At the Helm of Our City

On March 29th 2014, I attended the Ecology Ottawa Complete Streets Strategy Forum. The forum brought together key movers and shakers of the city’s transportation infrastructure, including city councilors, members of community associations, urban planners, civil engineers, advocates for cyclists, pedestrians and people with mobility-limiting disabilities, and even a member of C.U. Cycling (me)! The objective: to discuss the concept of “Complete Streets” and how to incorporate these complete streets into our city planning.

Last fall, the city of Ottawa adopted a complete streets policy in its latest Transportation Master Plan. The idea is that roads should provide a safe and useable space for all road users, including the more vulnerable users such as pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities. Following an enthusiastic council approval, city planners are already starting to implement complete streets for the upcoming overhaul of Main Street. As it stands, I think most would agree that Main Street is loud, dodgy and unpleasant. Lanes are potholed and perilous, sidewalks are uneven and narrow, and cycling infrastructure is nonexistent. You generally don’t spend more time on Main Street than is really necessary, and it certainly isn’t a place you would hang out. Thankfully, the redesign will include bicycle lanes and carefully planned sidewalks and traffic signals so that nobody is left stranded. More green space will be included to turn Main Street into an enjoyable community hub. You might ask (as many commuters did), how can we fit so much goodness onto a pre-existing road without slowing down traffic? Will rush hour traffic be much slower? Traffic engineers have put a lot of thought into these questions. Creating a large bottleneck at Main Street would only divert traffic to other roads which are less capable of accommodating it. The honest answer is that, yes, traffic will move somewhat slower. However, a rush hour drive on the new Main Street would only take three or four minutes longer, and the street would still be capable of handling large volumes of traffic.

The Complete Streets Strategy Forum began with presentations from five city councilors from all over the city, ranging from the city centre all the way out to Kanata. Councilor David Chernushenko explained his concerns while he was seeking council approval for the Main Street redesign. Given that it is the first project under the complete streets policy, its success was important for showing everyone in the city that this approach is a positive one. During the review process, councilors from outer parts of the city needed some reassuring that nice wide sidewalks wouldn’t come at the expense of traffic volume. Ultimately, still being able to move cars is in everyone’s best interest, even residents around Main Street. It turns out that complete streets are less about favoring one mode of transportation over the other, and more about having the choice to use any mode you want.

An interesting perspective came from Councilor Marianne Wilkinson, councilor for the Kanata North ward. We might have a strong idea of what complete streets look like for downtown roads, but what is a complete street in Kanata? Councilor Wilkinson reminded us to view Kanata as a satellite city, not as a suburb. There is a huge industrial park in Kanata North, and most trips made by residents are not to downtown Ottawa but within Kanata itself (think local grocery stores, banks, doctors’ offices and parks). Currently, many residents feel that they are confined to use their cars to make these trips, even if the trips are short. A complete street in Kanata may not have the same features as one downtown, but can be transformed simply by adding well-lit multi-use pathways for children to walk safely to school. The key is to keep all users in mind, “aged from 8 to 80”.

Likewise, Councilor Mathieu Fleury described how the downtown core has its own version of the complete street. Queen Street will soon benefit from shiny new Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations. In this case, a complete street means providing a safe environment  for the huge influx of pedestrians that will be arriving by train. Wide sidewalks can be safe and enjoyable with planters and trees acting as physical barriers to vehicle traffic.

The advantages of a network of complete streets can sometimes be difficult to quantify. Owning and operating a car is expensive, so having alternative modes available can be financially beneficial to individual residents. However, allowing a family to operate with one car instead of two may benefit the family, but it doesn’t directly allow funding of these big projects. Enjoying an active lifestyle and having a greater sense of community engagement do not return any money to the city, and yet these wonderful ideas cost huge money to implement. We must remember that the long-term “soft” gains can improve our quality of life.

We are part of a shift in mentality in the way our cities are designed and built. Roads are no longer being designed to move cars, but to move people. Over the next years, big changes in store. The complete streets policy is already part of our city’s legislature. Our councilors are convinced and eager to create positive change. Moving ahead, our role as residents is to be vocal about how to best implement complete streets. The best results will come from setting our minds to thinking of clever solutions and suggesting these to city planners. We are at a turning point, and we can shape the future of our city!

– Mitch Kibsey


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