It’s time for Ottawa’s own Bloor-style bike lane pilot project
In May 2019, the Preston Street BIA released a letter stating their opposition to a temporary, three-block cyclist detour on Preston because it would have a “negative effect on business.” This mentality is not isolated. Opposition to bike lanes from businesses because of its assumed “negative effect” has influenced road reconstruction projects on Wellington, Beechwood, Somerset, Preston, Bank, Elgin, and in the Byward Market. Even after recent redesigns with modern planning principles, none of these destination streets have segregated cycling infrastructure. Despite a growing network of infrastructure for cyclists, the assumption that bikes are bad for business has led to there being no significant cycling infrastructure in any consumer-focused destination streets in Ottawa.
The evidence does not support the views of businesses. Several studies and reports indicate that cyclists are in fact competitive consumers, and focusing commercial streets around active transportation has beneficial effects for businesses in the area. But these studies have not made an impact in Ottawa, where there has been no local case study to reference.
In 2015, Toronto was in a similar position as Ottawa: a growing network of cycling infrastructure, but none on main commercial streets due to vocal opposition from business owners and BIAs. But instead of taking these groups on their word, Toronto decided to investigate the question, What impact does cycling infrastructure have on businesses?
The Bloor Street bike lane pilot project began in 2016. The section targeted in the pilot was a 2.4 kilometre stretch of road that had four lanes (two for parking and two for traffic). The pilot maintained two travel lanes, but reduced parking to one lane (alternating sides), and added bike lanes on each side of the road. Over of the course of the pilot period, the City and the local BIAs tracked consumer behaviour through both sales figures and surveys, as well as monitored the impact the bike lanes had on road safety and traffic flow. At the end of the project, the results proved the businesses wrong: cyclists did not have a negative impact — in fact, the impact they had was positive.
The study found that “most merchants reported an increase in the number of customers, most visitors reported spending more and visiting more frequently, and that vacancy rates [were] stable.” In addition, it turned out that businesses had significantly overestimated the amount of shoppers arriving by car, which turned out to be just 9% (18% for cyclists). Cyclist volumes on Bloor increased by 49% and conflicts between all road users decreased by 44%. The pilot project, which cost only $500,000 to implement, was a success. And not only that, it was politically popular. Toronto city council voted to make the lanes permanent in 2017 by a vote of 36–6. In July 2019, they voted 23–3 to extend the lanes west to High Park — more than doubling its length.
Toronto is, of course, a different city than Ottawa, and hundreds of kilometres away. Because of that, it’s hard to use Bloor Street as an example for to persuade Ottawa businesses that they should welcome bike lanes. But Bloor Street is a powerful example. To make it more powerful locally, we need to replicate the study as best as we can. We need a made-in-Ottawa solution.
A Bloor-style bike lane pilot project in Ottawa on Bank Street in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South would be the best way to do so.
I’ve chosen this specific stretch of Bank in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South (between Pretoria and Riverside) because it has many things in common with Bloor Street’s pilot project area, including:
- Both are exactly 2.4 kilometres long
- Both have nightlife, shops, grocery stores, cafes, hardware stores, pharmacies, restaurants, movie theatres, etc.
- Both have access to public transit (Line 2 subway in Toronto; bus route 6 in Ottawa)
- Both are situated close to a university and high schools
- Both have high population densities
- Both have connection to busy parks and recreational areas
- Both have parallel, side-street bike routes (Harbord; O’Connor)
- Both have sports stadiums and other high-profile visitor locations (Varsity Stadium, the Royal Ontario Museum; Lansdowne Park)
- Both are four lane roads with similar or the same street widths
In short, this area of Bank is the most Bloor-esque part of Ottawa. Bank street in this area also has the advantage of being structurally adaptable in its design. Unlike Wellington street in Hintonburg, which has bulb-outs at intersections that make conversions to curbside bike lanes more complex and expensive, Bank has straight curbs. The simplest solution to the bike-bus interaction is for the bus to enter the bike lane for pick ups and drop offs, with cyclists yielding. A more permanent solution is possible if the pilot is made permanent. The issue of reduced on-street parking can be addressed in part through a better utilization of the Second Avenue parking garage, which, as detailed by Kevin O’Donnell, is severely under-utilized. To further reduce parking and driving demand, the bike lane pilot could be paired with a fare-free zone pilot for OC Transpo (as they have in Calgary’s downtown). If successful, the pilot on Bank has another advantage in that it would connect to the cycletracks planned for construction on Bank south of Riverside, which would allow cyclists fully segregated infrastructure along Bank from Heron all the way to downtown — including across two currently dangerous bridges (Billings and Bank St Bridge).
This isn’t such an outrageous idea — we’ve actually done it before. The bike lanes on Laurier began as a pilot project in 2011 before they were made a permanent part of city. And, at the beginning, people were sceptical. But that was eight years and over 3,000,000 bike trips ago. Laurier proved that segregated cycling infrastructure belongs downtown. We’re due now for another pilot with a different focus.
Bank Street in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South is a vibrant, people-focused street that deserves vibrant, people-focused transportation. A 2.4 kilometre bike lane pilot project would make cycling safer on Bank and introduce new cyclists to the area — this we already know. The obstacle is the question of whether bike lanes would help or harm businesses. It’s time we find out for good, as Toronto did with Bloor Street. Let’s collect data. Let’s evaluate the results. Let’s not be afraid of what we can find out. It’s time to make cycling safe on destination streets, and make businesses even stronger in Ottawa. The way to do it is a bike lane pilot project and study on Bank street in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South.
Further info on Bloor Street Bike Lanes: https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/streets-parking-transportation/cycling-in-toronto/cycle-track-projects/bloor-street-bike-lanes/