I Walk, I Bike, I Bus, I Drive: In pursuit of better transportation choices

June 2014

"With all your columns about improving walking and cycling, I assumed you were some kind of anti-car radical!"

These were the words of a Capital Ward resident who, upon meeting me for the first time recently, expressed relief that my "agenda" is not so much about forcing or guilting drivers out of cars as it is about ensuring that everyone has some genuine choices. I would like most of us, for most of our trips, to be able to actually choose which mode of transportation

we would like to take, without fear or any tradeoff between safety, convenience and comfort.

My agenda, if that is the right term, is to improve transportation choices in the City of Ottawa, to reach the point where walking, cycling and riding a bus/train (often in combination) would be as viable, convenient and secure as driving. In many cases, maybe even faster, cheaper or less stressful.

I think the City of Ottawa bumper sticker on my car says it nicely: "I bike, I drive." Like many citizens of this town, I do not belong exclusively to one camp, and am not hostile to either.

My guiding principle, as councillor, has been to increase choices for Ottawa residents at large. A few projects have been very ward- or neighbourhood-specific; but really, when it comes to moving around a city, there are no borders. Many people besides Capital Ward residents can make good use of a safer way to cross the Bronson Bridge over the Rideau Canal, an expanded O-Train, or signallized crossings on the National Capital Commission's driveways.

Expedience or principle: Which do you prefer in a politician?

May 2014

As a city councillor, I occasionally hear from constituents who feel very strongly that it’s my job to do what they say, and to vote the way they tell me to. Usually the exchange includes a phrase along the lines of, “We elected you to represent us!"

For example, I have been getting plenty of feedback regarding my decision to support the development of a residential building in the community of Heron Park to accommodate adults living with severe mental illness.

Although plenty of people support the construction of this building — and my willingness to speak in its favour — many do not. I won’t get into the specifics here (I address those on my website) and let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that councillors do not actually decide where supported housing is built.

What’s interesting is the number of constituents who have told me it’s not my place to take a position that fails to conform to their views. They believe I was elected to do their bidding and that, by supporting the proposal, I am being derelict in my duties as their representative.

But this assertion is fundamentally flawed. If an individual feels I must always agree with his/her position and vote accordingly, and that anything else earns me an automatic failing grade, then that person is assuming one or all of the following: (a) theirs is the only position held in the community; (b) theirs is the only correct position; (c) it is the majority position.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is

April 2014

We all have a little voice inside our heads that tries to tell us when a phone or email offer, a poster or a flyer seems too good to be true: You’ve won a free cruise! Claim your inheritance from that relative you’ve never heard of! Take advantage of this deep discount on a roofing job! Earn thousands per week working from home!

Also in this category: Declarations of love from somebody recently met online.

Most of us, most of the time, listen to that voice and simply hang up, delete the email or ignore the offer. But a surprising number of people do get seduced, literally or figuratively, by scams. They bite, get hooked and get reeled in. Some time later, after a great deal of pain and financial loss, they realize or are finally prepared to admit —sometimes forced to do so by people who care about them — that they have been duped.

And do they ever feel dumb. How could anyone fall for that scam? Shouldn’t they have seen it coming? The truth is that the people who orchestrate such frauds are experts at finding and exploiting their victims’ vulnerabilities.

Who’s in charge of planning anyway?

March 2014

A funny thing happened at a recent Council meeting. A developer’s rezoning application — supported at the previous Planning Committee meeting by all but one dissenting councillor — became a target for councillors who seemed to want to demonstrate that they won’t simply rubber-stamp any development proposal that comes before them. That this agenda item garnered a surprising eight votes against it (but still 16 in favour) should not be a surprise. But it was.

How did the state of planning/development in Ottawa reach this point? A reasonable person might expect a pretty standard level of scrutiny for any application for rezoning or for additional “variances” (height, reduced setbacks from lot lines, removal of significant trees, addition or removal of on-site parking and more). First by City staff, then the councillor’s office, a local community association and maybe at a public meeting. Finally, if required, it might be reviewed by Planning Committee and Council or, in certain circumstances, the Committee of Adjustment.

The same reasonable person might expect City staff, ultimately supported by Planning Committee/Council, to inform developers that their requests will only be granted in exceptional circumstances. This should be true whether it’s a large company seeking rezoning or a resident who wants a variance to build an addition.

One might expect changes to only be approved if a strong case can be made that neighbourhood character will be maintained (e.g. height, on-site parking, front porches), that compensatory measures will be taken (e.g. planting of replacement trees of a similar type), and that the project is compatible with the Official Plan and/or a Community Design Plan.

To some degree, this is happening. And yet it appears to most reasonable people that the norm is to approve almost anything developers ask for. In the rare instance where an application is rejected, the ultimate indignity is to then see the Ontario Municipal Board side with the developer.

What’s in the works for 2014

February 2014

City Hall is unlikely to launch big new initiatives during an election year. The focus will be on keeping current projects on track and on budget (Light Rail, road/sewer/water infrastructure renewal), and wrapping up others (new rules for infill development, Lansdowne Park). Here are some issues I’m working on that are of particular interest to Old Ottawa South residents:

Park improvements
It’s difficult to create new parks in a dense, older neighbourhood, so I’m working with City staff and OSCA to make minor improvements to existing parks with a specific fund available to the ward councillor, and to identify medium- and long-term needs requiring larger capital investment. Brewer Park is slated for a major renewal (arena, pool, change hut, etc.) in the next 7-10 years. I would like to see public consultation start early, so we can clarify our needs and approve a plan to make them a reality. By doing the work in phases, we may be able to start sooner than planned.

Active transportation
The Bronson Avenue safety initiatives approved last year are central to my vision for safer, more attractive walking and cycling routes. We should be able to start work on redesigned ramps connecting with Colonel By Drive this year, then add a signalized crosswalk south of the Canal in 2015. I also expect detailed design of the Rideau River Western Pathway to go ahead, providing a river’s edge route all the way to the Lees transit station.