later, in 2017, a successful citizen lobby with support of city councillor David Chernushenko managed to convert Main Street in Old Ottawa East. It became a complete street with only one way of traffic each way and raised separate bike lanes, despite pushback from suburban Ottawa.
Of course, we remember the joint effort of the American embassy, the city and the NCC to remove one traffic lane. McKenzie King in front of the American embassy received a bidirectional bike lane in 2017.
Also fairly recently, we saw a bidirectional separated bike lane installed on a former ‘car lane’ on O’Connor and the closure of a road in the Byward Market. It is well known that retailers often overestimate the number of clients arriving by car anyway and underestimate local foot traffic.
I expect that the Parliamentary Precinct will be extended to Wellington. Eventually I can see it being repaved attractively, more green being added and integrated into the precinct with a short connection from Elgin to the Hill for Hill destination traffic.
That work might fall into the NCC’s lap. But will it happen soon? Probably not, as several plans will be waiting for approval (or disapproval) and those plans may depend on funding and will have to be integrated. The final design might become a bit of a moving target. But that Wellington St needs to change is beyond doubt.