Urbanism isn’t winning, but it’s getting stronger in Ottawa

I was watching the Stittsville Ward debate last night, and a mini-discussion about Vision Zero broke. Now, I won’t get into all the ways the discussion was wrong, nor will I point out that the participants had already gotten into a discussion about all the roads that need to be widened (oops, guess I just did). No, I want to talk about the way urbanism has slowly and partially embedded itself in Ottawa’s municipal dialogue.

Four years ago, would Shad Qadri–who has never been a champion of Vision Zero, safer streets, urbanism, or rational, informed decision making–have been pumping up Vision Zero? I mean, he didn’t totally embrace it, but he sure demonstrated that he wanted to be seen as being on the side of Vision Zero.

Now, this sort of phenomenon isn’t some sort of tangible win for people wanting smart, safe city-building; in fact, the tenets of urbanism are at times being turned against urbanism.

I was at city council a couple of weeks ago, and they were talking about Gateway Speed Limits (basically, the ability to put up signs saying that the default speed limit for an entire neighbourhood is 40 or 30 km/h). This is a good initiative, needed because of bad planning, that is being implemented poorly (one neighbourhood per ward per year gets to be safe, no more, life is too costly for the city budget). So some councillors started talking about just lowering the default speed limit for the entire city (good idea!).

Kanata South councillor Allan Hubley eventually spoke up (this may have been the first time I ever heard him speak). He noted that you can’t just lower a speed limit and, boom, have everyone suddenly adhere to it. People will drive to the conditions of the road (and what was left unsaid was that we have built dangerous roads that encourage dangerous driving).

This comment–this admission–by Hubley demonstrates that urbanist wisdom is gaining a foothold even with the most car-obsessed councillors. Those of us who’d like to not die when crossing the street have repeatedly said, yelled, hollered, that it’s not good enough to just lower the speed limit, you need to fix the road, too.

(Okay, a bit of a quibble here. We may have oversold this. Hubley claimed that lowering the speed limit won’t get people to drive slower, but this isn’t necessarily true. I was recently reading a study about how the speed limit does have an effect on driver behaviour. So if your street has a limit of 50 km/h, drivers may go 75. Lowering the speed limit to 40 won’t suddenly make them drive slowly, but it may get them to drive 65. This is an improvement.)

So Hubley voiced his concern that you can’t just put up a sign and hope for better behaviour. The obvious next step to this line of thought is, so we have to fix our streets to discourage speeding and dangerous driving. But, no, Hubley made no such argument.

You see, people like Hubley (and he’s certainly not the only one) have adopted urbanist wisdom and rhetoric, but they’re twisting it so that it’s an excuse to do nothing about street safety. This is quite distasteful.

And you can see this in Qadri’s talk about Vision Zero. The city has explicitly not adopted Vision Zero (they’ve chosen a non-philosophy called “Towards Zero”), and they repeatedly rejected Vision Zero practices when city development comes up (just look at Elgin Street).

It’s similar to the city’s adoption of the term Complete Streets. We have no Complete Streets in Ottawa. We claim we do. We have a policy we call “Complete Streets”, but it is a bastardization of the concept (instead of prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable street users, we “balance the needs” of all street users, which is a big difference…and we didn’t even do that on Elgin).

This is what is happening with the pro-driving lobby in Ottawa. They can no longer deny what’s actually going on on our roads (except when it comes to road widenings and induced demand). More and more, the public is learning about proper urban planning, and they’re expecting it from City Hall.

So people at City Hall who little interest in building a livable city are co-opting the terms, phrases and concepts of urbanism in order to gloss over their own failings (this is kinda why we need a new, more direct lexicon). It’s gross and deceitful. They’re basically trolling the city.

But this isn’t all bad news. People like Hubley and Qadri spouting urbanistique platitudes are giving up ground to urbanists. They’re finally acknowledging the facts of city-building and road safety. They’re still desperately holding on to their tired, exposed, failed driving-centric philosophy, but the writing’s on the wall. The people want more. They want better. And even the most car-centric politician has to at least pretend to give the people what they want.

And you can see this beyond just street safety. In the dicsourse throughout the suburban, exurban and rural wards, people are talking about transit, bike lanes, sidewalks and mixed-use development. They want complete communities. There’s a shift away from pure, unmitigated sprawl.

There’s still a long way to go. Urban planner Brent Toderian talks about the four stages of city growth: Doing the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing better. Having your cake and eating it. Doing the right thing.

In these discussions, many residents and many politicians are somewhere between Doing the wrong thing better and Having your cake and eating it, but that’s a big improvement from simply doing the wrong thing. And this sort of talk was not as prevalent four years ago.

Make no mistake, there are still many, many forces in Ottawa that are trying to uphold and embolden the car-centric status quo. This city is still driving-obsessed, and we still make more boneheaded decisions that not…and even when we make good decisions, we tend to do them poorly.

But there is a shift going on. Ottawa is changing. I hope that within my lifetime, we’ll see a majority of council members who acknowledge the realities of city-building and finally get on with the business of making Ottawa a better, more livable city.

One thought on “Urbanism isn’t winning, but it’s getting stronger in Ottawa

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