A winter city should never rely on driving

So it snowed yesterday. It really came on in the afternoon, and roads were a bit of a mess come rush hour. I biked to work yesterday, but as things got worse and worse, I did a bit of discretion-valour calculus and decided to take the bus.

It was a mistake.

It moved along Carling okay for much of the route, but as we passed Sherwood and approached Dow’s Lake, everything stopped moving. I’d been on the bus for about 40 minutes, and after sitting and going nowhere for 10 minutes, I decided to hop off an walk the rest of the way. It only took me 22 minutes, so, all told, I got home in a little over an hour.

From all reports, it was worse downtown.


The closure of a few blocks on O’Connor had already made things slow, recently, and now a totally normal but rather snowy afternoon had completely messed everything up.

Well, that’s not really true. Our obsession with driving completely messed everything up.

Construction, road closures and snow are perfectly predicable. Every year, we get snowy days that completely derail car traffic. Roads are slow, accidents are up, people drive erratically and illegally, and people regularly block intersections, helpfully screwing up traffic flow on two streets at once.

People often think I’m crazy or brave or… something… for riding my bike in the winter. But with proper infrastructure, riding a bike in the winter is just not that big a deal. Other than extreme cold, it’s not nearly as susceptible to normal winter conditions (and extreme cold can screw up cars, too).

No, bicycling in winter isn’t crazy; driving is. And building and maintaining a winter city that is so focused on drivers is pure insanity. It strangles our streets. It screws up transit. It kills people. The sooner we realize that a winter city like Ottawa cannot be based on driving, the sooner we’ll be able to fix so many of the messes we see each year.

A few years back, I spoke with PhD student. He was working on his thesis, comparing Ottawa to a city in Finland (I can’t remember which one). The two cities have similar climates, but the Finnish city is completely based on transit. It has something like a 79% modal share. It’s a winter city, and it’s a winter city that understands that transit has to be the main mode of transportation in order to function properly year round.

(By the way, I had been in touch with this person using an email address that’s no longer valid…so if you happen to be reading this, I’d love to hear about how your work went. Drop me a line!)

Yeah, yeah, not everyone can take transit, but if we could just get a little more balance in our transportation system, it would do a world of good.

You’re going to hear a lot of complaints these days about road closures and bike lanes. You’re going to hear people clamour for more car lanes, longer lights, higher speed limits and a host of other car-centric measures.

Ignore them…hell, challenge them. They’re wrong. Their preferred method of transportation and of city-building is what’s gotten us into this mess. We’re all paying for their preferences…and when the city they want has failed, they just look at what’s failing and ask for more of it.

The next time this happens (which might be this afternoon!), look at the cars on the street. They don’t need to be there. We don’t have to tailor city-building to their needs. We can do better. We can build a city that serves everyone better…including those who are sitting in cars, causing the problems.

3 thoughts on “A winter city should never rely on driving

  1. A few weeks ago I saw picture of Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, in a newspaper parking his bicycle in front of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. It was one his routine official visits to the Palace – I must admit I forget the details of the visit. (Probably easily to be googled.)

    He was dressed up as usual in a suit with tie with no extra equipment like hat or mittens. Weather must have been pretty nice that day.

    As far as I am concerned I have never seen a politician or some other VIPs arriving at very important meetings or events in such a way as the Dutch Prime Minister. Sure, there is always the weather. And I am sure there is the random super busy person who has to be chauffeured in and out of a city during a hard working day.

    But what about those endless motorcades waiting to let their Ambassadors or others off into events at the Hotel?What’s about the VIPs at Davos who live 5 walking minutes from the building where the official party or event takes place but are driven right in front on the lobby? (There was no security issue as the entire village was a fortress.)

    I maintain as long as our representatives and even our VIPs are not living up to the situation of alternatives of mobility it is very hard for us little guys to do anything on that front let alone when it is snowing.

    • I hear what you’re saying, but we have three city councillors who bike year-round. We have at least a couple of councillors who take the bus with some frequency. So at the municipal level, we do have a bit of an example being set by some of our civic leaders (though it’d be nice to see even more embracing transit and active transportation).

  2. Pingback: Fixing Winterlude | Steps from the Canal

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