Ottawa gets it right with O’Connor bike lane

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O'Connor bike lane development evidence the city listened. Jennifer Gauthier/ Metro

By Steve Collins, Metro

If you were trying to show a visitor the charms of your city, the stretch of O’Connor Street north of Isabella probably wouldn’t be on your list.

It’s not that there aren’t delights along its length, like Dominion Chalmers United Church, or the mammoths standing sentry outside the splendid Museum of Nature, but it’s chiefly a sluice of cars and pavement, just one long on-ramp to the Queensway. It seems set up not as a place to be, but a place to pass through as rapidly as possible.

Perhaps this gracelessness makes residents more receptive to something different — nothing bold, now, just some bike lanes. A north-south cycling “spine” for the downtown core, from Wellington to Fifth seems headed for a smooth ride at council this week.

“It’s almost anti-climactic,” Coun. David Chernushenko, a booster of the plan, said at transportation committee. “I don’t feel like I have to make a big profound appeal to support this project because we didn’t hear anyone come out to say ‘don’t build it.’”

There are inevitable compromises. The route won’t immediately connect to Lansdowne, and it has shared (rather than segregated) lanes in the Glebe. Some parking spaces will be lost, and others relocated to side streets. As currently planned, lanes won’t be maintained in winter.

But there’s so much right about this plan. It was developed after public workshops, door-to-door inquiries along O’Connor, even an organized bike tour of the area. On this modest $4-million project, a city with an uneven record on consultation made conspicuous efforts to listen.

It also fits neatly with other pieces of the downtown picture. O’Connor’s scheduled to be resurfaced next year anyway. The northbound section to Wellington will eventually join riders to the new Parliament LRT station, and in the meantime will connect with existing Laurier bike lanes.

It’s hard to believe those were controversial when they opened four years ago. The Bank Street BIA released a written report that raised alarms about safety, but which barely disguised an overriding worry about downtown parking and its effect on business. Even cyclists worried they’d be less safe at intersections.

The plan was soft-pedalled as a ‘pilot project,’ though the likelihood of reversal after installation always seemed remote to me. If disingenuous, it was perhaps reassuring to those who feared change.

Change was good. Cycling traffic tripled while collisions decreased. Some business owners I’ve talked to still pine for lost parking, but the commercial sky didn’t fall.

As a chronic walker who may never cycle Laurier, I still love that bit of separation between steel and bone, the markings at intersections that seem to encourage everyone to pay attention and simply the higher ratio of human faces to headlights. It’s possible even O’Connor could become lovable.