By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — Local residents came out ahead of car commuters in a vote by city council's transportation committee Friday, but just barely.
In a 6-4 vote, the committee approved a plan to narrow the driving lanes on 800 metres of Main Street in Old Ottawa East from four to two and to use the new-found space to build elevated bike lanes, widen the sidewalks, plant trees and add bus shelters. Nearby residents love it, because it'll turn a wide arterial road that's mostly empty at least 20 hours a day into a more walkable neighbourhood main street.
But at rush hours, driving along Main Street between the Rideau River and Rideau Canal will take three minutes longer, the city's transportation planners say, because it'll reduce the street's capacity from 1,200 motor vehicles an hour to 900. Traffic counts say the number of cars on the street now only exceeds 900 an hour briefly in the morning and for slightly longer in the afternoon, but it will definitely slow some of those drivers down.
And that led to the most rancorous committee meeting city council has seen in months.
Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, whose ward to the south includes many people who drive through Old Ottawa East to get downtown, said she believes the city's staff planners presented bogus data to make their case and more than a few hundred will be inconvenienced. "Where do all these cars go?" she wanted to know.
The city is making massive investments in transit and smaller ones in cycling, explained deputy city manager Nancy Schepers. The idea is that more people will choose other ways of getting around besides driving, which is in keeping with the city's policies, and the evidence from projects like the Laurier bike lanes is that reducing car capacity somewhat to make way for other means of transportation can be done without creating traffic jams. The planners don't think that would work further north on Main, which is why the critical (and busy) intersection of Main Street and Lees Avenue is keeping four lanes in all directions, but they believe there just won't be a significant problem in the area farther south.
Coun. Allan Hubley worried about the wisdom of building bike lanes at sidewalk level, where pedestrians could wander into them. ""Do we have any suggestion of what these numbers are going to be?" he asked. "Are we going to see an increase in bikes nailing children as they're walking down the sidewalk?"
The planners don't think that'll happen. Hubley also objected to Schepers' claim that drivers will respond to a little more congestion by either adjusting their commute times or finding other ways to get where they're going. "To me, that's social engineering. I get very nervous about us getting into it," he said.
The "complete street" plan the committee eventually voted for is actually cheaper than one with four car lanes would be: car lanes need to be built atop deep beds to handle the weight, whereas bike tracks are about as cheap to build as sidewalks.
Deans tried a motion to get the planners to go look again at a Main Street plan they'd already rejected, which would have kept four car lanes on Main Street and include bike lanes at street level. It failed on a 5-5 tie, after provoking the ire of the area's councillor, David Chernushenko. Deans had suggested that maybe the "complete street" idea could wait until the traffic chaos of five years of light-rail and highway construction is concluded. However, because this $26.5-million project is being driven by the need to replace 100-year-old sewers under Main Street, which should be good for a lifetime once the new ones are in, that won't likely happen.
"If we pick a design now that's right for the next five years but wrong for the next 98, then we will rue that day," Chernushenko warned.