Table of contents
- Message from the President
- COVID-19 Pandemic
- Climate Change
- The Bicycle: Year-Round Transportation
- 29 High-Risk Intersections
- Road Safety Action Plan
- Bike Ottawa’s AGM 2020
Cover Photo: A quiet evening on the Alexandria Bridge, slated to be replaced as its condition can no longer support automobiles. Some are calling for this historic bridge to remain for active transportation.
The COVID-19 pandemic had reverberating effects on all aspects of life as we knew it. As stores were shut down and workplaces quickly transitioned to work-from-home, streets everywhere became much quieter. But as the weather warmed and ridership on public transportation plummeted due to fear of transmission, more and more people began riding bicycles.
Demand quickly skyrocketed as public health authorities confirmed that outdoor activity was a safe way to spend time during the pandemic. Because of concerns over air quality negatively impacting the symptoms of COVID-19 if people turned to the automobile for their transportation needs, the World Health Organization asked people to walk and cycle instead. Pathways and sidewalks began to overflow, leading to concerns about transmission while outdoors. Increased demand for space was met equally with increased demand for new bikes, used bikes, and tune-ups, as local shops struggled to keep up with the record-high interest.
National Capital Commission Reclaims Roads for Active Transportation
Around the world, cities adapted in different ways to accommodate more people using bicycles trying to get around in a safe and efficient manner when it became clear that providing additional space was vital for physical distancing and exercise.
Ottawa saw an expansion of the popular Sunday Bike Days program on National Capital Commission (NCC) parkways as part of the NCC’s Parkways Pilot Project. This began with transitioning 2.5 kilometres of the Queen Elizabeth Driveway (QED) to the public for active use, seven days a week from April to August, and on weekends from September to October. The Sir John A. MacDonald (SJAM) and Sir George-Etienne Cartier (SGEC) parkways both expanded to being open to active users on both Saturdays and Sundays. The Gatineau Park Pathways were also opened to active users for a greater number of days of the week.The results were very positive with 663,000 trips along these parkways from May to October.
Perhaps the unintended spin-off effect was that these opened parkways not only benefited those using their bicycles for a mental break and to get some fresh air, these roads now opened up key commuter routes where people, friends, and families could move about their city for transportation needs along safe, comfortable, and attractive routes along waterfronts. Residents, for the first time, could reimagine how different these spaces could look when used by people getting around by bicycle.
Open Streets in Ottawa
As the City of Ottawa was very reluctant to give up any road space from cars to allow for the safe movement of residents, several City councillors and one Business Improvement Association (BIA) took it upon themselves to find a way to provide more space for active transportation and to support local businesses. The Bank Street BIA succeeded in closing Bank Street to cars and opening it up to people from Flora Street to Queen Street during Saturdays throughout the summer. Councillor Shawn Menard opened the two outer car lanes to people crossing over Bank Street Bridge during the spring and summer, and Councillor Jeff Leiper created a slow street on Byron Avenue.
Early on in the pandemic, there seemed to be a disconnect between the needs of residents for more space in the urban core where long lines and crowded sidewalks around essential services were common, and the perception that providing more space for active transportation was a threat to public safety. Some on the city council were concerned that residents would instead use the space for recreation and gather in large numbers. Urban councillors continued to push for more space for physical distancing for their constituents.
In May, any future open streets were made difficult by a motion from Mayor Jim Watson that put the decision-making process in the hands of roadside businesses to approve any changes to street parking for cars. Even if that hurdle could be overcome by councillors, they were forced to pay for any materials out of their own meagre traffic calming budgets. This motion made opening up space for residents quite challenging for councillors, most notably, the removal of a small number of roadside parking spaces on Bank Street in the Glebe, despite a newly-opened parking garage close by sitting nearly empty.
Other Canadian Cities Making Space for People
The City of Toronto launched the "ActiveTO" initiative in May 2020 in response to the pandemic.
ActiveTO initiatives included opening up car lanes to people to get active on the normally busy Lake Shore Boulevard East and West on weekends. The program also included the Quiet Streets program, which designated 65 kilometers of streets as shared space by encouraging local vehicle access only and opening the streets to those on foot, bicycles, or using mobility devices.
"There's great potential with this 19.5 km route focused on economic development, physical health & social equity." - Toronto City Councillor Krysten Wong-Tam
In June 2020, the City of Montreal, as part of its Safe Active Transportation Circuit, opened over 300 kilometres of new, temporary pedestrian and bike lanes. Some of this space included closing roads to car traffic, while in other areas, car lanes were reduced to favour wider sidewalks and bike lanes.
Many other Canadian cities also took steps to open space for active transportation and recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic including the Cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Moncton, Kitchener, Victoria, Waterloo, and Edmonton.
Bicycles as Transportation during this Climate Emergency
While the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly been at the top of everyone’s mind over the past year, climate change remains the greatest long-term threat to life around the entire world. Ottawa city council declared a climate emergency on April 24, 2019, and in January 2020, a Climate Change Master Plan was approved. Because the City’s 2019 emission inventory found 44% of GHG emissions are from the transportation sector, we ask, what role will bicycles play (or not play) in this plan? Priority #7 of the plan hints that the switch to active transportation lies with “private action”. Perhaps, there is our answer.
The City’s transportation strategy to respond to the climate emergency seems to be largely reliant on the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) and large investments in public transportation. While these are both part of the solution, the bicycle seems to be missing from this strategy. EV’s are still cars that require very expensive road infrastructure, they produce air pollution from air particulates released during braking, rolling noise pollution from tires, impede healthy levels of activity, require resources on a massive scale to build and charge their batteries, and just plain take up so much space in our city. And what about public transportation? It is important, but it’s also expensive for users, very expensive to build, and cannot reach everyone’s front door.
Ottawa's Draft Official Plan: Eliminate Half of all Car Trips
A viable transportation strategy with a climate change focus should eliminate many car trips. The draft Official Plan discusses just this goal - to eliminate over half of all car trips. If residents found it safe, convenient, and enjoyable to bike to the nearby grocery store, to know their children would be safe cycling to school, or were able to turn that 5 kilometre trip to public transportation into a 15-minute bike ride versus a one hour walk, this goal suddenly becomes much more realistic. But there needs to be a shift in thinking to enable journeys to move towards lower carbon modes of transport, like bicycles. Continuing to undertake very expensive road widening does not indicate that Ottawa is committed to making that shift. These actions will only encourage more residents to hop in the driver's seat and at the same time drain the coffers for the widespread active transportation infrastructure that is so desperately needed.
Climate change is the most pressing issue facing all of us. But it also presents us with a unique opportunity to reimagine and redesign how we use the space around us. The bicycle needs to be front and center.
The Bicycle: Year-Round Transportation
The 5th season of Ottawa’s Winter Cycling Network concluded in the spring of 2020. The winter-maintained network initially started with 40 kilometres of City of Ottawa and National Capital Commission cycle lanes, cycle tracks, and pathways in 2015 - this after a recommendation from the City’s 2013 Cycling Plan to promote cycling as a year-round mode of transportation, initially in the city's core. In 2020, another 10 kilometres were added to the network.
Ottawa’s 2015 standards for winter maintenance were very typical of other cities exploring the bicycle as a year-round mode of transportation - only committing to clearing the network within 24 hours of a snowfall, and often not clearing the network to bare pavement. By 2020, the City had adjusted its operations to have the entire network cleared within four hours using five dedicated crews - a drastic improvement. And that improvement most likely contributed to the doubling of ridership during the months of January and February between 2015 and 2020. But would these adjustments to operations become permanent?
"Winter Maintenance Is The Key Factor to Getting People on Bicycles"
Research shows the quality of winter maintenance is the key determinant factor to boosting this modal share. In fact, a 2013 McGill University study of winter cycling in Ottawa found “that the improvement of winter maintenance operations on bicycle infrastructure has a positive and significant impact on winter cycling”, estimating an increase of 20% to 30%. Whereas, if the infrastructure is not totally clear of ice and snow, ridership would drop by 20% to 40%.
In 2020, the City began a Winter Maintenance Quality Standards review process after 20 years of using the same standards. 2021 should see a report go to Council with recommendations for the new standards. Enshrining those improvements to the Winter Cycling Network as permanent standards, exploring new equipment and best practices, and expanding the network, would be a surefire way to get more people on bikes to get to school, the grocery store, or just picking up a pizza on a Saturday night.
In May 2019, a study to look at high-volume intersections with dangerous interactions between car traffic and people using bicycles was commissioned, only days after a person riding their bicycle was struck and killed by a driver in front of City Hall near the intersection of Laurier Avenue West and Elgin Street.
In September 2020, the released report listed 29 intersections with plans for how to make them safer for those outside of a car. City staff estimated the total cost to carry out the safety improvements in the report at $32 million dollars and did not recommend to the Transportation Committee to carry out the measures due to the “cost”. But context is always important. Costly road widenings continued to be planned throughout the City, while the Road Safety Action Plan under which these intersections would be improved, remained grossly underfunded. A case of short-term gain, but long-term pain.
The common assumption is that road widenings will make it faster and thus more convenient for drivers to move through an area. However, induced demand tells us the opposite. While road widenings will provide some short-term congestion relief, the extra space then encourages more people to drive, soon filling up those car lanes with more cars. Then we are right back at square one, and short of the funding that could have made these intersections safer, coaxing more people out of their cars - a permanent solution to car traffic congestion.
At some point, if the City of Ottawa wants to start seriously tackling the issues of traffic congestion, reducing GHG emissions, air and noise pollution, and making our City more liveable, residents outside of a car need to feel safe walking or using a bicycle. Reports like this give us concrete actions that the City can take to make our roads safer. There needs to be a shift in priorities to show that the lives of residents are more important than saving a minute or two.
In December 2019, Ottawa city council approved the new 2020-2024 Road Safety Action Plan. This follows two previous plans: the first was initiated in 2003 and concluded in 2011, and the second took place between 2012 and 2016. The second Road Safety Action Plan was credited with reducing fatal and major injury collisions on our roads by 14%, according to the City.
The theme of the new plan is “Think Safety, Act Safely” and the 2020 Implementation Plan includes making roads safer for vulnerable road users, reducing collisions at intersections, and addressing “high-risk” motorists.
The goal of the plan is modest: reducing the number of fatal and major injury collisions by 20% by 2024. This is accompanied by a slight increase in funding -- $31.5 million were allocated for road safety programs in 2020, up from $25 million in 2019. $4 million of this funding was one-time spending to implement the Road Safety Action Plan with the goal of additional funds to come from photo radar fines.
While investing in road safety is important, a 20% reduction is not nearly a strong enough target for Canada’s capital city. Many other Canadian cities have adopted the Vision Zero philosophy, one that aims to achieve zero fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. This is an approach that Ottawa should take as well.
In September of 2020, Bike Ottawa held its Annual General Meeting online due to ongoing pandemic restrictions for in-person events. Armi De Francia from Transportation Equity TO spoke about bike advocacy and intersectionality, and Sam Hersh from Horizon Ottawa spoke about bridging the gap between social movements and politics.
A recap of activities included a review of Bike Ottawa’s advocacy “engine” - the Advocacy Working Group. In 2020, its numerous volunteers and chair tracked city projects and provided input on projects across the city, asking for safe, attractive and comfortable cycling facilities segregated from cars and walking facilities. They collaborated with other non-profits on the People’s Official Plan, proposing a more ambitious new Official Plan for the city. Efforts were made to eliminate revert-to-red signalization, endangering people on bikes. Collaborations with City staff included the 2019 Cycling Demographics Study and the Gladstone District Secondary Plan for a future neighbourhood that focuses on people, not cars. Volunteers also consulted on various city projects including the LRT, Public Bike Parking Strategy, and Transportation Master Plan.
Partnerships with various organizations were highlighted, including the EnviroCentre with a “Motherload” fundraiser, the Healthy Transportation Coalition, Velo Canada Bikes, Ecology Ottawa, the Federation of Community Associations, Safer Roads Ottawa for our Lights on Bikes campaign, and finally, 529 Garage to tackle bike theft.
Bike Ottawa was still in the news in 2020….