LRT offers chance for two-way streets
Council to vote on plan that would change Metcalfe and O’connor
Turning downtown’s Metcalfe and O’Connor streets into twoway roads to slow traffic and make them safer has long been a dream for Ottawa urbanists. But however much appeal the idea might have, doing it turns out to be really hard.
“This has been talked about for years and years,” says Somerset Councillor Diane Holmes. “Through multiple visions for Centretown, by multiple consultants and lots of different people. I think it’s still quite some way off.”
The idea is included in the city’s latest long-term plan for Centretown, written by the city government’s favourite urban designer, George Dark, who oversaw a 2004 study on sprucing up downtown and, more recently, was the city’s design guru for Lansdowne Park.
City council hasn’t approved the Mid-Centretown Community Design Plan yet, but it’s on the verge, with a vote due early in the new year.
The city is hoping to do something sooner rather than later as part of a makeover of downtown transportation that goes along with the expected opening of the lightrail system in 2018.
The plan, called Downtown Moves, is partly aimed at making better use of streets that should be relieved of buses and some cars after the trains start rolling, and partly at making Ottawa’s core a better place to walk so that a pleasant rail ride doesn’t turn into a grim trudge for the last few hundred metres after people disembark.
“The use of Centretown’s arterial streets as a high-volume, high-speed ramping system for the Queensway contributes to the creation of unsafe and unpleasant conditions,” Dark’s Centretown vision says. “The current oneway system is oriented to serve the needs of Ottawa’s commuters and is designed to move as many cars as possible through Centretown for peak-hour commuting.”
When they’re not crowded, that design turns streets such as Metcalfe and O’Connor, and to a lesser extent Kent and Lyon, into highway extensions themselves: They’re long, straight, flat and have few traffic lights or stop signs.
Many cyclists don’t feel safe on them (though some daredevils happily ride the wrong way because other streets are well out of the way) and pedestrians on the narrow sidewalks don’t like walking with traffic whizzing past inches away.
Many buildings along them have tiny entrances and tall, blank walls because nobody wants to hang around outside. On Metcalfe, the newly renovated Museum of Nature’s multi-storey glass “Lantern” above the main entrance shines out over a street whose main users are drivers who get to see the addition in their rear-view mirrors.
Two-way streets, the
thinking goes, could carry almost as much traffic at a more sedate pace, while being friendlier to anyone who’s not in a car, and would be dramatically better when the roads are mostly empty outside rush hours.
Holmes thinks the idea is attractive, but isn’t sold on the practicalities.
“I know that, generally speaking, people like what they have,” she says. “If they have a one-way street, they want to keep a one-way street. If they have a two-way street, they want to keep a two-way street.”
It would also have to be shown that the streets really could handle as much traffic after the conversion as before.
“A much bigger job is dealing with the ramps to the Queensway,” Holmes adds. If a two-way conversion affected the Highway 417 onand off-ramps, the provincial government would have to agree because it owns the highway.
Even more challenging: at three and four lanes across, O’Connor, Metcalfe and Kent are wide as oneways but just ordinary for two-ways. If they’re going to carry nearly all the traffic they do now, and keep existing street parking spots, and have turning lanes at major intersections, and include any kind of cycling lanes … well, packing all those things in won’t be easy.
“We don’t need bike facilities ab- solutely everywhere,” Holmes allows. It could be that, if the roads are turned into two-way routes, they wouldn’t need bike lanes, for instance. Except that O’Connor — one of the few roads that runs into the business district, the full length of Centretown and almost all the way through the Glebe as well — is the city’s early choice for a north-south segregated bike route to match the one on Laurier Avenue.
Nothing would be done without extensive study and public consultation, Holmes says. If there’s a trial to be done, it could be on Metcalfe starting at around Gladstone Avenue, or maybe McLeod Street along the northern edge of the Museum of Nature. “It doesn’t have to go all the way to the Queensway, at least not just to try it out,” she says.