2017 is drawing to a close, which means it’s time to look back on the year that was and reflect on what’s next for the Ottawa environmental file. This update is part of our year-end fundraising drive. Our work is supported through the generous contributions of donors from across our city. Please consider making a monthly or one-time gift today.
What follows is the first of three updates covering each of our core campaign areas – Active City, Living City and Renewable City (you find a one-page overview of the three areas here). Today, we are focusing on Active City, our campaign to advocate for the sustainable transportation choices that make our city greener, healthier and smarter. Here are some observations from the past year of working on this file.
1. Timing matters
The decisions being made today will have a lasting impact on how Ottawa is built, so we need to make sure our voices are heard. One example of a momentous change coming to Ottawa is light rail. This will be a game-changer for many of our streets – especially those in the downtown core – as hundreds of buses come off the road. How do we transform streets like Albert and Slater from transit corridors into vibrant, walkable, bikeable areas? Decisions on the short-term and long-term impacts of light rail are being made now, and we know the process isn’t always easy. Back in 2016, seemingly against the wishes of a councillor and a community association, city staff expressed the intention to open bus lanes to general traffic. That’s an example of a relatively small – but important – battle. There are other challenges on the horizon, such as the new Ottawa Hospital and the development at LeBreton Flats. We were very disappointed to see the City choose to build the new hospital on Central Experimental Farm land, but at least it’s near a transit node. The next question will be whether the “21st-century” hospital design plan follows through with the massive surface parking and road connection requirements it had previously envisioned – effectively prioritizing parking over health – or whether smarter choices will be made. LeBreton is another chance to transform Ottawa’s core area, so we’ll be watching to make sure the City gets it right.
2. Connectivity matters
Light rail is about more than just transportation; Ottawa’s LRT project represents a massive opportunity for city-building. The Mayor often points out that completion of LRT Stage 2 will bring 70% of Ottawa residents within five kilometres of rail. But this begs the question of whether Ottawa will take advantage of the opportunity to facilitate rail connections by bike or by foot. The early signs from the City were not good – in 2016, not only did the City fail to build the bike lanes that were part of the plans for Pimisi Station, but they also built a fire hydrant through the sidewalk, inhibiting pedestrian access in a very direct way. The City has since put a lot of effort into fixing these mistakes and ensuring that similar problems are not repeated as LRT is built out. They have been open and consultative in their approach, but they still need residents and community groups to keep an eye on them. The Pimisi problems point to a need for all of us to be vigilant and constructive in proposing sustainable transportation solutions for stations in less dense areas of the city. Here, the immediate demand for cycling and pedestrian access may be less immediately obvious, but the choices the City makes will shape our communities and impact our local emissions for years to come.
3. Spending matters
It is good to hear the Mayor touting the city’s financial commitment to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. While it may take a forensic auditor to verify the claim, the Mayor states that the city is spending more in this area than it ever has. But are we moving fast enough? As the Ottawa Citizen’s David Reevely points out, examples of active transportation infrastructure like the Clegg-Fifth bridge are commendable, but this project has been on the books for over 100 years. We could be building more of these projects faster if we were really committed to advancing this file. Instead, for all the money we as a city spend on bike lanes, walkways, signage, pedestrian bridges and transit integration measures, we spend tens of millions more on road building, widening, paving and resurfacing. By any objective measure, the City’s financial priorities remain heavily car-focused. In the same article, Reevely compares the $20.5 million promised for the new bridge with bigger ticket items: $40 million for widening 9 kilometers of Highway 17, $58 million for widening 1.7 kilometres of Greenbank Road, and over $200 million for widening 11 kilometres of Highway 417.
4. Implementation matters
For years, the concept of “complete streets” – streets designed for all ages, users and abilities – has been at the core of Ecology Ottawa’s Active City work. In 2013, the City adopted a strong complete streets policy and they later adopted a plan to implement complete streets at scale. Conceptually, it means that Ottawa turned the page from a 1950s model of development that prioritized the car, to one that considers and prioritizes modes of transportation like walking, biking and public transit. The vision is great, but we’re watching carefully to see how it gets implemented. We were pleased to see the City’s pedestrian-friendly plans for a new Elgin Street. But even in that instance, the councillor and area residents had to push against an outmoded attachment to on-street parking. We were pleased with the pedestrian-friendly outcome of the redesign process, but we’re well aware that it could have fallen short had residents failed to mobilize in large numbers to let the City know they wanted a complete street. The question remains whether we’ll see complete streets implemented at scale in other areas of the City, where residents might not be as quick to organize and have their voices heard. Some recent comments from City staff – that roads may actually be widened in accordance with the policy – raise real questions about whether the City will seize the chance to move away from business as usual.
5. Your voice matters
All of this helps illustrate a crucial point: plans and policies don’t build a city – people and their elected representatives do. Ultimately, the design of Ottawa remains a fundamentally political question. This is why we will continue the hard work of finding our supporters, recruiting volunteers and mobilizing Ottawans to take action. Your support is critical to this effort. That’s why we’re asking you to consider making a monthly or one-time gift today.
Thank you for all that you do to make Ottawa a greener city. We look forward to working with our donors, volunteers and supporters to make 2018 Ottawa’s best year yet for sustainable transportation.
Best of the season,
Robb, Laurine, Lea, Anthony, Vi, Velta and the entire Ecology Ottawa team