A car-centric re-design for Elgin Street

Today, city council approved the designs for the Elgin Street renewal project. The project will result in a lane reduction for Elgin Street, some flex space, wider sidewalks and sharrows. It’s a bad plan, and it’s unfortunate that city council betrayed residents–going against the results of the consultation and their previous pledge to implement Complete Streets on road renewals.

The motion for this project passed with all but two ‘yea’ votes. Only councillors Tim Tierney (Beacon Hill-Cyrville) and Allan Hubley (Kanata South) dissented. I don’t know the reasons for their dissent (at the time of writing, I have emailed both asking for comment), but on Twitter this morning, I made the assumption that it was because it inconvenienced drivers. Specifically, I tweeted that the “Car-centric design isn’t car-centric enough“.

Maybe this is unfair, and if I receive clarification from either council, I will update this post. However, Hubley, especially, has a significant anti-bike, anti-pedestrian, anti-livable city streak. Tierney has been more supportive of bike infrastructure in the past.

Further, a number of councillors have expressed concerns that cars on Elgin Street would no longer be sufficiently privileged. Scott Moffatt (Rideau-Goulbourn) had extended Twitter conversations about the need to get cars there.

Michael Qaquish (Gloucester South-Nepean) expressed concern last week that lowering the speed limit to 30 km/hr is “overkill”–a darkly ironic term to employ.

Regardless of each individual councillors opinion, the fact remains; this is a car-centric design with which we will be saddled with for decades.

This isn’t a Complete Street design

In case you’re unfamiliar with Complete Streets, the philosophy basically states that streets should be designed to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable street users. This means we should prioritize the needs of pedestrians, then bicyclists, then transit users and, finally, drivers.

This would–pretty much always–mean the street would get sidewalks. It would mean that a busy street like Elgin would get bike lanes of some sort. It would ample room is given to people waiting for the bus. It would drivers would just have to deal with it. The lives of others are more important than a driver’s desire to speed through a dense, mix-use area with lots of pedestrians and bicyclists.

On other streets, it might not call for bike lanes–a quiet residential street, perhaps. But on something we consider an arterial…on something that is a truck route…you’re going to need proper bike infrastructure.

A couple of years back, council passed a motion to consider implementing Complete Streets when streets needed to be re-done. They’ve consistently found excuses not to, the most galling being the justification for the neglect of Kent Street–it wasn’t being re-built, just re-surfaced, so the motion didn’t count.

Well, now we have a true re-build. We have a street in a dense, mix-use area, with lots of pedestrians and bicyclists. We’re going to need wider sidewalks, and we’re going to need bike lanes, if we want to have a Complete Street.

We get sharrows.

Sharrows are not infrastructure. In fact as more and more studies emerge, we’ve learned that sharrows increase danger for bicyclists.

There are people out there who want to call this a Complete Street project. It’s not. They’re either uninformed, or they’re lying. If they’re councillors, assume they’re lying, because it’s is their damned job to know better.

Now, the city has also pulled a fast one, more generally, on the public. We have adopted a Complete Street policy that is explicitly not adherent to the Complete Street philosophy. While Complete Streets must prioritize the needs of the vulnerable, the city policy merely seeks to “balance” the needs of different street users.

Of course, they’ve given an abundance of space over to cars, and they’ve given nothing to bicyclists, so even by their own watered-down, dishonest standard, they’ve failed.

Flex space

If you’re like many people out there, you’ll look at the designs for Elgin, you’ll see wider sidewalks, so it will just stand to reason that pedestrians are getting priority treatment…so, hey, maybe the city prioritized their needs, if nothing else.

Of course, much of the sidewalk space will be used up by patios. This is okay. This is good, in fact. It’s a fine use of some street space. However, giving space over to private businesses is not the same as giving that space to pedestrians.

Sadly, much of the extended sidewalks will not be used as sidewalks, nor will it be used as patios. This space has been deemed “flex space” meaning that it can be used for parking. When can it be used for parking? Well, if every other damned street in the city is any indication, it can be used for parking anytime a driver feels like it.

So, we have will flex space that is really just car storage space, plus a full lane for driving. This is equivalent of the current situation, where we have a curb lane on either side that is generally used for parking, and a centre lane on either side that is used for driving.

Oh, also, this means that bicyclists will once again be used as protection of parked cars.

(Yeah, yeah, there are sharrows, so bikes can be in the centre lane and drivers will have to be patient; I’m totally sure that’ll work. And yeah, yeah, the flex space is supposed to be for pedestrians much of the time; promises and realities have tended not to line up…see: Park, Lansdowne.)

But it’s better than the status quo

This is true.

This is also something we hear a lot. We hear it about Lansdowne…an underwhelming, underachieving urban village is better than a rotting parking lot and a crumbling stadium. And we hear it about Lebreton Flats…the Eugene Melnyk amusement park will be better that poisoned, barren land stolen from working class families to make political elites feel better about themselves.

Woo hoo.

The status quo is garbage. Giving residents better-than-garbage when they’ve been desperately wanting a livable city is municipal malfeasance. I’ve got no time for better-than-the-status-quo argument. We should do better than that.

But we’re reducing space for cars!

You’re going to hear this, too. And, yes, it’s true. There will be less room for cars (though how much less has yet to be seen), but between the car lane and the flex space parking spots, we’re still giving an awful lot of space to cars.

Here’s the thing about people who cry about the “War on Cars”. They’re entitled babies. There is no war on cars. Cars have been waging war on cities and residents for over half a century. All urbanists and livable city activists are trying to do is scale back some of the losses.

This is what is happening on Elgin Street. Cars are still being given top priority. I mean, come on, we’re going to park them on the damn sidewalk…legally!

They’re getting two full lanes when bicyclists get nothing. The street will have a 30 km/hr limit when relatively few bicyclists go anywhere near that fast.

This street is still being designed for the supremacy of cars…that supremacy is just being dialed back slightly. This street should have had wider sidewalks (and buried power lines), bike lanes, two driving lanes (maybe) and no parking. That’s the only way this could have been a Complete Street–either by the city’s definition or the real definition.

I’ve said it before; the city isn’t waging a war on cars, this is a negotiated retreat.

The city is putting cars before our safety. It is putting cars before our health. It is putting cars before our environment. It is putting cars before everything else.

This isn’t a Complete Street. This isn’t some grand breakthrough for livable city policies. This is a modest improvement while maintaining Ottawa’s unhealthy and dangerous obsession with driving.

And anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you…even your favourite city councillor.

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