Ottawa is having some success in protecting walkable urban neighbourhoods. Othertimes planning seems designed to ruin the very things that make successful neighbourhoods. The latest threat comes from an unusual source: the fire department. And the target … is safe cycling.
The most popular areas in Ottawa are often the older neighbourhoods. They are usually characterized by walkable main streets. The adjacent housing is usually on smaller lots. There are mixed land uses, with a sprinkling of apartments. Curbside parking buffers peds from through traffic. Most things are with an easy cycling distance.
When we try to mimic this in new developments, we apply new urban design standards that thwart or make illegal the very features we want to replicate. The result in Ottawa is denser suburbs whose dominant features are roads roads roads and cars cars cars. I think we end up with the worst possible outcome: a feeling of crowding, visual blight of omnipresent cars, and still unwalkable neighbourhoods. I suspect the majority of our city population … and therefore city staff … live in post 1960 neighbourhoods that put cars first. They therefore have a natural “through the window” view of urban life.
In the past, governments tried to impose new suburban standards on existing urban fabric, with notable failures. Recall the public housing projects, the urban freeways, the “arterials”, the plague of stop signs and traffic lights, the proliferation of parking lots, the ongoing segregation of land uses in ever finer detail …
And we haven’t got much beyond that essential conflict of suburban values vs urban walkable values. I experience it all the time. At a recent meeting with high level city transportation planners a diversion in the agenda lead to puzzlement at the behaviour of pedestrians, particularly those accessing bus stops and transit stations, and their suicidal “illegal” road crossings. People who drive most places, or have transit experience limited to a daily commute, don’t know what its really like to be a pedestrian. To find yourself at yet another mid-block bus stop 100’s of feet from where you want to be, or facing a “safe” construction detour at Bayview that rivals a rat-in-a-maze crisscrossing of the site when much more direct routes aren’t in use… when drenched by passing vehicles because the road edges are now designated as “rain water storage areas” and crosswalks are always at the lowest point of the road … when traffic engineers wonder “why would you go for a walk when its raining?” … to platitudes about “safety” meaning cattle fences and beg buttons and opaque crossing signal timings …. Sigh.
The latest attack on urban living comes from our an unexpected source: the fire department.
Proactive fire fighting departments have input into development approvals. Naturally, their lobby associations raise the standards all the time.
I was somewhat amused to read a flurry of stories in US urban media about new “minimum standards” fire depts are demanding for roads. Not just new roads, they want old neighbourhoods retrofitted for their convenience. Start by removing ALL roadside trees… and curbside parking too, if there is less than multiple lanes of road left open. This is particularly problematic in new urbanist communities where narrow lanes, treed boulevards, and traffic calming is a key to make areas walkable. Here at WSA we have looked at many new urbanist communities, use the search button on the site to look for Celebration, FL. The fire department there thinks the number one urban planing priority is the convenience of the fire department, since they will “save lives”.
There is some pushback. Here’s a story on the issue: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/3/28/how-fire-chiefs-and-traffic-engineers-make-places-less-safe
Read it and weep.
Only in the USA. Only in Trump’s America. Snicker.
Now, here is the punch line. Consider a new city cycle track … which is designed to our “complete street” model, with road / curb / buffer strip / cycle track / sidewalk. At two locations on this proposed project there are to be centre medians on the road. They provide pedestrian refuges, making it easier for peds to cross the road in two stages.
Who is objecting to the design? Guess.
The fire department.
Why the fire department?
Because there isn’t enough room for them to stop their monster truck AND extend out their stabilizers to each side while staying within the one lane. So they want a minimum lane width of 6m.
So when the pedestrian or cyclist is mowed down by vehicles travelling 60kmh on the wide open road, the “first responders” will be able to get there fast to scrape the remains up off the road.
Better to not have to make that call in the first place.