By Aya Helal
The Transportation Committee meeting held on March 4th was kicked off by new chair Councillor Keith Egli. The hot topic of the month was the Downtown Moves study. Downtown Moves is an Urban Design and Transportation Study that aims to create a street environment that is more pedestrian, cycling and transit friendly by finding a balance among street users and by improving the streetscape.
The Confederation Line (Light Rail Transit) project will dramatically alter downtown streets, and city staff explained that modifications are essential to support and accommodate the implementation of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. LRT stations are expected along Queen and Rideau Streets, and the study focuses on the significant impact these changes will have. For example Albert Street, Slater Street and the Mackenzie-King Bridge will no longer serve as the spine of the bus Transitway, and modifications will be necessary to reallocate and accommodate the resulting street space and higher pedestrian traffic. With that in mind, city planners envision an LRT focused core that gives priority to pedestrians, cyclers and transit users which could involve the widening of sidewalks, increasing patios in the business district, increasing bike lanes and decreasing on-street parking.
Ecology Ottawa congratulates the Transportation Committee for approving this study and taking advantage of the excellent opportunity that the implementation of the LRT project provides in terms of transforming downtown Ottawa streets to be more vibrant and comfortable for walking, cycling and transit users. A special thumbs-up goes to Councillor Diane Deans for acknowledging that the study is a good start but that the scope of the study should go beyond the Queen-Slater corridor. It was encouraging to see Councillor Deans make a positive reference to Vancouver’s similarly small downtown that the City of Ottawa could learn from in terms of making the downtown more “vibrant.”
Despite this approval however, there is no guarantee that the Downtown Moves study will in fact be implemented. Discussion during the council meeting made it clear that how far the city goes with the plan will largely depend on how much money council is willing to spend and the unwavering support of some Councillors towards on-street parking. Councillor Peter Clark specifically deserves a thumbs-down for his lack of support of the study’s main goal of encouraging and prioritizing transit users, walking and cycling. Councillor Peter Clark seemed only to be concerned with the availability of on-street parking for neighborhood businesses, saying that “having dreams are nice if you can afford them.” Councillor Jan Harder also emphasized that even if the study makes sense it doesn’t mean that we have the capacity or money for it. More reason to seriously doubt the implementation of the Downtown Moves study is the Transportation Committee’s vice-chair Councillor Hubley’s complete disregard of cyclers’ right to a fair share of Ottawa’s downtown streets. Counc. Hubley deserves a big thumb-down for comments he made on his website, where he vowed to refuse supporting projects proposed by the Downtown Moves Study that would compromise the availability of parking space: “I want to be sure that Kanata taxpayers are getting good value for their hard earned tax dollars. The fact is that most people travelling from Kanata to downtown will travel by car, and I don’t want to see cycling lanes replace the parking spots you rely on. I will not support projects coming out of the Downtown Moves report until I know exactly how much it will cost, and what impact it will have on people driving from Kanata.”
It is worth emphasizing that the City of Ottawa’s vision with regards to Ottawa’s Transportation system, summarized in the Official Plan and Transportation Master Plan, aims to ultimately reduce auto dependence and in doing so the city’s policy gives “priority to public transit in meeting future growth in travel demand” and aims to make “walking and cycling more attractive than driving for short trips” and should conflict arise “give priority to public transit, walking and cycling over cars.” The City’s vision clearly supports and prioritizes environmentally sustainable modes of transportation that will ultimately contribute to Ottawa’s vibrancy and have multiple social and economical benefits, and therefore the lack of support observed from some Councillors towards Downtown Moves leads one to ask if city Councillors are going to follow the city’s own policies or not? Ecology Ottawa emphasizes the importance of financing this project so that it is not only necessary in leveraging the LRT project, but will make downtown Ottawa a more vibrant scene that is inclusive to all modes of transportation and gives cyclists and pedestrians their fair share of space on downtown streets.