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Toward Multimodal Transport: Learning from Ottawa’s Subu...

Toward Multimodal Transport: Learning from Ottawa’s Suburban Biking Culture

Conversations about bike commuting focus mainly on the traditional territories of city downtowns and the urban core. But North American metropolises, like Ottawa, usually consist of many far-flung, suburban subdivisions. Leaving suburbs out of the biking conversation risks turning biking into a privilege of the few who can afford to live in dense, downtown neighbourhoods.

Conversations about bike commuting focus mainly on the traditional territories of city downtowns and the urban core. But North American metropolises, like Ottawa, usually consist of many far-flung, suburban subdivisions. Leaving suburbs out of the biking conversation risks turning biking into a privilege of the few who can afford to live in dense, downtown neighbourhoods. Millions would lose out on the health benefits of biking, and we would all be worse off environmentally.

Ottawa, Canada, Bike lane on a suburban road in Sittsville, Ontario, just outside Ottawa

Luckily, I need look no further than the official Ottawa Cycling Plan to demonstrate, that with the right infrastructure and programming, biking can become a viable transportation option for those in the suburbs too. The most obvious target for planners is the short local trip to school, the recreational centre, public library, or grocery store. The city has done a great job of including bike lanes and pathways in newly planned subdivisions, allowing suburban communities to reap the health, economic, social, and environmental benefits of cycling.

In fact, the Plan dispels a common myth about the suburbs: that they are too vast for biking. Contrary to this view, only 20% of people surveyed in Ottawa answered that more compact neighbourhoods would encourage them to cycle more, putting this at the very bottom of the options provided. By contrast, building facilities like bike lanes and parking (40%), providing better pathway connections (36%), and improving traffic safety (33%) were more popular choices among respondents.

The elephant in the room, however, remains the long journey between the outer suburbs and downtown. For those who live in Ottawa’s suburbs but work downtown, is biking out of the question? Not entirely. Ottawa’s planners have risen to this challenge by recognizing the key role that multimodal tranport plays in keeping biking alive in the suburbs. Instead of choosing between the car, bus, and bike, commuters can use them in different combinations.

Ottawa, Canada, Cyclists leave their bikes at a Park and Ride before getting on the bus

Biking to the nearest transit stop, for instance, addresses the last mile problem for many suburban residents, while allowing them to sneak in some physical activity before their bus ride. Sometimes, biking to a farther bus stop means catching a more direct bus, reducing your overall journey time. Suburban Park and Ride lots, where drivers can park their car and continue their journey downtown on rapid transit buses, also feature bike racks for bikers to do the same.

OC Transpo buses along key suburban routes are fitted with bike racks, allowing some cyclists to bring their bikes downtown. In addition to providing increased mobility downtown, where biking often makes the most sense, this also allows suburbanites to partake of the urban cycling experience. Suburban drivers can park their car at one of the city’s thirteen Park and Cycle locations and continue their journey downtown on bike, providing some physical activity and helping reduce road congestion.

Ottawa, Canada, Suburban cyclist brings his bike downtown by fixing it to a rack on the bus

The most striking feature of multimodal transport is that it makes sense financially, environmentally, and time-wise. Cars, bikes, and buses are created for different built environments. In an either/or paradigm, it is easy to see why the personal automobile, with its flexibility, becomes the dominant mode of transport. If people are able to use different modes of transport in combinations that make sense, then this may begin to chip away at the car’s supremacy on the roads. This, for me, is the true promise of biking in the suburbs.

Do you think that normalizing multimodal transport is realistic? What examples of multimodal mobility can you think of in your city?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. All data linked to sources.

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After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in religion that challenged him to think critically and humanely, Nour has pursued work at nonprofit organizations whose missions are aligned with his personal beliefs. His adventures soon took...

  • OK, first of all, I don’t think you can make that conclusion that suburbs aren’t sprawled too much from a simple survey. People who are asked what could get them to bike are likely to answer better facilities and cycling tracks because they assume that they will keep residing where they are, and the destinations around them will stay at the same distance. Whether the area they travel is high or low density matters little when one assumes the distance remains the same. If we asked people in suburbs what it would take to get them walking, they’d probably say “better sidewalks” too. But realistically and empirically, we know that density is a major factor.

    Also, the survey had many options that were essentially the same thing. What’s the difference between “Additional facilities”, “better bikeways connections” and “better traffic safety”?

    As to the questions. Normalizing multimodal transport is possible, I’ve seen it in Japan. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw a 4-story bike parking facility with bikes stacked one over the other next to a train station on the Tokaido line (Chigasaki). I think what you need is to provide the facilities for bikes, not just a few bike racks.

    Bike paths also need to be built on main streets, too often we go by the path of least resistance and build bike paths where they aren’t really required in residential areas rather than on main streets where traffic is high and bikes need protection. Or we build bike paths considering bikes as a recreational sport, not a real mode of transport and favor scenic routes. Using bikes for utilitarian purposes is thus hard to do as the places people might go to don’t have bike paths, the current bike paths too often go around them, not through them.

    Also, better bike facilities are needed. A bike lane on the shoulder on 6-lane boulevards prone to speeding like Riverside drive is insane. Bikes should be taken to the level of pedestrians on such roads to protect them. The shoulder and sidewalk in this example are about 3,6-meter wide, one large multi-purpose path with a 0,6-meter buffer would be much more appropriate (let’s say trees).

    Finally, utilitarian bikes need to be available on the market. An utilitarian bike is a cheap 100-200$ bike (so you don’t cry too much when it’s stolen), with cheap transmissions and brakes but that is comfortable to ride and is full-equipped when purchased (bike stand, mudguards, chainguard, basket in front, a baggage rack in back, etc…). Using 500-600$ bikes for urban transport is stupid with the theft rates we have, and current cheap bikes are not equipped at all when you buy them. Buying a 100$ bike and buying 150$ of accessories to get it to be a worthwhile urban bike is counter-productive, to say the least.

    • Hi simval and thank you for sharing your thoughts! You raise very good points about the survey and I do agree that we have enough empirical evidence to say with confidence that density matters. You are exactly right, people recognize that density is not going to change easily in areas that are already developed, so they are trying to consider their second best options. I think it is very important to hear what is being said, which is that these other factors make a difference too, so we should not simply abandon cycling in the suburbs because we have a sprawled built environment that is unlikely to change. It is this original fear, that we are leaving suburbs out of the biking conversation, that prompted this post.

      In the survey, “facilities” refers to things like bike parking and bike lanes, “pathway connections” means providing continuous, connected biking routes across different paths and roads, and “better traffic safety” means improving safety by addressing the dangers of car traffic on roads. There may be overlap, but these categories represent distinct ideas too.

      I completely agree about bike paths on main roads, and in fact I address this in a separate article here. You are right about utilitarian bikes, which is why I purchased my bike second-hand for $60 off Kijiji. It is a complex process and could possibly deter many people from biking.

  • In my experiences, personally, multi-modal transport is absolutely necessary in a city that sprawls. I live in a part of town where my commute by car would take over an hour in rush hour traffic (and HORRIBLE traffic exists in Austin), but I’m able to ride my bike to a rail station, hop on, get off and load my bike onto a bus and finish my commute to work. All in less time than it would take me to drive. Without it I would spend $40/week on gas, and 15 hours a week stuck in my car, in traffic.

    Professionally, I see the need for multi-modal transport, especially in a town striving for more bike lanes, more walkability, and less cars on the road. Austin is a rapidly growing town with a changing age demographic. The young folks moving here want better transportation options, including rail and bus, and rely on alternative mode of transport, like bikes, to get around quickly and easily. Having buses that can load up to two bikes at a time is a great asset (we’ve had them for at least 15 years that I can remember), and we must extend that to the rail. Right now our rail is pretty crowded, and carrying a bike on-board can be pretty tricky and hard to do.

    Multi-modal transport just makes sense, if you think about it.

    • Hi Jennifer. Yes, it absolutely makes sense, and the example you provided of your commute is a great example of that. I have heard many great things about Austin (including your unique moonlight towers!) and I would love to visit sometime. I think that lower-density cities like Austin and other southwestern cities are in a great place to innovate our transport, and show the way forward for suburbs and low-density areas. Oftentimes the conversation focuses too much on densification, but as simval points out in the comment above, this isn’t going to change easily so we must search for other solutions. Please keep sharing updates from Austin, we would love to know what is happening in this creative and dynamic city!

  • I’m lucky enough to live in a country (The Netherlands) where we don’t need a name for multi-modal transport. Of course our cities are relatively small, so the suburban challenge exists less and anyone living in Amsterdam, as I do, doesn’t usually need more than one kind of transport for a single journey – other than bike + ferry between Amsterdam and Amsterdam North.
    What you see more is people alternating their transport mode – bike is often faster than tram/bus but those are an alternative when the weather’s bad. Or folks using public transport for work but biking the same distances for social life in the evening.

    On the other hand, the country is small too, so a lot of people combine walking or bicycle with the train or bus. Sometimes the bike goes on the train, particularly if it’s the folding type but people typically make use of the bike parking around stations. Some people even have a bike a both ends of the journey. Plus there are cheap rental bikes available from the train and bus companies themselves. Or train/taxi combinations for people who live further away.

    My impression is that this pattern is becoming more common in the UK too, where more people seem to have folding bikes (originally a British invention, if I remember aright).

    So there’s enough variation there to suggest this ought to work anywhere. In a lot of places that’s going to need policy change but to make that happen a sufficient mass of people will actually have to want it to happen. In some places that requires a significant culture change. What will help is if people are confronted with it just being normal elsewhere. We need to get that across – campaigning without making it seem like a campaign!

    • Thanks for the insight Stuart, the Netherlands is definitely an example to aspire towards! Many North American downtowns are experiencing an increased interest in biking–when I lived in Toronto I would bike to work every day (30mins) but on rainy or snowy days, or if I wanted to read, I would take the subway/streetcar (45mins). The variation adds to the enjoyment of the commute. Last year New York installed a large bike sharing program, and I had the chance to try it at its very early stages. It was a welcome change from the subway.

      But our main challenge here is still the suburbs. It would be interesting to take some of the ideas you suggested, such as bike rentals, and put them in suburban residential neighbourhoods to encourage residents to bike to the nearest bus stop (many people DRIVE to the nearest stop, not bike). It is a question of culture, as you said, and our culture here is still very car-centric. We will continue to learn from the Netherlands, I am sure.

  • Jeff Dziwulski

    Really glad to see this article! I live in suburban Dayton, Ohio, and this is exactley how I use my bike. For errands: post office, Fedex, groceries, cleaners, library, occasionally to go hiking (taking the bike to a park or forest preserve and then lock it up and go on a hike), out to eat or drink or events like festivals, etc.

    Things are just a bit too far to walk in suburbia and just near enough to make using a car a bit of a hassle, but perfect distance for cycling. Fortunately we have sidewalks on many all of our major suburban roads which can be used as bike paths, or there are alternate routes using quiter streets to get from place to place. Some suburbs are starting to designate bike routes, too.

    This is exactley what needs to be pushed when it comes to practical or utility cycling, vs commuting to work (which doesnt seem realistic given weather conditions, dress codes, etc).

    And yes, true, for sprawling North American cities multimodeal is the way to go!

    Here in Dayton, for commuting or for cross-town travel I use the bus. Like in Ottawa our busses are equipped with two-bike racks in front and there is usually at least one empty rack for my bike. Our bus system does not have the frequency or coverage to make it viable for short trips so multimodal works fine; use the bus to travel across town, then use the bike to get around when you are in the general vicinity of where you want to go.

    Really glad to see this article, that at least one city is planning for and encouraging suburban cycling.

    • Hi Jeff! Thank you for your comment, I was excited myself to read it because it echoes so much of my own experience. I think Ottawa and other Canadian cities have a lot in common with the American Midwest (dense, historic cores), extensive suburban sprawl, and very cold winters! Ottawa, being the national capital, is lucky to have a lot of planning go into it, which is both stifling and wonderful at the same time. To give you an idea of how this affects our biking infrastructure, I encourage you to compare the biking paths of Dayton and Ottawa. This extensive infrastructure is helped by a lot of programming as well. But I think that any city that prioritizes biking can achieve similar results. Certainly other American cities like Minneapolis are doing a fantastic job.

  • Biking is significantly less safe than riding in a car. The latest data from the US was from 2005. The data was provided by the National Safety Council. In 2005 784 cyclists died which represented 1.26 deaths per 10 million miles traveled. For autos the data was 33,041 motorist passenger deaths which meant 0.11 deaths per 10 million miles traveled.

    • Hi paul and thank you for your comment. I have not seen the information in question, but I will take your word for it. Unfortunately bikers pay a high price for the lack of adequate cycling infrastructure in our cities, and I have been in close shaves myself both in Ottawa and Toronto. I have addressed Ottawa’s cycling infrastructure in a separate article that I encourage you to read. Regular biking helps us save on health, environmental, and infrastructure costs, as compared to driving, so the least we can do, in my opinion, is build decent cycling infrastructure to minimize cycling fatalities.

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