A handful of blocks downtown will be closed to cars, and Ottawa’s economy is absolutely doomed

Bell Canada needs to do some work on some manhole covers or something, so five blocks of Somerset O’Connor (man, I’m making some dumb mistakes these days) will be closed to cars for a few weeks. This unexpected-but-not-particularly-earth-shattering development has brought out one of our most storied types of news…er…stories: how will businesses survive? 

Per CBC:

In a release, the City of Ottawa said the closure was necessary to allow Bell Canada crews to repair manholes where the street intersects with Gloucester, Nepean, Lisgar and Cooper streets.

Businesses along that stretch say the impact could be devastating.

“It’s going to destroy our business,” said Fortunato Calabro, owner of Tosca Ristorante, located at the northern edge of the construction zone.

All right, let’s talk about this, bullet-point style:

  • It’s five blocks for six weeks. It’s hard to imagine this as commercial armageddon.
  • One owner worked in a jab at the minimum wage increase, nice.
  • Sometimes, there needs to be roadwork. Sometimes, a road needs to be closed for a while. This isn’t like when they closed Bank Street for a year or two.
  • The road isn’t actually closed; it’s only closed to cars. It seems weird that these restaurants would be so dependent on car traffic. Your business is right downtown, well-served by transit and the area is quite walkable. I don’t get how they don’t capitalize on that.
  • These stories are presented uncritically. Do they have any actual data on their clientele’s modal share? Is it just a gut feeling that everyone (aside from the 9-5 crowd) drives?
  • We rarely get follow up on these stories. Other businesses have been in similar situations. What was the result?
  • Maybe businesses should stop claiming that it will be impossible to get to their location (especially since it’s not true). When Rideau Street was first closed to cars, businesses were apoplectic. The kept going to the media claiming (falsely) that the street was closed and that there was no way for their customers to get to them. It kinda seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • The owners think the city should have consulted with them, but to what end?
  • One owner suggested that they shouldn’t need to close all car lanes, and should only close one. Maybe that’s true, but in my experience, the city does everything it possibly can to avoid inconveniencing drivers, so I’m skeptical that that’d be a viable alternative.
  • Bell is doing this in a compressed timeframe (they say), so the businesses may be getting off easy.
  • Could a journalist doing one of these stories please ask the owners (aside from pressing for actual facts) what they plan to do to adjust? Are they going to try new things to bring people in or are they just going to complain?
  • I think a story like this is really problematic, the way it’s been done. There’s no critical inquiry, no request for facts or data, no follow up to see if the end of the world actually happened and little exploration as to why this work needs to be done.

Okay, so I’m not particularly sympathetic to the plucky protagonists in this story, but I’m willing to take up their cause in one respect (even though they probably won’t like what I’m going to say):

The root cause of this neverending story is our addiction to cars, and the car-centric nature of Ottawa, as an institution. The city basically tells us that we need cars, that we have to drive.

We still have parking minimums for central, urban, walkable areas. BIAs consistently agitate for driving and parking (and generally get it). We don’t, by default, maintain bike infrastructure during the winter…hell, we generally refuse to build it in the first place. On evenings and weekends, we reduce bus service.

Yet we never have to refrain from building roads. We never close streets or reduce capacity (other than via added parking) in off-peak times. We think “Complete Streets” means letting people park on the sidewalk.

And every time a story like this comes up, there is little to no pushback, either from the media or the city.

Do you want a thriving downtown business that can weather a few construction periods? You need a livable, walkable area. You need various modal options. You need a healthy and reliable transit system.

If you decide to hitch your business to driving, you’ll be at the mercy of the smallest inconvenience.

And I’ll have very little sympathy for you.


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