Years ago, a friend came back in town for a few days, and my wife and I offered him a couch on which to sleep. At the time, we were living in Orleans. As these visits tend to go, the night began at a downtown watering hole, The Manx, if memory serves. It was a long ride along the 95 to get back to our townhouse in the suburbs, much of which passed through the greenbelt. Our friend, Jon, used to live in Ottawa, having attended Carleton University, but I don’t think he was used to the suburbs. He remarked that there was so much empty space in what purports to be a major Canadian metropolis.
Reading that the bike lanes on Laurier experienced a spike in usage in the last part of 2012 is heartwarming. Granted, Ottawa’s traffic concerns are not at the level of larger cities like Toronto, but, regardless, giving our roads some relief by lessening the number of cars is beneficial. And, despite all our griping, we have an above average mass transit system in OC Transpo. However, I still can’t help but think that the value OC Transpo offers is, in the end, detrimental to ourselves and our environment.If you happen down Albert St. or Slater St. during rush hour, you will, no doubt, see the massive commuter culture created by our transit system and zoning laws. Bus after bus after bus pours through downtown, taking Ottawans from Kanata to Centretown to Orleans and vice versa. Housing developments, long having escaped the Cheshire barrier of the greenbelt, pour through the bedroom communities and into small towns; Stittsville, Manotick, Cumberland, Rockland – they are becoming the new suburbs, bedroom communities used to house workers for the urban core.
We’re proud of our use of mass transit. So many of us have escaped the pollution-spilling single car, pooling the externalities of our commute so that our desire to live as far away as possible from our workplace no longer kills the environment as quickly as it used to. We pat ourselves on the back for our green living, ignoring the black smoke pouring out the back of each articulated bus.
Zoning laws are our accomplices. Bedroom communities have been springing up for more than a generation, and they’re spreading – taking over small towns and rural communities.These are residential zones; no businesses may apply. People often choose these communities for the remoteness. The 9 to 5 drudgery must not weigh down our weekend enjoyment.
As we flee the city on our bloated red and white caterpillars, we have to go further and further to satisfy our hedonism. Land within the greenbelt is scarce. Land just outside has been consumed as quickly as possible. More and more houses are squished into less and less land. But still, the North American ideal is to have the big house with the big yard. If your measure of worth is your white picket fence, each fence post will further validate your lifestyle.
To afford these big lots, we have to escape further and further. Where Woodroffe meets highway 16 was always a pleasant escape from city lights as you made your way to Manotick, North Gower or Kars. Now, we can barely see the river for the backhoes needed for that next development. There is no sustainability to a suburban life transplanted to a rural area. The body rejects the foreign organ and only an infusion of new mass transit blood will keep it from dying.
OC Transpo is this infusion. Every day, unit after unit of commuter blood runs through the city’s major arteries. Congestion, pollution and high blood pressure ensue. We have done so much in the name of environmentalism, but it has always been to mitigate the most environmentally unfriendly desires we hold. We eschew density, mixed-use development and even community as we search for bigger and bigger lots to foster bohemian weekends away from our bourgeoisie weeks. We think we’re helping, but we’re slowly choking ourselves.