Bikes and Hills

In case you hadn’t heard, the plan to add a bike lane on Spencer Street has died. It’s one-time champion, Kitchissippi Councillor Jeff Leiper, pulled the plug. This came after some teeth-gnashing in the pages of the Citizen, and a loss (or apparent loss) of public support. In a rather thoughtful post, Leiper explains his decision, and it’s hard to fault him for this. He’s generally one of the most reliable councillors (in a good way), so it’d be hard to paint this as some grand betrayal.

I haven’t spoken much about this project, and there are a few reasons for that. First, I don’t live in the area and I don’t bike to the area very much, so this project wouldn’t really affect me (and bike lanes on Spencer aren’t going to change my biking habits). Further, I have no real familiarity with the street, so I didn’t feel comfortable weighing in (though I know a lot of people who would benefit from such a bike lane, so I was heartened when it appeared it would be going ahead).

Finally, I don’t particularly care about Spencer. The bike lanes on Spencer were always just a bad compromise for leaving Wellington Street a bad, dangerous, car-centric affair. Ottawa’s bike network needs to be less about getting people around stuff, and more about getting them to stuff. It’s why Bank Street needs bike lanes, rather than diverting bicyclists to Percy or O’Connor.

It’s why Montreal Road needs proper infrastructure.

It’s why Carling Aven… you get the idea.

There’s a lot (a lot) to unpack in this decision, but this was always the biggest takeaway for me. We need the bike lanes on Wellington, not Spencer. They would probably be beneficial on Spencer, but the bike network needs to be on main streets. So, when Leiper pulled back on this plan, and a lot of bike safety advocates reacted strongly, my gut reaction was: this isn’t the hill to die on.

But here’s the thing: we’re running out of hills.

Bank got nothing when it was re-done, and, as things stand, it won’t be touched for another 20 or 30 years, at the very earliest. Kent Street got nothing. Hell, it might be more dangerous now. Innes, Montreal, Carling, O’Connor south of the Queensway, the Booth Street Bridge…the city is consistently ignoring the needs of bicyclists, save for a few exceptions here and there.

Even Elgin Street–the street that was primed for a Complete Streets makeover; the street that was being re-done right after council adopted a new Complete Streets motion; the street that received overwhelming support from residents and the community for bike lanes–it will get nothing.

This is why Spencer Street, a rather insignificant street home to mostly garages, mattered. It mattered because eventually, there’ll be no streets left where we can put bike lanes. Eventually, considering the current trend, car dominance and unsafe streets will be (even more) firmly entrenched as the standard by which all city planning will be executed.

So this is a sad loss. It’s a significant defeat. And in context, it’s hard seeing things getting a whole lot better in the near future.

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