Archive for the 'infrastructure' Category

23
Jul
10

The little things: Simple ways to make Ottawa better

Well, it’s been a while, and for that, I apologize. For whatever reason, I just haven’t been getting around to blogging over the past few months, but I’ve decided to make a return to form and start posting content again.

For today, I thought I’d get away from the big issues, quite literally, and look at a couple of little details that could make Ottawa a better place. For starters, there’s this post on the OC Transpo Livejournal community, which talks about how the City is potentially not scheduling its hybrid buses effectively. As the poster notes, there are more than enough buses to cover the downtown and core routes where they’d be most efficient, yet it seems they are not always being used on those runs. To me, it seems like it would be a relatively simple task to prioritize hybrids for those runs, so why isn’t OC Transpo doing so? I certainly don’t have the answer, but it would be nice to know their justification.

My second item for today is an even smaller one, but it could be seen as emblematic of a larger issue. I was crossing Elgin Street recently at Slater, and as I dashed across the last section to beat the sudden onset of the flashing hand, I began to wonder why all the crossings on Elgin from Laurier to the north are so poorly timed for pedestrians? Granted, that part of Elgin is one of the few places in the City with good pedestrian islands, but the crossings are done so that when the “Don’t walk” begins to flash, even a quick walker only has enough time to reach the island before the light changes.

The problem here is that, generally speaking, you should have enough time to fully cross the street when the signal begins to flash. Instead, if you begin crossing at that point on Elgin, you’ll find yourself stuck in the middle of traffic, forcing you to wait for at least one full traffic cycle to finish crossing—more, if you want to cross the perpendicular street, too. I believe it’s something the City should look into changing, or that they should at least consider installing countdown signals there, so that pedestrians won’t be surprised by the quick timing of the change. It would certainly be a big help towards improving one of the most unfortunately pedestrian-unfriendly streets in downtown Ottawa.

My question to you, then, reader, is what little things do you notice that could improve day-to-day life in Ottawa? I’m sure we all encounter them, and I’d love to hear what your ideas are.

29
Mar
10

Greyhounded out of downtown Ottawa

Last week, Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien made a rather bizzare, out-of-left-field proposal: to move Ottawa’s current Greyhound terminal from it’s current Catherine Street location, to out by the VIA Rail station on Tremblay Road.

Naturally, this was met with some protest. While the current intercity bus terminal is far from the nicest facility in the world (it’s probably about five years overdue for a big renovation), it’s certainly well-located. It’s downtown, served by several major OC Transpo routes (including the 101, which is considered to be rapid transit), and is close to the 417. It’s not perfect, as it could probably stand to be a bit closer to the CBD, and perhaps have better non-peak transit service, but it’s still within walking distance for residents of Centretown, the Golden Triangle, the Glebe, Chinatown, and so on. Additionally, the central location leaves it fairly equidistant (or at least as much as that’s possible) from Ottawa’s various suburbs.

The train station, on the other hand? Well, it’s pretty suburban—if you’ve ever tried to walk there, you know that the area makes pedestrians feel like a very distant afterthought. I think the only people that would be able to walk there would be residents of a small residential area a few hundred metres west of the station. Certainly far fewer people than the tens of thousands in and around the downtown core. And sure, the Transitway runs right by it, but, speaking from experience, it’s much more of a pain to jam yourself on a crowded 95 with luggage than it is a 4 making its way down Bank Street.

The other question I have about this proposal is where would you put the new bus terminal? Let’s take a look at both, courtesy of Google Maps.

The Ottawa Train Station. Image is approximately 500 metres across, for reference.

Ottawa bus terminal, to the same scale.

While it’s pretty plain that the bus terminal takes up a much smaller footprint, it’s not exactly a small facility. It takes up an entire city block, and even as it is, it can get pretty crowded—I’m sure Greyhound would love to have something larger were they to build a new terminal. But if you look at the train station image, there’s not much room for anything even the same size as the current terminal, let alone anything larger. There’s an area between Tremblay at the station’s access road, but that would involve getting rid of green space and a bike path, as well as potentially conflicting with the reconstruction of the Transitway for light rail. One of the station’s parking lots could be removed, I suppose, but I doubt VIA would like that much, and neither takes up anywhere near as much space as the current bus terminal.

Overall, moving Ottawa’s intercity bus terminal to this location makes little sense. How many people even transfer between VIA and Greyhound? I’d be curious to see the numbers, should they even exist. Not only does this proposal increase sprawl by decentralizing a major transportation service, but I’m not sure it would do anything to improve intercity transit service or convienience in Ottawa. Leave well enough alone, Mayor O’Brien, and keep bus service in the downtown core.

04
Feb
10

Does Terry Fox Drive really need extending?

As I browsed through the Ottawa Citizen yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice this article, on the extension of Kanata’s Terry Fox Drive being fast-tracked despite a number of environmental concerns. I instantly knew I had to look it up and attempt to understand why it’s so important this particular project has to be pushed through and I came away baffled.

Helpfully, the extension already seems to be marked on Google Maps, so it was easy to get an idea for what the new roadway would look like. As described in the article, it will arc through forest, marsh, and farmland as it makes it’s way from the neighborhood of Kanata Lakes to Morgan’s Grant. And so far as I can tell, it will serve no useful purpose besides creating sprawl and potentially destroying a rare habitat. Not good, to say the least.

The endangered Blanding's Turtle, which can be found in marshland west of Kanata. Image from Canadian Wildlife Service, by Ryan M. Bolton.

I think what we have here is a case of the Greenbelt doing more harm than good for the environment. While I’d rather see the urban boundries of Ottawa’s suburbs frozen where they are for the time being, for growth to be concentrated inwards, it would seem to me that if Kanata has to expand, there are far more suitable areas to the east. There’s a lot of farmland out there, especially north of the 417, land that is for some reason protected, while the land to the west is not. While I hardly advocate paving over farmland for suburbia, it can’t be denied that there is a lot more of it around Ottawa compared to rare turtle habitats.

What strikes me about this is that we seem to have some very screwed-up priorities here. Is it really this important to build a shiny, four-lane monument to urban sprawl? Surely there must be some other piece of infrastructure that this stimulus money can be spent on—something that won’t harm an endangered species. That’d be something I could go for.

02
Feb
10

Trains to return to Ottawa’s Union Station?

Ottawa’s Union Station: it’s a majestic old building, a half-scale replica of New York City’s old Penn Station, and unfortunately underused. Since 1966, when the National Capital Commission removed rail from downtown, the building has been used as a government conference centre, rather than a hub for rail travelers. However, a recent article on CBC News reported that trains may yet return to Union Station, in the form of a station on the new light rail system—taking the place of the Rideau\Sussex station in the proposal.

Ottawa's Union Station. Image by spotmaticfanatic on Flickr.

Certainly as it stands right now, Union Station is a tragically under-appreciated piece of infrastructure. As a government conference centre, the average Ottawan has few opportunities to go inside the structure. As the main hall of a transit station, commuters would be able to use this suddenly re-opened public space on a daily basis.

But in my mind, that’s not all that could be done with the station. I don’t know the interior dimensions of the building, but I would imagine that a transit station would only take up a small portion of the available volume, and other transportation infrastructure (commuter rail, and intercity bus and rail) probably won’t be able to serve the location, meaning no space would need to be set aside for them. So with that in mind, what could be done? One of the things that Ottawa lacks is a real civic place, one to celebrate Ottawa itself. Over the years as a national capital, the federal government has eclipsed the city, and it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve really begun to find our identity as a municipality instead of as a capital.

So why not this: in our hypothetical, future train station, you walk in the front doors to a lobby, with transit facilities to one side, and perhaps benches and chairs with the odd cafe or two along the edges of the area. Taking up the rest of the space inside could be a City of Ottawa museum, celebrating our history, from rough logging town to major Canadian metropolis. It could even include artifacts that tie in with the location, like the old streetcars OC Transpo is slowly attempting to restore. Granted, we do already have the Bytown Museum, but it could still comfortably fill a role as a museum predominantly about the canal, while the Union Station museum could be about the rest of the city.

This, of course, is just a suggestion—a museum is just one option, but the overriding point is that we may have an opportunity to create a fantastic new public space, and the standard option of renting out space for shops and restaurants would be a tragic waste. The simple return of transit, of course, would benefit the building enormously by itself, but I can’t help but feel we could do so much more. These kinds of opportunities only come along once and a while, and I think it’s important to jump on it when and if we can.

16
Sep
09

One step forward…

If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like nothing ever seems to get done in Ottawa, look no further than this story. Essentially, John Martin, a Glebe business owner, has filed a legal challenge against Lansdowne Live, claiming that it violates the City’s purchasing bylaws.

Now, I’ve remained quiet on the latest version of Lansdowne Live until now, but I think it’s time I said my piece. I’ll get back to the legal challenge in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the plan itself.

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

So what do I like about the plan? Well, it’s mixed use—in accordance with the City’s master plan and stated goals to control sprawl through intensification. It adds a significant amount of greenery what is currently a concrete wasteland, preserves the heritage aspects of the site, provides space for the farmer’s market, and will provide amenities that the area is currently lacking, such as a modern movie theatre (which is Ottawa’s urban core sorely lacks). Of course, it will also completely refurbish Frank Clair Stadium, which is currently in a fairly decrepit state.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

It isn’t a perfect plan, of course. The fact that it’s being built by a single developer means that the site could become very architecturally repetitive, which could make the site a little less interesting. It’s also somewhat unsettling that public land will be used for a private development, but then again it’s not as if the land will actually be sold, and it’s not like greenspace will be paved over or anything like that—in fact, it’s much closer to the opposite.

Overall, it’s a nice, solid plan that aims to accomplish quite a lot in a thoroughly urban manner. It isn’t flawless, but it also seems as though early fears over big box stores and power centres were rather unfounded.

The elephant in the room, meanwhile, is the procurement process, and the legal challenge I opened this post with. I’ll grant that we haven’t necessarily taken the best route to get to this plan, and that the design competition probably should have been cancelled. But I do think many people are romanticizing the design competition process.

For one, it was not a design competition in the sense of architects simply submitting ideas for the site, and the City selecting the one they liked best. Rather, it was a “rights to develop” competion, meaning that developers would be coming forwards with plans for the site, complete with a financial plan: how to fund the redevelopment, and how to keep it viable afterwords. That’s why the Lansdowne Live plan was such a knockout when it first appeared, as there was very clear local financial backing, as well as a tenant for Frank Clair in a resurrected Canadian Football League franchise, something that no other developer would be able to offer.

Another aspect of the competition worth mentioning is the fact that any Request For Proposals would very likely have called for a site plan that included both Frank Clair Stadium and the Civic Centre, as the City did not have any plans to move either facility. As well, removing the stadium would cause Ottawa-Gatineau to become North America’s only metro with a population greater than one million with no large stadium facility—not a situation we’d want to be facing. The stadium is notably missing from Martin’s own proposal for the site, meaning it likely would have been rejected from the competition. Martin did propose building a stadium at Bayview instead, but there are far too many unknowns for that to be a viable alternative right now.

So while we may not have taken the ideal route to get where we are, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as disaterous as people like Martin and Clive Doucet are making it out to be. And I fear that taking legal action against the plan will lead to the delay of it’s implementation, while an extremely valuable piece of Ottawa’s infrastructure crumbles before our eyes. Furthermore, if it is blocked, then it will undoubtably be years before we see any action at the site, furthering Ottawa’s unfortunate reputation as a backwater that can’t seem to get anything done, and killing any hope of getting professional football and soccer into the nation’s capital any time soon. That’s a scenario that I’d rather not contemplate.

20
Jul
09

Making cycling safer

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the terrible hit and run in Kanata yesterday that left five cyclists injured, two critically. What’s especially terrifying about this, if you’re a cyclist, is the fact that this occurred on a road with a good, wide bike lane, and during a fairly quiet time of the week.

I hope that all those injured recover fully, but I also hope that something positive can come out of this as well: an examination of our strategy for cycling here in Ottawa. While bike lanes are nice, I’ve always felt that they don’t really do much to truly protect those of us that cycle on a regular basis. After all, what is a bike lane but a small reserved section of the road that is usually on the right side of the street? Or, more basically, where cyclists end up riding most of the time anyway.

I’ve often felt that bike lanes offer a false sense of security. Cyclists see them and think that since they have a reserved right of way, they’ll be safe from cars, and drivers see them and think they have to worry less about cyclists as they are “protected” between the solid white lines of the bike lane.

However, I think this sense of protection is mostly an illusion. As we’ve seen with this case in Kanata, it doesn’t take much for a vehicle to cross into a bike lane and strike cyclists (though, as yet, the police have not said why they believe the driver of the minivan in this case to have swerved into the lane). In addition to this, bike lanes tend to do little for cyclists at intersections, with the lines often becoming broken to allow drivers to move into turning lanes, or, in some cases, disappearing altogether to leave cyclists to their own devices.

So what can we do to protect cyclists? As I see it, there are a few major options. The simplest is to work on building a very extensive network of bike paths. The NCC already maintains a number of them, of course, but generally they’re only useful to a small percentage of cyclists, and many areas of the city go uncovered by this network, as the NCC focuses on destinations and routes attractive to tourists. Meanwhile, there are a number of places in the city where good bike paths could be constructed parallel to major arteries. March Road would probably be a good place for this kind of project, actually, given how much empty space can be found along both sides of the road.

Of course, this simply won’t work along somewhere like Bank Street for most of its route; it’s simply too heavily built-up. In cases like this, I think physically separated bike lanes are the best option. These would help protect cyclists from traffic, and give them a defined space on the road that can be called theirs, not something as poorly demarcated as a simple painted line. These aren’t perfect, of course: pedestrians can be a danger if they have a way to easily access the lane, and there are still issues surrounding interaction with motor vehicles at intersections, but overall it would represent a step forwards.

The other potential option would be to do something similar to Vancouver, which operates roadways with traffic calming measures in effect parallel to major arteries (such as the example pictured here). The main problem I see with this is that it would probably entail difficulties in finding good parallel streets—most of Ottawa’s major roads don’t tend to have streets which run alongside them for very long, due to the way our city is split up.

Ultimately, I think the best solution is a combination of all three of these methods. Bike paths are the ideal, but where they are not possible they should be supplemented by well-designed bike lanes or perhaps traffic-calmed side-streets which emphasize bike travel. No matter what, though, there’s no question in my mind that we need to seriously look at bicycle safety here in Ottawa, and come up with a long-term, comprehensive strategy for cycling in Ottawa.

Edit: I feel I should open a call here, as well: what do you want to be done to make cycling safer here in Ottawa? Are better bike lanes the answer? Better education for drivers and cyclists? Tell me your thoughts!

12
Jul
09

Main Street and wires

Despite it’s name, Ottawa’s Main Street hardly looks like one. Originally the main street of a tiny suburban village called Archville, the name was simply held over when the community amalgamated with the City of Ottawa in 1907. Today, Main Street is the central artery of Old Ottawa East, but it somehow feels  incomplete. Despite it’s very urban location, Main Street cannot really be characterized as a pedestrian-friendly area. Large open spaces and parking lots break up the few commercial spaces in the area, and the street’s two educational institutes, Immaculata Secondary School and St. Paul University, both seem to shun the street, preferring to look inwards towards their own campuses.

In spite of all this, it is ostensibly the goal of the City to turn Main Street into—well, a main street. North of Clegg Street, the street is zoned as a “Traditional Main Street”, meaning that the official plan calls for moderate density, mixed use buildings which front directly on the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian traffic, similar to Elgin Street, Bank Street through the Glebe, and so on. However, a recent proposal to build exactly that kind of building at 162 Main Street has been turned down. Why? Well, it would seem that Hydro Ottawa can’t allow a four-storey building at that site because it would interfere with their overhead wires. The developer has come up with a compromise plan, but it would involve reducing the number of apartments in the building, making it three storeys instead of four, and removing an outdoor arcade designed to allow outdoor tables at a street-level cafe. Additionally, the building would have to be five metres back from the sidewalk, instead of fronting it directly—it doesn’t seem like much, but it would definitely make the building less attractive to pedestrians.

The issue here is that this should be something that can be easily fixed, by burying power lines. However, the City makes no budgetary allowances to do so, even when it would seem to be logical. For instance, in Hintonburg right now, Wellington Street has been dug up for some time due to construction work, but it would appear no effort is being made to bury power lines at the same time. This is unfortunate, as it would likely reduce the cost of doing so significantly by combining it with other work. And these missed opportunities will add up—the more that slip past us, the more it will cost us in the long-run to bury wires.

And let’s face it, there’s no good reason for us not to be trying to bury lines. They clutter up the street, making it visually unattractive, and the poles often create obstacles for pedestrians on the sidewalk. And of course, they can block or harm valuable projects like the one at 162 Main. For the sake of our city and its neighborhoods, we need to start thinking about these issues, and being more proactive towards solving them.

A quick aside: I moved to a new apartment this weekend, and currently have no internet access there. Thus if anyone comments and it requires moderation, it may be some time before I can get to it.




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