Bikes and Street Lights, Addendum

The other day, I wrote about the issue of ghost bikes and the way our city actually makes sidewalks unsafe. (I’m not linking to it. It’s two posts down. You’ll be able to find it.) This morning, I was reminded of another dynamic within the city demonstrating their love of pitting pedestrians against bikes, while giving free pass to the actual threat, cars (and drivers): Sparks Street Mall.

Sparks Street is a pedestrian mall, and I love it. There’s no real reason to love it, though. There are some bars, a few restaurants a CBC building and a whole bunch of office towers, but not much else. There is little to draw me there, but I still go. It’s nostalgia, nothing more. I’ve loved it since I was a kid and I want to see it become something worthwhile again.

I should backtrack. It’s called a pedestrian mall. There are no traffic lanes and no sidewalks. It’s built like a pedestrian mall. Just a big space clearly designed for walking…and, of course, no biking.

I mean, its design is clearly compatible with biking, and there’s little reason not to make it shared space. Shared space can work, if there’s enough room and if it’s not meant to be a commuter route. Sparks Street fits the bill, but the mall authority and the BIA (both of which have waaaaaaay too much power) have demonstrated a clear hatred for bicycling, so no bikes.

Some people have very strong feelings about this (on both sides). I don’t. Sparks certainly could be shared space, but I don’t really mind if it’s pedestrian-only.

But of course, it’s not pedestrian-only. Cars are allowed, if not encouraged. I am never on Sparks Street these days without seeing a car, van, truck or motorcycle, and I’m generally on Sparks Street at least once a week.

Further, the mall hosts car shows. They’ve even used this pedestrian space for test drives, in the past.

Our governmental/quasi-governmental organizations will expend a lot of energy ensuring that pedestrians know that bikes are a danger and that they will fight to the death to keep the off Sparks Street, while at the same time inviting cars onto the pedestrian mall.

It’s just another light standard.

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Fairwinds and an admission of guilt from the city

Glen Gower* has a write-up about a recent meeting between members of the Fairwinds community, Ottawa Police, city planners and councillor Shad Qadri to discuss matters of pedestrian safety. There’s a lot to chew on in the piece, but this one bullet point stuck out for me:

  • In general, the city likes parking on both sides of wide streets like Rosehill and Maple Grove because it creates a funnel effect and slows down traffic.

This is an admission of guilt.

This affinity for a “funnel effect” demonstrates that city planners understand the very basic concept that narrow streets tend to be safer (because cars must go slower) than wide streets (because cars will tend to speed). They know that we would be safer with narrower streets but they refuse to build them.

Surely, they don’t rely on parking to make our streets safer; they make our streets dangerous to accommodate more parking.

Further, I wonder if a street lined with cars sends a message to drivers that the street and the community exist for cars. If you demonstrate that the street is high volume (by packing as many cars, moving or not, onto the street), it says to me that the street is a high volume, high traffic street. This tells me that the car is supreme and that I have to be less careful, because it is place only for cars.

City staff are telling us that they’re intentionally building a dangerous city. Now it’s a question of how many people care.

(H/T: Joe Boughner.)

*Glen writes so much. I have no idea how he does it.

Ghost Bikes, Street Lights and What’s Really Important

The city is talking about ghost bikes again…and, to be clear, they’re talking about removing ghost bikes again. Never do we actually talk about the bikes themselves, not institutionally.

Honestly, I wasn’t going to write about this. I’ve written about it before; I’ve been interviewed about it; and I went on a bit of a twitter rant the other day (probably not my first). The narrative is always the same. People lie about the hazard ghost bikes pose, and others respond by trying to talk about safety.

Just about anyone with any sense will quickly go to the most accurate talking points: ghost bikes aren’t a distraction, certainly no more than the crazy billboards all around; don’t talk about ghost bikes, talk about what caused them; let’s trade all the ghost bikes for some safety improvements.

There you go. It can be said much more eloquently, but I just don’t have the patience to slog through this tedious, insulting, inhuman debate. The dance is stale.

But I will talk about one bike.

Much of the chatter about ghost bikes has centred around Meg’s Bike, installed at the Northwest corner of Bank and Riverside in memory of Meg Dussault, who was run over by a truck as she tried to navigate our city. There are calls to remove it. There are suggestions that it gets in the way of people walking the sidewalk.

Here’s the thing about Meg’s Bike. Anyone who tells you that bike is obstructing pedestrians is lying, to you and, possibly, to themselves. That bike is in no one’s way. It’s tucked back, completely out of the flow of walking traffic.

What is in the way is a traffic light. The light standards impede walking. The light standards pinch the sidewalk at a disgustingly dangerous intersection. The light standards ensure that it is uncomfortable to cross those streets. Meg’s Bike is further recessed than the light standards. You would have to intentionally snake around these large metal poles for Meg’s Bike to even come close to getting in your way as a pedestrian.

This is a perfect metaphor for this city and the way it manipulates the public about street safety.

We impose on pedestrians in order to benefit cars. We put traffic poles in sidewalks. We take up chunks of pedestrian space–what little we provide–for traffic, for speeding, deadly traffic.

And it’s worse for bicycles, of course. We often give them zero space. We have a street–a street–that we have dedicated to cars with no bike infrastructure whatsoever. It’s fast and it’s scary (I’m hardly ever willing to ride over either of the bridges on Bank Street). And it kills, and we know it kills, and everyday we go by, we’re reminded that it kills. And the city, in its cowardice and its complicity refuses to admit it.

The city refuses to do anything to make that street and that intersection safe. There have to multiple lanes. There have to be massive trucks. There have to be high volumes of traffic that are allowed to speed every damned day.

Because driving, and driving fast, is truly important to the city. The city does not value safety.

The city does so very little about safety, and they certainly don’t acknowledge the depths of our safety issues. A memorial to the victim of our city planning has to be taken down, and we have to gin up an excuse, lest we be exposed for the murderers we are.

So we blame the memorial. We blame the dead the cyclists and those who care that she was killed by our streets. There are traffic poles that block far more of the sidewalk than the ghost bike. The traffic standards block the ghost bike, but the city doesn’t care. The city has to make it about Meg’s Bike.

The city has to blame bicyclists–some of the most vulnerable road users–for endangering pedestrians. They do this all the time. We can’t have a bike lane, because then there won’t be room for sidewalks. We can’t have shared space, because pedestrians will be run down. It’ll be carnage! (Please ignore the actual carnage on the adjacent street.)

It happened with the Rideau Street re-design. We could make it safe for pedestrians or cyclists, but god forbid we make it safe for both groups, that might slightly inconvenience drivers. This is what this city, this council and this mayor do. It’s dishonest. It’s callous. And it should be unacceptable in any civilized community.

But no, it’s about ghost bikes. They’re in the way. Pretend that we can’t build a safe city. Pretend that the greatest threat to pedestrians is a guy on a Schwinn. Pretend that that if not for bicyclists, pedestrians would never be harmed by tonnes of metal flying through our city at 80 km/hr. It’s ghost bikes. Worry about them.

And ignore the fucking light post in the sidewalk.

The perils of event space

I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Council for Canadian Urbanism yesterday. One topic discussed was the state of Canadian urbanism. A fellow panelist, the Globe & Mail’s Frances Bula, raised the concern that too much urban placemaking revolves around big events, street parties, festivals and those sorts of things…events that are often loud (and maybe a little intrusive for the host community). She warned that this could send a message that urban living is only for those who want to be regularly involved in these large festivals, when, in fact, there’s so much more to urban living than that.

I was quite happy that she raised this point, as I had been thinking of bringing it up, too. It’s a definite problem, and one that most definitely afflicts Ottawa.

It was fitting/ironic that the discussion was taking place in the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne, since Lansdowne is clearly falling prey to this phenomenon. Throughout the spring and summer, and into the fall, there seemed to be a constant stream of events…concerts, a circus, football games, soccer games, a ball hockey tournament, CityFolk, an Asian Festival…it goes on.

But at the times that these events aren’t going on, you get very little activity on the grounds. Yes, certainly, people would visit the Farmer’s Market (well, at least on Sunday, if no other days), but when I arrived at Lansdowne, there was no one enjoying the place, and there’s a pretty simple reason; for all the talk of creating an “Urban Village”, Lansdowne is being turned into an even destination. They have not—and are not—building a place where many people just come to live and be. Aberdeen Plaza, which should be the prime public space is regularly empty…when the city isn’t allowing it to be used as a parking lot.

I’m going to double-back and correct myself. There were some people enjoying Lansdowne when I arrived yesterday: skateboarders. The skatepark at Lansdowne was being used. The skatepark is almost always being used. It might be the most popular part of the entire site.

In the summer, the children’s play area would get consistent use, too, and, at times, the great lawn and the berm. All the truly public areas tucked at the back of the park are being enjoyed by our greater community. It’s the commercial area, the plazas, the Horticulture Building and, depressingly, the Cattle Castle that aren’t being properly used or enjoyed.

Some of this should change as more people move in, and as more of the office space is filled. Lansdowne needs people there throughout the day and night to make it hum. We don’t make vibrant places with events; we make them with people.

Ottawa, of course, has an even better/worse example of the desolation of event space, Sparks Street. A pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown, one block south of Wellington Street, Sparks Street should be a treasure. It should be lovely, with a dynamic life unto itself. Unfortunately, most days it’s a parking lot or a cafeteria for bureaucrats. And when it’s not, it’s hosting some silly “-fest”. Sparks Street has Ribfest and Poutinefest (a second Poutinefest in the downtown in Ottawa); it has Ribotberfest (the third ribs festival in downtown during the year), the Busker Festival and LatinFest (at least these last two change things up and aren’t about food).

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these events. They can be quite enjoyable (I love Ribfest, though I hate the portmanteau-inflicted Ribtoberfest). But the problem lies with the rest of the year. When you devote this space to these –fests, you leave nothing for the rest of the days, weeks and months. There are few other draw unless you want to go to yet-another Irish pub or drink overrated craft beers.

And, I should note, I say this as someone who loves Sparks Street. I will always—always—choose to walk down Sparks Street rather than other street if it’s not particularly out of my way. I desperately want Sparks Street to be the gem of downtown.

But we don’t build it up to be something great. It’s a sideshow. Grab some beers, grab some wings, litter, then drive away.

Developers and Development Charges

City council made a bad decision this week…well, they made three bad decisions, but I’m only going to focus on one. Last year, the city increased development charges (DCs). This was a fine move. New builds are taxing on our city services and our city finances. New development isn’t inherently bad, but it is costly, and shouldn’t be subsidized by the rest of us.

Well, nothing is permanent, it seems. Homebuilder associations threatened to take the city to the Ontario Municipal Baord, so the city caved, slashing the increases and promising to never ever do anything to make these perfect, sainted, benevolent developers even slightly inconvenienced ever again (essentially).

I’m not going to get deep into it right now…mainly because Rideau-Rockliffe councillor Tobi Nussbaum’s statement is pretty perfect. (And I’m stealing it in its entirety and I hope Team Tobi doesn’t mind.)

At City Council today, I voted against a settlement agreement to resolve an appeal to the City’s updated development charges bylaw. Ottawa updated its development charges in 2014 and the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA) and other developers subsequently appealed the decision at the Ontario Municipal Board.

The Province of Ontario requires municipalities to review and update their development charges every five years. The City collects development charges from homebuilders to pay for the increased capital costs of services such as new roads, water and sewer pipes and transit to accommodate residential growth. As a result of the settlement, the City will have to reimburse $7.4 million in collected development charges to builders and can expect to forego tens of millions of dollars in future revenue.

I voted against this proposed settlement agreement for two main reasons:

ACCOUNTABILITY

The settlement agreement goes far beyond the 2014 changes to the development charges. It includes a clause that would prohibit Council from introducing any new projects to its development charge system prior to January 1, 2019, unless the appellants agree. By approving this settlement, the City is giving the appellants a veto power over what City Council can do in relation to development charges for more than three years, eliminating the opportunity to include new projects as part of the next development charges review, expected in 2017. To use a concrete example, although Council had the right to impose a development charge to help offset capital costs for childcare, Council will be forbidden to do so by this settlement agreement unless the appealing developers agree.

TRANSPARENCY

The 2014 Development Charges By-law amendment was the subject of considerable consultation, both with the industry and with the broader public. City staff recommended approval of it to Council in June 2014 without any suggestion of legal risk. Given that city staff is now recommending drastic alterations to the recently adopted development charges, either Council was not properly informed of any legal risks at the time the changes were passed, or the city should not agree to settle and instead proceed to a hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board on the basis of the rigorous research, transparency and consultation that underlined the 2014 review.  Either possibility raises significant process issues.

For a public regulator to grant veto power over its future decisions to the very bodies it regulates raises serious concerns. Considering that the settlement agreement was passed at the same meeting that Council considered directions for its 2016 budget, which includes a $36 million-gap that needs to be filled, such a voluntary ceding of Council authority is both legally and financially problematic.

The city is obligated to demonstrate the highest level of openness and transparency, particularly when dealing with the development industry. A settlement agreement, negotiated and debated behind closed doors, that alters a publicly-consulted set of rules and provides veto power to developers over City decisions, does not meet that test. The result of that failure is a loss of public trust.

Nussbaum and Somerset councillor Catherine McKenney were the only two to vote against this horrendous motion. Good for them.

I get council’s desire to settle. The OMB is a monster, and has consistently sided with developers and against democracy. The provincial government is severely hurting the city by giving the OMB such expansive powers. It seems not a significant debate about urban development goes by that someone doesn’t express concern that the OMB will punish the city for a decision we might (and, usually, should) make.

But that doesn’t mean we turn over the keys to government to developers. It already seems like city council is in the pocket of corporations. Now, we’re just that much closer to codifying it.

Two Lanes on Bank Street, an Experiment

If you’ve been paying attention (and you are certainly under no obligation to do so), you know I’d like to see Bank Street reduced to two lanes. I’m not even going to link to the blog post I wrote last year or the year before, or all the tweets I’ve punched out. My opini0n is pretty well-established.

The other day, I was walking north on Bank Street at 4:30 pm, smack dab in the middle of rush hour. I was on the west side of the street, so I was facing traffic, looking up Bank from Fifth. Between Fifth and Fourth, there was a cop car stopped in the curb-side lane, which is, technically, a no parking zone. There are supposed to be two clear southbound lanes for rush hour.

(The cop seemed to be talking to someone. I have no idea why, and don’t mean to imply the cop shouldn’t have been stopped there…regardless, this whole parenthetical is completely beside the point. Aren’t you glad I wrote it?)

The traffic heading south was forced into one lane, and, you know what?, there was no impact on traffic whatsoever as far south as I could see (so, to the crest of the bridge). This is just how it was while Lansdowne was being developed and the road was permanently down to one lane. It was absolutely sufficient for traffic purposes.

For some reason, most of the cars stayed in the one (centre) lane. In fact, the only slow downs happened as drivers decided to switch into the second lane, slowing down to signal, look and change lanes (all good things).

So, yes, there is clear evidence that Bank Street absolutely does not need to be two lanes in our urban areas.

Thoughts on the Canal

As is clear, I have a bit of an affinity for the canal. It is one of Ottawa’s most iconic features, and it is the defining feature of the city. From logging industry tool to World Heritage Site, the canal is Ottawa.

Which is why it’s so depressing how everything about the canal is so screwed up.

This was underscored the other day, when Parks Canada announced that it had signed an agreement with Ottawa Boat Cruise to start running cruises along the canal…which is nice, since we had nothing this year. There’s even chatter about some innovation, like adding more stops along the canal and integrating the canal tours with the Ottawa River tours. It’s nothing super-innovative, but it’s better than status quo.

Sadly…you knew there was a “sadly”…sadly, the contract is for 42 years. This is absolutely insane. I’ll be 81 (if I’m even alive) when this comes up for renewal. That means one provider locked into this cash cow for four decades. There’s no real innovation involved, just opaque promises about some new ideas. I’m absolutely incensed by this decision. I cannot fathom how Parks Canada could be allowed to lock down the canal for 42 years. It is epic mismanagement.

So, hopefully, Ottawa Boat Cruise and Parks can work together, unprompted, to do some cool stuff, but there’s reason to assume they will.

There’s so much wrong with the canal. This contract sucks. The parkland around the canal is uninspiring. The paths are nothing special. But I shouldn’t be completely negative. So, with that spirit in mind, and my cynicism held in check (as much as possible), here are some thoughts on what we should do with the canal.

(I’m not going to worry about all the different government departments that are involved. Development needs to happen and it’s stupid that we have so many layers–many far removed from the city–mucking things up.)

The Possible

  • Build the Fifth Avenue foot bridge. We’ve built the Corktown Bridge, and the Donald-Somerset bridge is almost complete (seems like it should be done by now, but the city is still saying June). Those are both pretty far north. Get the Fifth Avenue bridge built to connect Old Ottawa South to Lansdowne.
  • Fix the crossing at Bank Street. This means:
    • Proper sidewalks/pedestrian infrastructure. The current sidewalk is too narrow, especially in the winter. Widen the sidewalk or build a separate, but accessible from Bank Street, crossing.
    • Proper bicycle infrastructure. Get those super sharrows off the road and build bike lanes, or, again, a separate, yet accessible, bike crossing.
    • Do some speed reductions. Bank Street is a 40 km/hr zone, but people will go over the bridge at 70 or 80. Traffic calming. Real enforcement. Two lanes. Whatever. Get on it.
    • While we’re on the topic of the bridge, get some proper lights. Those low yellow street lights give really poor visibility at night. It’s friggin’ scary crossing that bridge.
    • Integrate the bridge with Lansdowne. We’re still developing at the foot of the bridge. Make the sidewalk expand into some sort of wide pathway that takes you write to the grounds.
  • Bring back 8 Locks Flat. Parks will sign a 42-year lease for no good reason, but the NCC won’t even open a waterfront restaurant for more than a blink at a time. If it could be winterized, that’d be cool, too.
  • Make more 8 Locks Flats. I’m not a fan of the just-put-a-bar-there school of urban development, but, hell, get some restaurants or something along the canal. Maybe a play structure? Some hammocks? Adult-sized swings?
  • Multiple stops along the canal. Ottawa Boat Cruise is running next year. Let it stop at Lansdowne, Canal Ritz, 8 Locks Flat and all the other 8 Locks Flats you should be creating.

The Challenging

  • Clean up the back of the NAC. I have a friend who loves brutalism. I love it, too, but she and I greatly disagree on the NAC. Whatever merits it has on the inside, it is a massive barrier in downtown Ottawa. It cuts of the core from the canal and parts east. Worse, all of its area along the canal is used for parking and loading. It’s just useless, crappy pavement. Not good Pavement. Useless crappy pavement. Maybe the building can be be incorporated into a vibrant waterfront, but right now it tells me that that part of the canal is to be a backdrop for the upper class and their expensive cultural pursuits. It’s not for the public.
  • Build more foot bridges. There was talk of a foot bridge at Lansdowne where the canal bends, but was deemed to expensive. That’d be neat.
  • Get a proper crossing at Carleton. I can hardly believe I never died walking that tiny dock on my way home from Mike’s Place at 1:00 am.
  • Better connect the canal to Mooney’s Bay. If you drive along Hog’s Back often, it’d be forgivable if you never realized you could easily access either. Connecting them would be great. Integrating that connection with Meadowlands would be super.

The Dream

  • Get rid of the driveways. The greatest thing the Greber plan probably did was free the canal from the rail lines that ran alongside it. That’s not a particularly engaging landscape. Sadly, the government replaced the rail lines with freeways…which amounts to much of the same thing. Freeways make much of the canal (not to mention the Ottawa River) unaccessible. It’s a friggin’ capital-w capital-h World Heritage site, and it’s become a negligible background for grossly speeding cars.

    It’d be especially good to get rid of the Queen Elizabeth Driveway. Much of the Colonel By side of the canal doesn’t really interact with the surroundings, regardless of the freeway. However, the QED really cuts off a lovely potential waterfront. We could connect Lansdowne to the canal (which was the original purpose of Lansdowne Park, if we’re going to get into heritage and all that). We could connect Commissionaire’s Park to Dow’s Lake. The Glebel, the Triangle, Rideau Centre. All of these could connect to the canal. You could leave the Market and walk right to a lovely waterfront, connecting the Rideau Centre, the Westin, the Conference Centre and the NAC just across the canal (we should also clean up that side, so that it’s not just a loading dock for the NAC…brutalism needed be so damned brutal).

  • Turn the Canadian Forces Barracks into a park. Have you gone from Dow’s Lake to the Arboretum? It’s wonderful, except for navigating your way past the barracks. It’s a ridiculous and unnecessary barrier. If we ditched the QED, and got rid of the barracks, we could have an entire stretch of greenspace and public development from the NAC, past Lansdowne, along Dow’s Lake and Commissionaire’s Park, around up through the arboretum to Carleton University. If we also ditched the Colonel By, we could connect to the other side of Carleton and up to Mooney’s Bay. There is so much that could be done with that stretch. Our city life could be immeasurably improved, if we just got rid of these invading freeways.
  • Reform Carling at Preston. We’re starting this. We’re putting up some huge towers, which should be good, but Carling is still too wide and too fast. Give it a road diet. Get rid of the medians. Widen the sidwalks. Build cycletracks. Trees! Those new towers could be the first step in rehabilitating Carling so the neighbourhoods on the other side of the canal can easily access it. Why wouldn’t you want to connect the canal area to Little Italy? And just think how it would rejuvenate Queen Juliana Park. (Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know what Queen Juliana Park is.)
  • Integrate OC Transpo with some sort of boat-bus. I don’t know if this would be at all practical or cost-efficient, but if I could just swipe my presto to take a boat from Dow’s Lake to Fifth, it’d be pretty dang cool. Oh… and make sure I can bring my bike on board.

There is so much more that we could do. I get regular ideas, from the practical to the fanciful all the time. This is just a short list. But it just shocks me how the NCC wants to do absolutely nothing with it. They have resigned themselves…no, not resigned themselves…they have completely embraced the idea that their contribution to canal life is to provide urban freeways purely for commuting purposes.

They’re not trying to improve Ottawa. They’re not trying to build a world-class capital (whatever the hell that might mean). They’re not making a better Ottawa for residents, visitors, tourists or the rest of Canada. They’re using it for a freeway, and they take very seriously their mission to make it’s sole purpose a means to move cars really fast.

CityFolk

I’ve been hearing a lot of mixed reviews in the media about the recent CityFolk music festival at Lansdowne. At times, the promoter has made it sound like an unmitigated success (this is clearly false, and at other times he has given a more nuanced view, but I think we can understand why he might feel pressure to focus on the positives).

A lot of the negative reviews are rather predictable – space issues, not enough port-a-potties and poor transportation to and from the park. Some of this is likely just growing pains. It’s the first year at Lansdowne, and Lansdowne, itself, is still figuring a lot of this out. (In the future, these festivals shouldn’t be allowed to hi-jack a public park for weeks at a time.)

The city, OSEG and OC Transpo need to figure things out. Outside of RedBlacks games, there are never enough buses running along Bank Street. This problem pre-dates Lansdowne, but it has become more acute as more and more special events move into the park.

But let’s put all that aside. Coming in, I was most worried about the disruption to the neighbourhood. Bluesfest is known for ignoring the concerns or comfort of the Lebreton community, and last year, CityFolk was ridiculously loud, prompting a number of complaints from various neighbourhoods, including (but not limited to) Old Ottawa South and the Glebe. CityFolk responded by trying to mitigate the sound at first, then cranked the volume for the final Sunday.

So I was ready for a festival that would be a giant middle finger to the neighbourhood.

On the first night of the festival, I heard nothing. I’m a few blocks away, and I can usually hear the crowds cheering at RedBlacks games, so I was ready for a bit of noise, but, no, nothing. Still, I wasn’t ready to commend CityFolk on their sound…not even when Thursday night was quiet, too. I knew, these festivals sometimes turn it up on weekends. So I was prepared for a disruptive weekend.

But it never materialized. I heard a bit one evening when I was outside, but I really had to listen for it. It wasn’t disruptive at all*. There were the usual disruptions of drunks pouring out onto Bank Street (after being over-served at Lansdowne, as per yuse), but that’s as much on the city and OC Transpo as it is on CityFolk. Hell, the AC DC crowd was much worse.

So, to my pleasure and slight surprise, I can say that none of my major worries about CityFolk materialized. Good on them.

This doesn’t mean CityFolk should come back next year. It may not be the best spot for them, and Lansdowne needs fewer special events and more everyday draws. However, if they are back, I certainly won’t be too concerned.

*It is quite possible it was disruptive for those living closer, or in a different direction from the park. I can’t speak for them.