Whose streets are these anyway?

July 2013

If an active group of Capital Ward residents with strong support from City staff are successful, Ottawa could be enjoying its first “Complete Street” by late 2015. Will citizens and city council welcome this effort to turn the once-aptly named Main Street into a more livable, economically viable road? Or is a war between urban and suburban residents inevitable, as some pundits predict?

I think this city is less divided than we are led to believe, and its residents more astute than they are given credit for. What the debate really comes down to is whether Ottawa’s existing arterial roads and traditional main streets (whether in urban, suburban or rural village locations) should be rebuilt as the incomplete streets they are today, or replaced, when the time comes, by far more desirable Complete Streets.

We need informed discussion based on a better understanding of what Complete Streets are, and why they benefit everyone.

As Ottawa evolves, we face fundamental decisions about how best to move people and goods within the city. Do we want to continue prioritizing vehicle flow over the needs of people who want to live on or do business along major streets? Since the end of the Second World War, North America has been obsessed with building roads for rush hour. Isn’t it time to start designing roads for the other 21 hours of the day?

Ottawa has several dozen arterial roads built or rebuilt to maximize volume and speed of travel for the traditional morning and afternoon peak. The rest of the day, these are substandard places for everyone, characterized by excessive speeds, noise and brutally unfriendly streetscapes. The infrastructure (or lack thereof) as well as the atmosphere discourage strolling, cycling and even waiting for a bus. These are places you want to get through as quickly as possible, not linger, hence the steady decline of Bronson, Main Street and certain stretches of Bank, among others.

What a waste! By allocating massive amounts of public space and money to favour just one type of use for one type of user — for three hours of the day! — we are squandering valuable resources and trading away a promising future.

The Complete Streets idea stems from the recognition that we have been slowly killing our communities and undermining the potential of our cities through car-centric road design. It’s a transportation policy that requires streets to be planned and maintained in a way that enables safe, convenient and comfortable travel for users of all ages and abilities, regardless of mode of transportation. The goal is not to make driving unbearable, but to make it just one viable option for citizens to use (dare I say enjoy) the streets of their city.

Complete Streets can take many forms, but they generally feature lower traffic speeds, wider sidewalks, more greenery and street furniture, and dedicated cycling lanes and bike parking.

Who benefits? Everyone. Residents and visitors enjoy a better quality of life, businesses become more attractive places to shop and eat, and taxpayers save through better public health outcomes (lower stress, less pollution, more active citizens, fewer accidents). Yes, even motorists benefit, and not just from a nicer view. By encouraging nearby residents to leave their cars at home, Complete Streets have noticeably higher rates of walking and cycling, and merit better bus service, thereby freeing up road space and parking for those who drive.

The “preferred option” under consideration for Main Street reduces the number of vehicle lanes to make room for wider sidewalks and safer street crossings. The most conspicuously new feature, though, is Ottawa’s first proposed “cycle track”, a dedicated lane slightly higher than the road but lower than the sidewalk. It offers more visibility and perceived safety to cyclists while reducing potential conflict with cars and pedestrians. Crucially, it appeals to people who may currently be driving because they are afraid to bike in heavy traffic.

Space for such important new infrastructure cannot be conjured out of nowhere. It must be reclaimed from space dedicated to cars, trucks and buses. It’s unavoidable: Complete Streets move fewer cars at rush hour.

The proposal for Main Street is to go from four lanes to two, except at key intersections with turning lanes. This will reduce peak capacity at rush hour to 1,000 motor vehicles per hour, down from 1,300. So where will the other 300 cars go? Here we get to the heart of the matter. If Ottawa’s official transportation policy is to shift people out of private vehicles wherever possible, it makes no practical or financial sense to continue facilitating the opposite with roads optimized for cars at rush hour. What does make sense is a multi-pronged approach: Improve public transit, encourage telecommuting, carpooling and flexible work hours, and promote walking and cycling by building streets where people feel at ease. Unfortunately, that means making things a little more challenging for the inveterate driver.

Still, when people complain that drivers will be inconvenienced by fewer car lanes on Main Street, I don’t hear an argument against improving Main, but a plea to better serve other parts of the city that were long ago promised better public transit (rail or bus). While rebuilding Main in an incomplete form won’t benefit anyone, extending rail and bus service will.

We are investing $2.1 billion in the Confederation Line. We are improving O-Train service. We are investing in better cycling infrastructure. And that’s just a start. So is it not natural and necessary to make a Complete Street on Main? Somebody needs to go first. Let’s show the world that Ottawa is above an urban vs. suburban street fight.

Councillor David Chernushenko