ROAD AHEAD HOLDS LOTS OF PROMISE
‘Complete streets,’ better bike access part of evolving transport network
As Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial, what lies ahead for the city of Ottawa? In a series of stories and vignettes, the Citizen looks at how our city and its fabric, its people and its infrastructure, will change in the decades ahead. Today, we look at commuting in a future of driverless cars and LRT trains.
If a city has a circulatory system, it is its network of roads, pathways and sidewalks. From the boulevards and avenues that constitute its arteries, to the connecting veins of local streets, lanes and cycling paths, the network’s functionality does much to determine a city’s state of health.
A poorly designed transportation network can leave a city feeling pinched and enervated, needing regular afternoon naps to cope. But one that works well unleashes energy, drawing residents from their homes to partake in and enhance the life of the city.
The Ottawa of the not-to-distant future will gain a vital circulatory link when light rail transit arrives. That will fundamentally change the way we get around the city. But people will also still drive, walk and cycle. Within as little as four years, some of us may be tootling around in driverless cars.
One thing is clear, says Vivi Chi, the city’s manager of transportation planning: “We cannot continue to build and widen roads.” There are new roads in the city’s transportation plan, to be sure. But all are relatively short and concentrated in developing communities.
The province is widening parts of the Queensway over the next four years, but that’s a mixed blessing, Chi says. Highway widenings often create congestion on ramps and nearby arterial roads.
When city streets are rebuilt, they’ll look different than in the past, when their primary purpose was to accommodate vehicles. All new or reconstructed roads will be “complete streets,” designed to offer safety, comfort and mobility to all users, regardless of their age, ability or mode of transportation.
There’s no single template for a complete street. “It’s a tool box,” says Coun. Keith Egli, who chairs the city’s transportation committee. “A complete street in Westboro is not going to look like a complete street in my ward.”
Egli and his wife once lived on Churchill Avenue. After their first child was born, they gazed out their window and said, “How will we ever teach him to ride a bike on that street?” So they moved to the suburbs.
Fast forward to 2014: Churchill became the first complete street in Ottawa, with separated cycling tracks on both sides of the street. “Now, it would be a dream,” says Egli. Complete streets, he says, “make our city and our communities much more livable.”
The city has recently completed or is building complete streets on Main Street, O’Connor Street, Mackenzie Avenue and Rideau Street between Sussex and Dalhousie, among others. More are in the works — on Elgin Street, Byron Avenue, Richmond Road, south Bank Street and St. Laurent Boulevard. “It’s becoming part of our DNA,” Chi says.
Tension between motorists and cyclists also seems to be part of our DNA, which virtually guarantees there will be growing pains as more complete streets are built. Already, some have raised safety concerns and complained that the reduction in driving lanes is making it harder to get around.
To minimize conflict and ill will, the city will work with communities to determine the best form for a particular complete street. “You’re giving people an opportunity to help rebuild their community,” Egli says. “And they get very excited about that.”
At the same time, the city has been ramping up its investment in cycling infrastructure. It spent just $4 million on cycling between 2003 and 2006. That will grow to $53 million between 2014 and 2018, with more to come.
Though there’s no target date for completion, the city’s “ultimate cycling network” will feature continuous, high-capacity spine routes along major roadways for longer-distance travel, supported by smaller scale neighbourhood routes — all connected to city and NCC pathways. When complete, the full network will total 2,529 kilometres, compared to about 1,400 kilometres today.
The city will also make it easy for cyclists to use light rail transit. Every LRT station stairwell will have a cycle track. People will be able to bring their bikes onto the trains.
Pedestrians haven’t been forgotten, either. The city’s 2013 pedestrian plan lists more than 90 new sidewalk projects between 2014 and 2031.
It also calls for a new $21-million footbridge over the Rideau Canal, connecting Fifth Avenue with Clegg Street in Old Ottawa South. The city has secured federal funding for the project and is confident the province will ante up, as well. If so, work could begin as early as 2017.
Another city plan, called Downtown Moves, aims to make the downtown area more walkable. It identifies mid-block crossings to improve the flow of walkers to and from LRT stations; intersections where pedestrian volumes warrant safety improvements; and blocks that require wider sidewalks, benches and other pedestrian amenities.
If more people in future get around using transit, bicycles or on foot, that should open up a bit of space for motorists. But the single project that would make the biggest difference for drivers is the proposed downtown Ottawa truck tunnel, a crosstown route under Sandy Hill and Lowertown, linking Ottawa at Highway 417 to Gatineau.
If it proceeds, the four-lane, 3.4-kilometre tunnel would transform traffic flow though Ottawa’s downtown core. It would divert about 1,700 trucks and 25,000 cars a day that now use surface streets and bridges.
“That would make a big difference to the downtown,” Chi says. “This is the nation’s capital, and we have big transport trucks coming right down the middle. It’s embarrassing.”
A study in 2016 concluded the tunnel was feasible, but the estimated $2-billion cost is a major stumbling block.
The next step will be an environmental assessment, which will deal with the tunnel’s functional design and impacts, and will further refine the cost. That will be followed by what Chi says could be a P3 (public-private partnership) procurement process. Funding will determine when — or if — the tunnel proceeds, but it certainly won’t be until well after 2020.
Perhaps the biggest imponderable is what impact autonomous vehicles will have on the way we get around. In the words of Ford CEO Mark Fields, “This next decade is really going to be defined by the automation of the automobile.”
Whether that creates heaven or hell, as Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase said during a 2016 presentation in Ottawa, remains an open question.
Car sharing is the key, Chase believes. If that becomes the model, people will be able to get door-to-door service at the speed of a private car for the cost of an LRT ticket. There’ll be far fewer cars on the road and much less need for parking, liberating untold space for other uses.
That’s one possible scenario. If different policy choices are made, though, autonomous cars could endlessly circle the block while waiting to pick up passengers, clogging streets and making congestion much worse.
Technologically, at least, Ottawa is well-positioned for the advent of driverless vehicles. “We have the best state-of-theart traffic signals in the world, bar none,” boasts John Manconi, general manager of the city’s transportation services department. “We can change traffic signal timing within eight seconds from a laptop, anywhere in the world.”
The city’s signal system will help integrate the technology required to make autonomous vehicles operate effectively, Manconi says. Moreover, Ottawa is blessed with companies with the expertise to develop that technology.
Nobody really knows what will happen. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West at this point, in terms of where it’s going to go and how it’s going to play out,” Egli says. The city is just starting to consider the implications, but one way or another, they’re likely to be enormous.”
You’re giving people an opportunity to help rebuild their community. And they get very excited about that.
“Complete streets” like Churchill Avenue are supposed to accommodate the needs of all people, whether they choose to walk, cycle, drive or take public transit.