The current downtown Ottawa is rather blah. Some might even call it bleh. Over the decades, it has become a motor-vehicle-oriented environment, with the fast movement of vehicles the
main only priority. We all know about the walls of buses. And the priority given to automobile commuters over pedestrians. Trees: rare as hen’s teeth. It has become a downtown one goes to because you have to. It is not a shopping, or even much of a recreation destination. All rather sad.
When the LRT is opened, there will be major changes. Most OC Transpo buses will be off the Albert and Slater bus lanes. What do we do with the freed-up space? Recall too that the current bus stops disgorge pedestrians at many locations; the LRT will deliver huge crowds, all at once, at limited locations.
So Council directed that the Downtown Moves study be conducted, to integrate urban design and transportation strategy, and to restore the balance among street users [in council's actual words]. Most people can understand that a vibrant downtown doesn’t come from wider roads, faster traffic, or “getting everyone out” as quickly as possible ( I exclude from this understanding some select minority voices).
The Downtown Moves study isn’t about just tinkering with the core. It’s a major rewrite opportunity, to reallocate space, to refresh the downtown sidewalks and streets for the next 50 to 100 years. Thus far, the working teams have not been timid. So it is time to look at some of the suggested streetscapes.
Note: these are working documents only, in progress sketches, and may not be the final designs. They will evolve under pressure from various factions. So how well are we moving towards the grand statement:
“Our downtown is about to undergo a transformation that will define a new identity and be the foundation for its prosperity for coming generations. The investment in Light Rail Transit will open and sustain a new pursuit of civic and national pride in the urban quality of our capital City. Our downtown streets will be reoriented to favour and comfort pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, recognizing that all travellers end and start their trip on foot. With this healthy and active orientation, our streets themselves will begin to be praised as among our city’s most coveted public spaces that in turn spark investment and that are befitting of the highest quality of buildings and open spaces along them”.
Queen Street will be a key street to the future. Currently the only two-way street downtown, it is a fairly claustrophobic, narrow canyon. It is a minor street destined to become the main pedestrian experience. The north sidewalks are very narrow east of Bank Street. The exit stairways and elevators to the underground stations will come up in what is now the parking lane on the south side of Queen (pic below). There will be loss of some on street parking and planners have to figure out how to disperse crowds of 5000 people per hour. The sunny side of the street is the north side.
The sketch below has been marked up in a workshop focus group. The north parking lane is gone, replaced by wider sidewalks and pedestrian amenities. The south side parking lane is now paved in the same material as the sidewalks, and may even be at the same level as the sidewalk, separated from it by removable bollards, so that the parking lane can be incorporated into extra-wide sidewalks for events like Canada Day. Cyclists mix with traffic; and in the distance you can see a typical stairway entry to the LRT just beyond the two parked cars. Street furniture (ie mail boxes, benches, light posts, signs) will be all aligned with the trees to maintain the clearest possible sidewalks.
Two blocks north is Wellington. In the working sketch below (and remember, no decisions have been made…) there is a two-way bike lane suggested on the north side of Wellington. This helps make a more complete network of bike-friendly streets in the downtown connecting the major tourist points (bixi-bike tourism) and the major paths that approach the downtown but seldom connect with each other (this bidirectional bike lane would connect the Confederation Boulevard bike circuit, to the Alexandra and Portage Bridge bike lanes, etc). The two way path alignment was selected to minimize conflict with turning vehicles (the north side has few turn opportunities, and will apparently have fewer in the future as the Parliament Hill security perimeter expands) and to preserve sight lines to the Hill. Eastbound buses (and the whole STO route problem/scenario remains unsolved as yet) will stop at the curb; but what about westbound STO buses and tour buses? Tour buses in particular want to deliver passengers as close as possible to the destination. Bus riders may be let off onto islands between the bike lanes and bus lanes, but total available road width is a constraint. Double left turn lanes may be a thing of the past. The suggested public space configuration in the sketch will help remove the sense that Wellington is a huge barrier separating the downtown and Parliament:
Albert and Slater will be changed drastically once the main bus routes are removed. It seems uncertain just how many fewer buses will be there. Some objectives along these streets are to integrate the public sidewalk space with the building setbacks and available private spaces along the street. Intersections will get much wider crosswalks. The parking lane is on the right side of the street, paved to match the sidewalks. It would not be a rush hour traffic lane. There would be bulb-outs at the intersections and midblock locations for trees. The bike lane is on the left side of the street, placing the cyclist close to the vehicle driver’s field of view and not hidden on the “far side” of the vehicle. There may be opportunities to squeeze in delivery bays between the bike lane and traffic lane. But essentially, the bus lane space has been given over to non-vehicular uses. Remember, though, that bike lanes have a higher capacity than car lanes.
The only north-south street that has been sketched out thus far is Metcalfe, and only north of Sparks. No analysis has yet been done for O’Connor, Kent, Lyon, etc. And as far as I could tell, they hadn’t yet addressed what to do south of Sparks. Frequently suggested is returning the streets to two-way status, the traffic planning fad of one way streets being largely past its acceptable date. Such a major change is beyond the mandate of the Downtown Moves plan. When examining the N/S streets, several new factors come into play. First, most of the parking spaces north of Queen are closed much of the time for security reasons. They can be repurposed a bus loading zones or para-transpo zones. Tourists walk slower and in wider groups than office workers, so the sidewalks connecting Sparks to the Parliamentary precinct should be wider. Then we might as well continue the wider sidewalks down to at least Albert to help disperse the commuter hordes arriving from the LRT stations. These north-south streets are also major locations for street vendors, so might as well plan for them now.
The Downtown Moves teams will be refining the sketches/scenarios for public space downtown. They have to run them by the traffic people to assess what it does for vehicular movements, goods movement, safety, special access needs, security, taxis, etc. They have to run them by the various downtown private sector groups, such as hotel owners, office building managers and owners, etc. They do have numerous photo examples of similar changes done successfully in other cities.
Hopefully, with continued leadership from the politicians (ie, no wavering in face of NIMBY’s who might lose a parking space or who believe cars rule) there can be a balanced discussion and evaluation of the transportation and urban design possibilities.
The Downtown Moves team will read the comments you make to this post, so fire away. And tell your councillor if you like the direction the study is moving, but save him or her the nit picky details as the study is still early on. We need to encourage the process towards a better downtown and not bog it down.