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.
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.
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.
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.