Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cycling Progress

The Public Advisory Group for the proposed downtown-area segregated cycling track meet last night. It's a diverse group including 3 BIA's (Chinatown BIA, Somerset Village BIA, Bank St BIA), two community associations (DCA, CCA), cycling advocacy groups (Cycle Vision Ottawa, Citizens for Safe Cycling), politicians former and current, etc.

City planners unveiled the route choices and the criteria they used to narrow the list down to a smaller set of five leading options. They applied a numerical rating scheme to winnow the choices, which came in for a lot of discussion. The selection remains somewhat arbitrary and contestable.

The most remarkable thing about the two and half hour session was the dialogue between the various parties. Unlike some recent public meetings I have attended where the focus is on loud sound bites establishing positions, the discussion last night revealled that the cyclists understood business owners' concerns, the attendees could see the political minefield, there were some admissions from the BIA's that segregated cycling tracks might actually have some benefits for the downtown community and businesses.

Councillor Holmes emphasized that rather than the top scoring project being selected, it had to also satisfy all 3 key stakeholder groups (business, residents, cyclists), but her preference for putting the track on quiet residential streets parallel to the main streets like Somerset, met with determined opposition from cyclists who felt the track had to be where cyclists want to go. And cyclists want to go to the same places as motorists -- the main street.

A couple of key observations:
  • the city's technical criteria were very tough, as it sought to minimize car displacement. But the downtown isn't exactly overflowing with spaces not already dedicated to some current use, especially the car. Something's gotta give.
  • the city's criteria considered cyclists' desires only within the designated study area, and while they were aware that cyclists connect with adjacent areas, this was not measured. Obviously the Corktown Bridge over the canal and future Somerset bridge over the Rideau River to Overbrook were big on cyclists' minds.
  • the criteria evaluation form was too complex to present at a public meeting, yet on closer examination by the PAC was found to be too simple and too easily contestable. In short, it would satisfy no one.
  • all the top five route options use Somerset west of Bronson. This is a major problem for the Chinatown BIA as the street is the major parking supply and delivery area, and there are no nearby alternative parallel streets and residential streets are already overrun with cars. Suggested solution: limit the segregated track, from Percy/Bay to the Canal.
  • the business of business is business, regardless of what mode the customer used to get to the business. Business owners have to move beyond car parking focus. I was surprised to hear a BIA rep complain that off street parking lots were being "lost" to condos. Does anyone contest that the condo delivers more customers than the parking lot ever could? Question: will a bike lane here deliver more customers than on-street parking does?
  • I cannot imagine that the Merivale strip (or similar suburban strips) would be made atttractive to pedestrian shoppers or cyclist shoppers by improving the landscaping along Merivale. Face it: it is a car-oriented form of development. Downtown BIA's have to stop trying to provide more parking than the suburban big box lots -- it just cannot be done without destroying the very urban features of the downtown neighborhoods that attract residents in the first place. Downtown businesses have to get over thinking of themselves as "regional attractions" for suburbanites and focus on their real market. This includes tourists visiting the core, local residents, local businesses, etc. Merivale strip will never be a tourist destination; downtown shouldn't cater to cars.
I found myself wonder, where do business owners live? Too many that I know live in the suburbs while having their businesses in the central city. Thus they commute by business-expensed car. They live their evenings and weekends in a suburban lifestyle. It's not surprising then that they want convenient parking (preferably provided free, by the taxpayer) for their business, as that is how they structure their own lives. I wonder if business owners who live in the core, who walk to work, have the same mind-set that favours car shoppers and car parkers, or if they are more open to the benefits of wider sidewalks and improved cycling facilties as being the cheapest way to get more customers coming by their place of business?

If there was a consensus last night, it was that dialogue was good, the groups understood each other, that a rushed choice might well be a bad choice, and maybe it would be better to talk more and select the route mid-winter for install in spring 2011 rather than late fall 2010.

Note: for 20-some years I ran a storefront business. Only a tiny portion of my customers came by car. But 99% of comments about location came from car drivers. I think in many ways its like the weather: people seek safe topics for small talk, chit chat, and "isn't parking awful" is a safe, seldom-contested tongue flapper. Downtown businesses need accurate data about who shops and what the future can be. They have to ignore the "noise" about parking and focus on improving business. Businesses fail all the time, for a variety of reasons. During construction, it is easy to blame the road work. Post bike track, it will be easy to blame the cyclists.But mostly businesses fail because the owner misjudges the market. Correlation to road work, or cycling tracks, is not causation.


  1. You know, currently, because of where I live, I tend to bike on Albert and Slater towards downtown, but if anything at all could make me haul my bike up the Empress stairs, a dedicated bikeway down Somerset would be it.

    On the one hand, I'm wondering what all the debate is about. The business owners I know in the neighborhood all live in the neighborhood all bike to work, anything that made their commute easier would be helpful to them, so build the damn thing already.

    OTOH, if they're just starting now, it'll be ready for when the snow begins to fall in earnest, and most people put their bikes away for the winter. Maybe it's best to tweak the design this year, and have it up and running for the Victoria Day weekend next year

  2. Nice recap, Eric. Sounds like there was a balanced conversation and all of the important issues were covered. I agree that having something built forca pilot project out of season seems counter-productive for all.

  3. Very thoughtful piece. Myself, I think the lanes should go on Somerset, because that's where the destinations are. I would bike to Hartmans if they put a lane down. If I have to seesaw on and off Somerset to get there, what's the point? I can do that now. The quiet parallel streets don't really need a lane, anyway.