A bicyclist fell in Wellington West

It happened again.

Fuck, I’ve used this opening again. I’ve written this post before. A car. A bicyclist (or pedestrian). A collision. Injuries. What the hell is wrong with this city that we never really respond to the deaths, dangers and injuries in our streets.

On Sunday, it was at Wellington and Granville. A bicyclist lying in the road. A trip to the hospital:

At the time, we didn’t know what had happened. “A possible dooring” was said. We didn’t know the extent of the injuries. They “looked serious” but–the God–were relatively minor.

Really, we know hardly anything…and we should. We know this is a dangerous street, with conflict designed-in. We know that people aren’t comfortable biking there. We know that the only real way to provide bike safety is to provide segregated infrastructure.

But we don’t know what happened Sunday. There’s been no reporting that I’ve seen. It’s gone unnoticed by the press and the public. Earlier in the summer, we had a week or two-long moral panic about a bicyclist who went through a red light and got hit by a car, flying through the air, landing uninjured.

We had op-eds about how bicyclists needed to obey the rules. We grieved for the driver (who darted out from behind a car that was stopping for the negligent bicyclist). We bemoaned the lawlessness and recklessness that led to zero fucking injuries.

Now we have an image of a bicyclist lying in the road, ambulance in attendance, and nothing.

We went through weeks of the city bitching about people not using a useless piece of infrastructure built for little reason other than to do something with the wasted space by the American Embassy. This wasn’t in response to an accident, but a massive PR blunder by multiple levels of government.

Wellington West, on the other hand, has been an ongoing issue when it comes to bike safety. It’s not the first time someone’s been injured, and with the city’s helpful negligence, it damn well won’t be the last.

Petty fights about parking have plagued the area. Now we see the results, and we hear nothing from the very reporters, pundits and outlets that couldn’t get enough of that story about the scofflaw bicyclist who hurt nobody.

Hell, I did a search for “wellington bicycle collision ottawa” and the first hit was that stupid story. The first hit under News was freeloaders complaining about having some of their free parking threatened for bike safety by Wellington West.

There’s no city conversation. No exhortations for council and planners to accept responsibility for the dangerous infrastructure they build and maintain. No demands that people learn how to open their doors without potentially killing someone.

And there’s no talk of better infrastructure to keep people like this pour fellow safe.

On streets like this, bikes and cars shouldn’t be mingling, and by God bicyclists shouldn’t be used as a protective barrier for parked cars.

But, in the end it’s all about cars. We can’t have bike lanes there because of cars. We can’t have a bike lane a block north because of cars. We can’t even have a popular bike corral because of cars.

I’ve said and written before that the city–council and planners–don’t care about street safety. Ignore words and look at results. Safe infrastructure is deplorably sparse in our city. And now we have even more proof.

A bicyclist fell in Wellington West, and we chose not to hear.


The Spur Festival…and a contest!

So there’s an interesting event coming up in September. The Spur Festival is coming to Ottawa on the 14th, 15th and 16th. The topic for the weekend is Risk.

The Spur Festival is put on by Diaspora Dialogues and the Literary Review of Canada. They like to talk about politics and art and society and generally interesting stuff.

They’ve got a number (specificaly: 5) interesting events lined up (check it out). Speakers will include Craig Stewart, Aisha Ahmad, Andrew Revkin, and more. Personally, I’m planning on going to Michael Adams’s talk on Could It Happen Here? It’ll be covering the rise of populism and if Canada might be susceptible.

Now, here’s kind of a cool thing. You, dear reader, have a chance to win tix to Could It Happen Here? All you’ve got to do is follow @SpurFest on Twitter and retweet one of their tweets about an upcoming event, and you’ll get entered into the draw.

(Yes, this is a bit of a plug, but it seems like a cool event, so I’ve got no problem stumping for them a bit.)

The Definitive Rules of the Road for Urban Bicyclists

Last month, the usually-thoughtful website CityLab published a concern-trolling piece about biking in the city. They outsourced their credibility to a man whose business model is reliant on people being afraid of their streets, and thus, a stream of vehicular cycling, victim-blaming garbage ensued.

Well it’s easy to critique without offering a better solution, so in response to CityLab’s thinly-veiled anti-bicycling piece, here are The Real Definitive Rules of the Road for Urban Bicyclists.

…actually there’s only one:

Do what you have to do to get to your destination safely and efficiently without needlessly endangering anyone else.

Seriously. That’s it. Sometimes you’ll need to follow the “rules”; sometimes you’ll need to break them. Sometimes, you’ll need to break the law, because your life is more important than arbitrary rules that aren’t even designed for bicycles.

So, what does this mean?

It means that sometimes you may need to hop on a sidewalk. If you’re stuck on an intimidating road, then, by all means, get somewhere more comfortable…just be respectful of pedestrians. Don’t do to them what drivers do to you.

It means salmoning can be okay. (Salmoning means biking the “wrong” way down a one-way street.) For example, I live off of Bank on a one-way street that connects to another one-way street that connects to a semi-busy residential street. To get to my home legally when I’m coming from the east, I would be expected to get into a left turn lane, turn onto Bank, take the left hand lane and make a left turn off of Bank without the aid of a light. Or I could peacefully salmon down two 0ne-way blocks that have almost no cars. It’s an easy choice. And if cars are coming, I can hop up on the sidewalk or just stop at the curb and let them go by.

It means rolling through stop signs. Yeah, scofflaw those stop signs. Too often, bike routes are on streets that have stop signs on just about every block or, worse, in the middle of a hill. That’s bullshit. If there’s no one coming, don’t bother stopping if you don’t want to. Stop signs aren’t there for bicycles, really; they’re there for cars. Bikes and pedestrians can get by without stop signs. Ontario really needs to get with it and legalize the Idaho stop.

It means taking advantage of advance walk lights. Sometimes on busy streets, the walk light will change before the car lights to give pedestrians a chance to get through the intersection before drivers will start trying to run them over. These lights aren’t actually for bikes, but use them. You’re just as vulnerable as a pedestrian, so you deserve the safety measure, too. Just don’t get in a pedestrian’s way.

It means you shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for doing things that will help save your life. City planners and city drivers intentionally try to put you in harms way. They want you doing risky, dangerous stuff. Fuck ’em. Stay safe.

It means cooperate with everyone else. If someone is salmoning in your direction, try to give them room. If you’re the one salmoning, then give those with the right-of-way proper space. If you’re walking and you see a bicyclist on the sidewalk, consider what the road is like before condemning them. If you feel safe biking on a busy street, don’t judge those who don’t.

It means wear whatever the hell you want. You don’t need a helmet (it may actually increase your risk of injury); you don’t need hi-viz; you don’t need to wear bright clothes; you don’t need spandex; you don’t need a mirror on your bike or helmet; you don’t need special shoes. But, hey, if you like wearing all the stuff, that’s cool; you do you.

But really, this is all just details. Be smart; be safe; be considerate…and most of all, just enjoy the ride.

Drivers as After-School-Special Bullies

Remember the old trope, touted by after-school-specials and bad (and good, maybe) sitcoms that if you stand up to a bully, you’ll show them to be a coward? The idea is that bullies only pick on those who appear weak, not those who challenge them.

I spend a lot of time walking near cars, often along busy streets where intersections don’t always have traffic lights (most regularly on Bank Street). Walking these streets, it’s very common to have cars creep into (or just drive into without care) the crosswalk, completely blocking the path of pedestrians.

It’s pretty classic bullying. They’re driving big, dangerous vehicles that offer them a lot of protection. Pedestrians are pretty much defenceless.

What is very grating, is that these drivers, so willing to block crosswalks, are reticent to encroach on driving lanes. This is especially bad when they’re trying to go straight or turn left. They’ll completely block the sidewalk, and a bit of the parking lane, but they’ll never go any further until the entire street is absolutely clear of cars.

They’re bullies who are too scared of the other drivers–other bullies, if you will–to even risk inconveniencing them. They’re self-absorbed cowards who are willing to push around the most vulnerable people on the street.

If you do this, stop. It’s gross. And it reflects tremendously poorly on your character.

Lansdowne Parking…again

Recently, I’ve been trying to ignore the parking (and driving) issues at Lansdowne. There are always people parked where they’re “not allowed” to be. There are regularly people driving in pedestrian-only areas. There are often people speeding through and cutting off pedestrians. Hell, over the long weekend, someone drove over a garden in order to bypass the bollards protecting a pedestrian area.

I mean, I always notice it–it’s impossible to completely ignore it–but I try not to take note of it.

Tonight was a little different, though.

After a long weekend where much of the public space was cut off from the public (much of it for parking) and where cars just generally ruled, I was hoping things would be a little bit better. But, no. It was actually quite worse. Here are some pictures I took:

People have been pointing out the issue to both the city and OSEG ever since the park opened. People will park anywhere and neither the city nor OSEG is willing to do anything about it. Once, they issued $0 parking tickets.

(Some people may counter that OSEG regularly enforces parking. This is true…to an extent. They’ll enforce parking for the metered spots. They don’t enforce parking in public, no-parking areas.)

These particular infractions seem to be an annual event. The Citizen’s David Reevely covered the situation when it happened last year:

Cars were everywhere. Dozens of them parked in the little circle off Queen Elizabeth Drive that leads to Lansdowne’s huge underground garage, under no-stopping signs. Dozens more crammed the South Court, the area with gardens and benches between the historic pavilion and the big lawn. Drivers sat around waiting for their bosses, chatting. Many of them smoked under the no-smoking signs that cover the urban park.

What’s clear is that the city doesn’t care, and it never really did. Lansdowne Park is a shiny bauble that can be used to pretend that City Hall did something positive for livability in this city, but when it comes right down to it, it will always be a large grey parking lot, first and foremost.

But hey, at least it’s better than what was there before.

Oh. Shit.

Let’s talk about flex space

What’s flex space, you may ask? Basically, it’s a type of shared street space. If the city feels that there’s not enough space to accommodate all uses of a street—or that demand is not consistent enough to devoting space to a specific use 24/7—they’ll deem some of the space “flex space”. It’s like multi-use space, though usually only one use can happen at a time.

We’re getting this on Elgin Street, apparently (and on Queen Street). With the new design, the city has widened the sidewalks, but declared about half of the new sidewalks to be flex space. Sometimes, it’ll be used for extra width for walking (yay); sometimes, it’ll be used for patios (yay); sometimes, it’ll be used for parking.

Flex space can be an invitation for conflict. With competing uses, it’s easy for one form to dominate. It’s pretty clear that when a patio is erected, the particular space will be for a patio, only (although, considering how many buildings drivers drive into, maybe that’s not a valid assumption).

The conflict will occur when people want to walk and drivers want to park. To figure out what may happen in this situation, let’s look at some existing shared spaces in Ottawa

Lansdowne Park

There was a real push to make Lansdowne car-free, but, alas, it failed. So they went with shared space, in this situation, a “Pedestrian Priority Zone”. Pedestrians are allowed to walk anywhere, and cars were to carefully navigate the few routes they were allowed on.

At first, there was some confusion—which was completely overblown in the media, by the city and by OSEG. Drivers were, gradually, getting accustomed to an area that was not tailored to them. This couldn’t stand.

The powers-that-be decided to add lines everywhere to demarcate the roadway (which was still a Pedestrian Priority Zone). The result is as expected. Drivers were emboldened to take over, often speeding through the Park and making much of the area hostile to pedestrians.

Further, they will drive everywhere and anywhere, winding up in parks, plazas and art installations. Bollards were installed to help protect pedestrians. Pretty much every bollard has been run into and damaged. Some have been completed knocked over, pulling up the stone they’re bolted into.

Flex space has turned into car space.

Sparks Street Mall

I know what you’re thinking, Sparks Street isn’t flex space; it’s a pedestrian-only area. You’d think, wouldn’t you? It’s called a pedestrian mall. There are signs saying there’s no driving…but they don’t really count. Sometimes, drivers will even move “no drivng” signs to ensure they can drive:

There are cars and trucks on the mall, all the damned time. This isn’t even flex space, and it’s been taken over by cars.

The sidewalk on my street

There’s a sidewalk across the street from my home. Probably about five days a week, you’ll find a vehicle parked on it. It doesn’t matter that there are free spots across the street (who wants to cross a quiet, narrow residential street, amirite?), nor does it matter that you can legally park on the street right beside the sidewalk, drivers will still pull up over the curb and block somewhere between half and the entire sidewalk.

I don’t even bother calling the city anymore. I used to, but I’d get one of three results: (1) I’d be told people can park there if it’s an emergency (it never is; firefighters, paramedics and cops stop on the street); (2) No one ever comes; or (3) By-law drives by and doesn’t even stop.

Hell, one time it was a by-law officer who was parked on the sidewalk.

This happens throughout the city. It is not exclusive to my street. We’re not even talking about flex space. Sidewalks get taken over by cars.

So the next time you see a rendering with flex space, or you hear a politician or planner talk about how cars and pedestrians will both get to use a street, remember: anywhere cars are offered even the slightest accommodation, they will take over. Our politicians and our city bureaucracy will do nothing to prevent it; in fact, they’ll enable it.

In our local culture, flex space is a scourge that will kill livability, bit by bit.

Ottawa City Hall flies…and it’s just part of a pattern

Yesterday, the city and the mayor got some blowback for the decision to fly a pro-life flag on what the mayor has proclaimed “Respect for Life” day. The response by citizens and councillors was so strong and swift, the city quickly lowered the offensive thing and blamed it all on an “individual”.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the mayor has declared May 11 “Respect for Life” day. Each year, the March for Life descends on Ottawa, as concerned citizens and roped-in students bus themselves to our fair city and take to the streets. Noxious, oppressive views aside (and the fact that it’s kind of a school assignment for many), the March for Life is an example of citizens (and maybe some non-citizens, who knows) demonstrating their constitutionally-protected freedom of expression. (And living through the traffic disruptions is just part of being an Ottawan.)

Our government should accommodate all such demonstrations and protests. That’s kind of the point of democracy.

Our government should not join in.

The mayor is always quick to say that he does not support the views of the demonstrates. He claims to be pro-choice, and he claims to unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose. His statements and the city’s actions do not reflect such a stance.

Being pro-choice (or pro-life, for that matter) is a political stance. Being pro-choice isn’t about taking a stance on abortion, pre se; it’s about taking a stance on how the power of government should be used to police women’s choices and women’s bodies. Saying you’re pro-choice–even believing in the cause–is meaningless if you actively support the pro-life movement, a movement that seeks to use the crushing power of government to rule over women’s reproductive activities.

Every year, Watson makes this proclamation. The words may change (the proclamations aren’t easy to actually find online), but the proclamations persist. Every year, there’s blowback. Every year, there’s a counter-protest. But despite his self-avowed devotion to the pro-choice movement, he never does anything else but make these proclamations on May 11.

The mayor will be quick to say that it’s a human rights issue. The city can’t pick and choose which proclamations to make. He says his hands are tied. This is, of course, a lie.

He needn’t make any proclamations. Other cities have done away with them; we could, too. If you never make any proclamations, you’re never discriminating against one group. Everyone’s treated the same. This would mean fewer photo-ops and feel-good press conferences, but it would keep the city out of the pro-life movement.

By his actions, the mayor has demonstrated that making proclamations are more important to him than his pro-choice views.

The proclamation is hard to find, but according to Life Site News and other pro-choice publications, it reads, in part:

…thousands of people from across Canada and the United States…come to Parliament Hill…bring awareness for the need for life-affirming solutions.

Now, this may not be the most trustworthy publication (but it did break the flag story, yesterday), so, grain of salt and all that, but…

These aren’t the dispassionate words of acknowledgement deployed only to meet bureaucratic obligations. This proclamation has allegedly adopted the language and viewpoint of the March, itself. If this is true, it is parroting the claims of the movement and, thus, lending more legitimacy to its political position.

But whatever the specific wording, the mayor has allowed the city to become a mouthpiece of the pro-life movement (if only for one day a year).

If this were the only time the city worked against the rights of women, maybe we could give it a pass (no, we couldn’t, really, but it’d be slightly less egregious). But in the past months, we have learned all about how the city is unwilling to provide adequate protections to women seeking information or services from the Morgentaler clinic.

The city won’t provide a safety zone. Police aren’t treating the aggression, violence and threats of pro-life protesters seriously. And the city is giving them the freedom to park their cars on Sparks Street, a pedestrian mall.

Yes, yes. The mayor has since said that he supports the work of the clinic, and the chief has said that our cops do take these matters seriously, but the evidence just isn’t there.

If you believe that the approval for raising the flag was just made by some random individual (I’m dubious), you can certainly believe why that person rubber-stamped the flag-raising (and sunrise ceremony!); the city has consistently displayed an allegiance with the pro-life movement.

This isn’t an anomaly. This is a continuation of the standard practice. The city and the mayor have institutionalized Ottawa’s pro-life position, even if unofficially.

The mayor has joined in with those protesting the raising of the flag, but this situation is a direct result of his decisions and his commitments. If he wants to claim any pro-choice bona fides, he needs to lead the reaction against the institutionalized pro-life stance of the city, rather than enabling it.

Of course, that might cost him some votes.

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.

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.

Vacancy Taxes

So it appears like Toronto will be following Vancouver’s lead. This past year, Vancouver instituted a vacancy tax. Aimed at putting a damper on ever-rising real estate prices, Vancouver will be applying an added to tax to homes that aren’t used as a permanent residence. Toronto, also having stupid-high real estate prices, is hoping to achieve the same thing.

To me, this seems like a really good idea in concept that will actually just be dumb and ineffectual. I don’t like the idea of communities being hollowed out because homes are allowed to sit semi-vacant. I don’t like the sprawl that it helps cause, and I don’t like the idea of a downtown having some fraction of the population it should have. You want people on the street, in the shops, eating at restaurants, enjoying parks. That’s what a city is.

So, yes, I hope these things work (and I hope they don’t just turn into another tool for racists to stick it to immigrants), but I am very skeptical.

Ottawa, too, has a special tax policy for vacancies…but it’s a bit different. We pay people to keep their properties vacant. The Citizen just reported that in 2016, we paid a total $17M to owners of vacant properties.

Again, this was a little different. These weren’t homes; these were commercial properties. The idea behind this policy is to give owners a break when they can’t find a tenant, and, sure, it may accomplish this, but it also rewards them for failing to find a tenant. This is, likely, part of the reason why the old West Coast Video in Old Ottawa South has been vacant (and dilapidated) for decades.*

It’s an absolutely ridiculous policy. It’s completely backwards. Yes, giving someone a break for 3-6 months while they look for a new tenant might be helpful, but beyond that, we should be charging them more in taxes. Barring extenuating circumstances, we should be punishing people for letting our city go to waste.

Certainly, if you worship at the altar of private property ownership, you might argue that the owners have every right to do whatever they want with their property, or nothing at all. But that completely ignores the harm they are doing to our communities by allowing these plots to rot. Old Ottawa South isn’t some sort of dystopian, Detroit-esque wasteland. It’s a popular, relatively affluent area. There’s no reason that anyone should have been permitted to rot out a hole in the middle of it for decades.

I still don’t know how I feel about the new Vancouver and Toronto policies, but I would cheer heartily if we would adopt such a tax regime for commercial properties.

Of course, our politicians would have to be willing to stand up to business owners for that to happen.

*I went buy today, and there’s a different sign on the awning. I have no idea if this means anything is there. It looked closed, but it’s Sunday, so maybe there’s something operating there during the week.