Destroying livable Ottawa to save it

Ottawa is having some success in protecting walkable urban neighbourhoods. Othertimes planning seems designed to ruin the very things that make successful neighbourhoods. The latest threat comes from an unusual source: the fire department. And the target … is safe cycling.

The most popular areas in Ottawa are often the older neighbourhoods. They are usually characterized by walkable main streets. The adjacent housing is usually on smaller lots. There are mixed land uses, with a sprinkling of apartments. Curbside parking buffers peds from through traffic. Most things are with an easy cycling distance.

When we try to mimic this in new developments, we apply new urban design standards that thwart or make illegal the very features we want to replicate. The result in Ottawa is denser suburbs whose dominant features are roads roads roads and cars cars cars. I think we end up with the worst possible outcome: a feeling of crowding, visual blight of omnipresent cars, and still unwalkable neighbourhoods. I suspect the majority of our city population … and therefore city staff … live in post 1960 neighbourhoods that put cars first. They therefore have a natural “through the window” view of urban life.

In the past, governments tried to impose new suburban standards on existing urban fabric, with notable failures. Recall the  public housing projects, the urban freeways, the “arterials”, the plague of stop signs and traffic lights, the proliferation of parking lots, the ongoing segregation of land uses in ever finer detail …

And we haven’t got much beyond that essential conflict of suburban values vs urban walkable values. I experience it all the time. At a recent meeting with high level city transportation planners a diversion in the agenda lead to puzzlement at the behaviour of pedestrians, particularly those accessing bus stops and transit stations, and their suicidal “illegal” road crossings. People who drive most places, or have transit experience limited to a daily commute, don’t know what its really like to be a pedestrian. To find yourself at yet another mid-block bus stop 100’s of feet from where you want to be, or facing a “safe” construction detour at Bayview that rivals a rat-in-a-maze crisscrossing of the site when much more direct routes aren’t in use… when drenched by passing vehicles because the road edges are now designated as “rain water storage areas” and crosswalks are always at the lowest point of the road … when traffic engineers wonder “why would you go for a walk when its raining?” … to platitudes about “safety” meaning cattle fences and beg buttons and opaque crossing signal timings ….  Sigh.

The latest attack on urban living comes from our an unexpected source: the fire department.

Proactive fire fighting departments have input into development approvals. Naturally, their lobby associations raise the standards all the time.

I was somewhat amused to read a flurry of stories in US urban media about new “minimum standards” fire depts are demanding for roads. Not just new roads, they want old neighbourhoods retrofitted for their convenience. Start by removing ALL roadside trees… and curbside parking too, if there is less than multiple lanes of road left open. This is particularly problematic in new urbanist communities where narrow lanes, treed boulevards, and traffic calming is a key to make areas walkable. Here at WSA we have looked at many new urbanist communities, use the search button on the site to look for Celebration, FL. The fire department there thinks the number one urban planing priority is the convenience of the fire department, since they will “save lives”.

There is some pushback. Here’s a story on the issue:  https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/3/28/how-fire-chiefs-and-traffic-engineers-make-places-less-safe

Read it and weep.

Only in the USA. Only in Trump’s America. Snicker.

Now, here is the punch line. Consider a new city cycle track … which is designed to our “complete street” model, with road / curb / buffer strip / cycle track / sidewalk.  At two locations on this proposed project there are to be centre medians on the road. They provide pedestrian refuges, making it easier for peds to cross the road in two stages.

Who is objecting to the design? Guess.

The fire department.

Why the fire department?

Because there isn’t enough room for them to stop their monster truck  AND extend out their stabilizers to each side while staying within the one lane. So they want a minimum lane width of 6m.

So when the pedestrian or cyclist is mowed down by vehicles travelling 60kmh on the wide open road,  the “first responders” will be able to get there fast to scrape the remains up off the road.

Better to not have to make that call in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Destroying livable Ottawa to save it

  1. The following sentence in this post rings particularly true. “At a recent meeting with high level city transportation planners a diversion in the agenda lead to puzzlement at the behaviour of pedestrians, particularly those accessing bus stops and transit stations, and their suicidal “illegal” road crossings.”

    These senior transportation planners seem to be incapable of understanding the concept that traffic, be it vehicular, bicycle, skate/long board or pedestrian flows along the paths of least resistance, from where the person is to where they want to go, not unlike water. Signs are viewed as suggestions, if they are viewed at all.

    Case in point. There is a > 1 kilometre stretch along Baseline Road, between the traffic lights at Greenbank Road and the western arm of Centrepointe Drive. Around the mid point of this stretch is a mid density neighbourhood on Rockway Crescent, on the south side of Baseline, and a low density neighbourhood on the north side, near Southwood. There is an OC Transpo stop on Baseline at Rockway and a corresponding stop on the north side, near Southwood. Transit users face an interesting choice. Use the bus stops some half kilometre east near the traffic light at Centrepointe, or a similar distance away at Greenbank to the west, or accept the hazard of crossing Baseline Road, a notionally 60 km/hr zone, a speed at which a vehicle will be passed by all and sundry. Based on anecdotal observations, there are a significant number of pedestrians making “suicidal illegal road crossings”.

    One possible solution would be a light activated cross over (forgive me Eric, for suggesting another beg button solution, but it beats the status quo). According to Councillor Chiarelli, this area does not have enough warrant points to qualify for an assisted crossing solution, even though a young woman died at this very (non) crossing a couple of years ago, as she raced to catch her morning bus. Yet our transportation planners stick to their long since discredited assumption that pedestrians will opt for the extra half kilometre walk, even during the winter months, along sidewalks that are barely passable given what passes for snow removal.

  2. Came across this article: http://www.sightline.org/2017/03/20/how-seattle-killed-micro-housing-again/ that sounds very much like what you’re complaining about in a different context. After much lobbying Seattle council approved smaller minimum sizes for affordable housing but then the construction coda advisory board that is supposed to be about specifying build codes gets involved and prevents people from building such units. Basically it isn’t enough to get buy-in from the politicians or the planning experts who have to deal directly with the issue, you also need to get all the peripherally involved people who have the power to gum it up on-side as well.

Thank you for reading. So what do you think?