June 27 2014

Ottawa Lacks Safe City Cycling Infrastructure, Focuses on Recreation

Stretched over a large area in low-density residential suburbs, Ottawa is not an easy place to plan efficient cycling infrastructure. Indeed, the city’s low-density form means that cycling here often takes particular characteristics, different from more compact Canadian cities like Toronto and Montréal. Depending on what you are looking for, Ottawa’s cycling network is at once unparalleled and deeply frustrating.

Bikers on the edge of traffic on busy road with no bike lanes, Ottawa, Canada

For recreational and sport cyclists, the National Capital Region (which comprises Ottawa and nearby Gatineau) is a cycling haven, boasting over six hundred km of bike paths. These breathtaking trails run along rivers and canals, through parks and greenbelts, and connect in parts to the Trans-Canada Trail. On Sunday mornings, even the city’s riverside parkways are transformed from automobile arterial roads into car-free, recreational pathways for bikers, pedestrians, and other revelers.

For me, Sunday Bikedays have always been emblematic of the recreational bias of Ottawa’s cycling culture, perhaps a direct result of low-density and extensive green space. Ottawa’s downtown area is largely void of the kind of infrastructure quality that characterizes its recreational pathways. Laurier Avenue is currently the only downtown street with a physically separated bike lane. The city’s busiest commercial streets, like Rideau, Bank and Wellington, may include sharrows but otherwise lack cycling infrastructure. Here, it is common to see distressed bikers skirting rush-hour traffic, narrowly avoiding turning trucks and opening doors.

Bikers ride through traffic on Bank Street, Ottawa, Canada

It is hard to tell whether this trend will change. In a recent conversation with a city planner, I was told that bike lanes on Rideau Street were unlikely to be implemented in the next twenty years. At a community workshop, local residents expressed concern that the bike paths planned near Rideau Street failed to link to one another and provide safe routes to key destinations like Ottawa’s Byward Market.

In keeping with the trend of bike paths that miss key destinations, the city recently completed a multi-use pathway along a green stretch that runs below-grade, alongside rail tracks. The pathway, which runs beneath several key neighbourhoods including Ottawa’s Little Italy and Chinatown, tears riders out of the urban fabric for the length of their journey. Far from facilitating an urban experience that moves bikers seamlessly through key cultural and commercial spaces, the pathway serves as a highway where you must calculate your exit in advance.

Multi-use pathway alongside train tracks, separated from urban fabric, Ottawa, Canada

Many people may argue that it is enough to put bike lanes a few blocks away from main streets, as is the case with the multi-use pathway. I have always found this extremely frustrating, considering that the main street shopping experience relies on providing visitors with a continuous, linear immersion in their shopping, dining and entertainment options, complete with vibe and ambiance. Indeed this is what builds a continuous urban fabric, both geographically and psychologically. The effect is entirely lost when commercial and biking networks miss each other by several blocks, or the latter are placed below grade.

Ottawa’s real challenge will be to build out its utility biking networks to the same breadth and quality as its recreational ones. This means recognizing the importance of safe bike paths woven into the very heart of the urban fabric, rather than sitting on its fringes.

Do you agree that biking networks must be located on main streets? Or do you prefer quiet bike rides away from the hubbub of cars and pedestrians?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. Data linked to sources.

Nour Aoude

After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in religion that challenged him to think critically and humanely, Nour has pursued work at nonprofit organizations whose missions are aligned with his personal beliefs. His adventures soon took him to Toronto, where he first experienced the joys and challenges of an exciting urban life. He has since decided to focus his efforts on building a career in urban planning and innovation. Nour's dream is to build cities that accomplish social justice, environmental sustainability, and a positive life experience for their citizens. He enjoys assessing the visible strengths and weaknesses of his city, such as walkability, bikeability, public transit access, urban aesthetics, and street culture. Through his work as an urban planning blogger, Nour hopes to delve further into these topics and develop the research and writing skills required for high-quality urban journalism. His work on The Grid will focus on Ottawa, a small but growing Canadian city with unique approaches to problems of sprawl and transit.

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This entry was posted on Friday, June 27th, 2014 at 9:28 am and is filed under Environmental Design, Infrastructure, Nour Aoude, Transportation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “Ottawa Lacks Safe City Cycling Infrastructure, Focuses on Recreation”

  1. Chad B Says:

    As someone who’s biked in many cities of North America and Europe, and recently moved from Ottawa to Washington, DC, I agree that Ottawa is behind in accommodating commuter cyclists. Perhaps the feeling is that the cycling season is too short, but biking is still quite possible half the year. During that time I found Ottawa/Gatineau to be a dangerous place to bike, unless one stuck to the bike paths or Sunday morning rides. Taking to access roads like Rideau, Merivale, Prince of Wales, etc and riders find no shoulders, curbs that angle steeply into gutters and are usually full of debris, and impatient drivers. Cycling down roads like Elgin or Bank is really not advised.

    Moving to DC was a shock, because although Ontario drivers are far better in general, I found DC drivers to be more aware of cyclists. That’s partly due to the existence of more cyclists, Maryland rules that allow cyclists to take an entire car lane on four-lane roads, and frankly cyclists that are far more assertive than in Ottawa (the DC term for cyclists is ‘honey badgers’). So even with rougher roads, fewer paths, and hordes of tourists, cycling through and around downtown DC is far safer than on Ottawa roads. (DC does have dedicated bike lanes in some places, and is planning far more. The central lanes down Pennsylvania Ave are great.) The only time I was nearly clipped by a car in DC, it had Quebec plates on it.

    The paths in Ottawa are lovely, well-paved and well-used by everyone, but perhaps that creates another tension since cyclists often have to compete more with recreational users rather than dedicated athletes/commuters. The roads in Ottawa don’t help, and deaths of people like Mario Théoret were avoidable – cyclists need to be more visible, and not kept to hugging the curb on busy roads.

  2. Nour Aoude Says:

    Thanks for your comment Chad!

    I have never biked in DC but it seems, from your description, that drivers there have more experience accommodating cyclists. I found that, even in Toronto, which is notorious in Canada for being rough for cyclists, drivers are more cautious and in fact have an almost symbiotic relationship with cyclists on the roads. It seems, based on our observations, that building enough cycling momentum on the roads is key.

    What really prompted me to address this issue is that many of my friends say Ottawa is great for cycling, which I never understood until I realized they meant a leisurely ride on the canal or river. I am worried that if this continues to be the dominant biking paradigm, we won’t achieve smarter transportation solutions and we’ll continue to be car-dependent. For me, weekend bike rides just don’t cut it!

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