We Should Narrow Bank Street

The other day, Capital Ward Councilor David Chernushenko explained the city’s reasoning for not putting bike lanes on the Bank Street Bridge. Since I was in the process of writing this when I saw a link to that post, I refrained from looking at it, lest this post turn into nothing more than a fisking exercise. I will, however, read it later. 

Bank Street, as it runs through urban neighbourhoods, should be adopt the Complete Streets model. It should be two lanes with a segregated (preferably raised) bike lane and expanded sidewalks. Such a shift would manageable and would merely reflect the current realities of life on the street. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on the section of Bank from the Queensway south to Lansdowne Park, but will touch on the other sections.

There are a number of reasons to adopt this measure:

It’s mostly about pedestrians

When we debate implementing a Complete Streets model, the discussion tends to turn into a car vs. bike battle, but the pedestrians on Bank Street deserve better than the status. The Glebe (and Old Ottawa South) has the charm of an urban village. It is just that charm that the city is leveraging for the Lansdowne re-development (which they dub an “urban village). But this dynamic is predicated on the walkability of the neighbourhood. The Glebe has a significant walking culture. Sidewalks are regularly packed with shoppers, patrons and neighbours. And that’s the problem, they’re packed.

The sidewalks throughout the Glebe are ridiculously narrow. There is no space between the sidewalk and storefronts. The sidewalks are cluttered with bike racks, store signage, light posts, hydro poles, street signs and parking meters. We see families, couples, people with walkers or strollers, clusters of teens, and other random groups of people using the sidewalks. There often is not enough room for all people (especially when strollers, walkers or wheelchairs are introduced), and this problem is compounded when you include window shoppers. It becomes comically bad when you start adding in cyclists (yes, they should not be on the sidewalk—children aside—but they’re there because of the hazards of the street itself; city planners shouldn’t wish this away; they should understand what’s going on build infrastructure to reflect the actual needs of residents and users).

It’s quite wonderful that the Glebe has maintained this wonderful walking culture despite city infrastructure that actively discourages it.

The Bank Street Bridge is ridiculously dangerous

Have you tried to cross the Bank Street Bridge (the bridge by Lansdowne that goes over the canal) on foot or bike? The sidewalk remains as narrow, if not narrower, as the rest of the street. It is barely wide enough for two strollers, or a stroller and a wheelchair to pass. A parent pushing a stroller with another young child walking along side has to do some tricky maneuvering to cross the bridge and keep everyone from stumbling onto the road into traffic.

This problem is particularly acute in winter. The sidewalk is regularly plowed, but the plow merely pushes most of the snow to the railing, reducing the space on the sidewalk by as much as one third. Thus, the sidewalk becomes wide enough, realistically, for one person.

And again, due to the safety issues on the road itself, cyclists often feel compelled to take to the sidewalk (and even if they’re walking their bikes, they still take up a good deal of space).

Currently, cyclists are supposed to be allowed to take the lane. There are signs (and soon there will be sharrows) indicating that cars must not pass bikes. Many (probably most) cars do not respect the signs (if they can even see them). Again, city planners should decide to understand exactly how people use our streets.

Bicyclists deserve better

Bank Street lanes are narrow. There is intermittent parking on the curb-side lanes (often illegally). To drive down the street one has to either take up the entire lane (risking the ire of motorists and the possibility of being rear-ended), or try to squeeze between car traffic and parked cars. If you are wedging yourself between the two, however, you will not be able to give yourself the necessary meter of space between your bike and the parked cars. This space is what prevents cyclists from getting doored, and dooring kills.

Much of Bank Street is already a two-lane road, anyway

Throughout much of the day (including parts of rush hour), Bank Street will have parking on one or both sides of the street (in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, it’s both sides), reducing the available lanes for cars to one each way.

During the winter, some parts of the road do not get fully plowed (for entirely reasonable logistical reasons), again, making much of the road a de facto two-lane road. Turning to a permanent two-lane road would not affect the nature of the road much at all.

Bank Street Bridge is currently two lanes and has been for a while

While Lansdowne work continues, the stretch of Bank Street out front of it and over the bridge has been reduced to either a two- or three-lane road. Northbound traffic has had to deal with one lane for a year or more now (seriously, I can’t remember how long it’s been). Southbound traffic has tended to sort into one lane, if unofficially, as it passes Holmwood.

The world has not ended; traffic flows easily.

Bank Street has a cycling culture

Bikes are not a rare sight on Bank Street. They’re there, a lot. Bank Street is a fairly important part of Ottawa’s biking infrastructure. It’s connected to multiple bike routes and pathways. It is so ingrained in our neighbourhoods that there are multiple bike shops along the street. In the Glebe, alone, there is Kunstadt, Joe Mama’s and McCrank’s. People are biking. It is unfair to mortgage their personal safety just to give more space to cars.

There are, of course, arguments against such an initiative. They are, upon inspection, to be found lacking:

Bank Street needs parking

It’s true that if you want a lot of people driving somewhere, they’re going to need spaces to put their cars, but using this to justify Bank Street parking is to beg the question. It is not clear that we want a lot of people to be driving into the Glebe or Old Ottawa South. We have a neighbourhood that relies on walking, so it should not be assumed that we want a lot of people driving their cars through it (especially if they’re distracted looking for a parking spot).

Ottawa invests a lot of money in mass transit. We’re digging a giant tunnel downtown right now. There will be light rail transit that can take people right to Bank Street from the east or west. There are buses that run down Bank Street with great frequency (if sometimes unpredictably). There is even chatter about shuttles from Old Ottawa East and the Glebe Annex. There can still be many ways to get to the Glebe.

Further, with more walking and cycling infrastructure, we are likely to see more pedestrians and cyclists. The more people who walk or bike, the fewer people who might turn to driving.

Of course, the other issue with this argument is that it supposes that there is otherwise insufficient parking. Montreal recently did a study regarding the effect on parking of adding a bike lane. It found that they would lose 300 of 11,000 parking spots in the neighbourhood. That is a negligible amount.

As well, let us not forget that a new three-storey parking garage is being built at Glebe and Second Avenue. It seems quite reasonable to think that some of the current demand for parking could be re-directed there.

Besides that, the Glebe has a lot of parking. Most of it is on side streets, and may not be adjacent to the exact store or restaurant a driver wishes to visit. I’m not sure why this is anyone else’s problem. An unwillingness to walk a reasonable distance is not a good argument for more parking. Parking a few blocks away would lead to longer a walk than parking at the far end of a Wal-Mart (or other big box store) parking lot.

Free parking

The parking on Bank Street is not free for drivers. However, it is free for businesses, and this is the big sticking point. The Glebe BIA—demonstrating that they give little concern to people—opposed a Complete Streets model for Bank Street when it was re-done a few years ago. They didn’t want to lose parking…and they didn’t want to have to provide it, themselves.

What occurs now is that the rest of us subsidize these stores by providing, at no cost to the business, parking for their customers. The businesses do not have to rent this space, nor do they have to worry about providing on-site parking. They can just take the space from the rest of us at no added cost. It’s unsavoury and extremely inefficient. If there is a business case for more parking, let businesses deal with it.

Bank Street has too many cars for two lanes

The first six words of the argument are likely correct. There are too many cars driving down Bank Street. Suggesting that we can’t ever do anything about traffic volume is rather defeatist (especially when, as noted above, we currently live with, essentially, a two-lane road). However, we should be working towards lightening traffic, rather than doing whatever we can to maximize it.

Main Street is a Complete Street so people will want to drive on Bank Street

This argument is intellectually perverted. The reason we decided that Main Street should be a complete street is because we recognize that the sort of heavy traffic pattern we saw on Main Street was inappropriate for an urban neighbourhood. To use the decision to improve Main Street as an argument against improving Bank Street is to totally miss the point.

Cynic though I am, I cannot believe that city planners and councilors are sincerely this dense. (Cynic that I am, I can believe that city planners and councilors are insincerely this dense.)

The real issue in all of this is that cars have been granted privileged status in our city planning for decades. Even the most modest efforts to increase safety and usability for cyclists and pedestrians are strenuously opposed by those who would no longer have their ways of life valued greater than everyone else’s.

It is not difficult to create more equitable city infrastructure. It just takes some thought and some nerve.

Post Script: As if on cue, the city will be hosting a Glebe Neighbourhood Cycling Plan meeting on June 25.

6 thoughts on “We Should Narrow Bank Street

  1. Reblogged this on markseebaran and commented:
    Consider two extremes from the Glebe’s recent past on Bank Street. When the entire road was dug up for repairs, business survived. During the Glebe Garage Sale, pedestrians could barely get past each other, while allowing normal traffic that morning made no sense. Walking culture creates the quintessence of community that business loves but can’t buy.

    • Excellent points. Too often, planners, politicians and residents say that we just *can’t* do something, but when push comes to shove, we can usually find a way to make things work. You’ve described just how that’s the case, here. We should apply these lessons.

  2. Pingback: Who wants to go to Lansdowne? | Steps from the Canal

  3. Pingback: Bank Street Parking and Lansdowne | Steps from the Canal

  4. Pingback: Why does the Glebe want more cars? | Steps from the Canal

  5. Pingback: Bike Lanes or How Bad is Good Infrastructure | Steps from the Canal

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