by Jamie Stuckless, Executive Director, Share the Road Cycling Coalition
Ottawa was the first municipality in Ontario to receive a Gold Bicycle Friendly Community Award (2013) and continues to be a provincial leader in terms of cycling investment. While they haven’t yet won the race to Platinum, Ottawa is home to some of this province’s most forward-looking cycling infrastructure and a growing cycling network of bridges, pathways and cycle tracks. In many ways, Ottawa can serve as an example to other communities across the province when it comes to improving & encouraging cycling right here in Ontario.
We took full advantage of this opportunity as part of the 2019 Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) Conference in August by partnering with AMO and inviting municipal leaders on a study tour of Ottawa’s bike infrastructure. Guided by staff from the City of Ottawa, we spent an enjoyable & informative couple of hours on our bikes, and we thought it would be valuable to share some of the tour highlights with you!
Bridging the gaps
As you can see on the route map, we crossed over waterways a total of 5 times. For 4 of those 5 crossings, we were on dedicated pedestrian & cycling bridges. And it was marvellous.
Crossings like these are often dangerous “pinch points”, but in this instance they represented some of the most enjoyable parts of the ride. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
These cycling & walking bridges are the result of decades of advocacy and funding from multiple levels of government. Much debated and often delayed, once constructed the bridges are seeing huge numbers when it comes to usage. And the City is keeping track.
The Corktown Bridge — originally proposed in 1984 — was approved by council in 2005 at a cost of $7 million and officially opened in 2006. The bridge sees approximately 7,000 crossings per day (!!!) and is considered to have created a “spark” for other pedestrian and cycling bridges.
To cross the Rideau River, we used the Adawe Crossing, which opened more recently in 2015. The City’s counters show that in the first 10 days after the bridge opened about 20,000 trips were taken across it. Between May to September the bridge regularly sees 90,000 to 110,000 crossings per month, with the busiest month to date recording 121,000 crossings (July 2017).
The Flora Footbridge is Ottawa’s newest walking & cycling bridge having just opened in July 2019. Another long-planned connection along the Rideau River, this bridge was built with funding from municipal, provincial and federal governments. It was particularly rewarding for us to cycle across this bridge as it was one of the first projects to be funded through Ontario’s Municipal Commuter Cycling Program. The Flora Footbridge is also a great example of how accommodations can be provided to pathway users during construction. An alternate pathway connection was built to ensure smooth, continued access for pathway users whose routes crossed through the construction area.
Building a network
Other tour highlights included the separated cycling infrastructure along Main St, O’Connor St and Laurier Ave.
Celebrated as Ottawa’s first official complete street, Main St was transformed from a four lane, high capacity arterial into one that includes raised & separated cycle tracks, street furniture, widened sidewalks and cross-rides. The project was controversial for removing trees and driving lanes but is a project that other communities can look to when it comes to building complete streets along commercial main streets.
Another recent addition to Ottawa’s cycling network is the bidirectional protected bike lane along O’Connor St, creating a north-south connection into the downtown core. Before the bike lane installation, O’Connor saw about 250 people cycling each day. The daily average is now 1,400. The bike lanes also connect people to the east-west Laurier Ave bike lanes, the Flora Footbridge and the NCC pathway network.
We ended the bike tour by cycling along Laurier Ave, which is home to the first downtown separated bike lane in Ontario. Built in 2011 as a pilot project, the Laurier Ave bike lanes saw a 500% increase in cycling to almost 3,000 trips per day before being approved as permanent in 2013. The lanes are cleared of snow as part of the city’s winter cycling network and, to date, have seen over 2.7 million trips and an average of 1,300 trips per day (including weekends and the winter).
Improving the network
It’s important to note that bike tours like this one highlight the best of what a city has to offer for cycling — the smoothest connections, the nicest river crossing — and do not necessarily reflect the day to day experiences of residents trying to cycle from a specific point A to B.
As a former Ottawa resident, my bike commute was definitely not as smooth and separate from traffic as this tour route was. Ottawa still has too many missing connections and cycling collisions for everyone to feel truly safe while cycling.
But what I do see in Ottawa is a willingness to address these gaps and invest in changes. Notably, Ottawa recently opened a protected intersection and they worked with the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) to build an alternate route to accommodate people cycling during highway construction. Along our tour route, fatal cycling collisions on Laurier have spurred much needed infrastructure changes as recently as this summer.
Because being a leader means not being satisfied with the status quo.
Thanks to ongoing advocacy by Bike Ottawa and commitment to cycling by officials and staff at City Hall, change is underway. Ottawa continues to be a cycling leader in Ontario precisely because they are willing to invest in closing the gaps, and to make necessary changes when things aren’t working.
“When it comes to building a city that works for cycling, Ottawa is out ahead of other cities in Ontario,” says Heather Shearer, President of Bike Ottawa. “There’s an opportunity right here for planners from nearby cities to learn from what Ottawa has done. That leading spirit is something I’d like to see us continue to push forward on, and truly distinguish Ottawa as a green and livable city.”
Although the focus of our tour was on infrastructure, Ottawa is also a leader because of a investments in all the “E’s” of the Bicycle Friendly Communities program, including EnviroCentre’s Bike to Work Month campaign, which recently celebrated 10 years and enforcement of the 1m safe passing law led by Safer Roads Ottawa.
Our hope is that tours like these will help municipal officials experience what’s possible for cycling and empower them to make infrastructure investments in their own communities.
We’re looking forward to hosting a bike tour for the municipal leaders attending the AMO Conference in 2020!