Is it time for a Sparks Street bike mall ?

Late last year I wrote a two part post for on the Downtown Moves project, a scheme aimed at improving the downtown pedestrian and cycling environment. This improvement is to make the LRT project work better by improving access to the stations; and to improve the downtown post-LRT implementation when the space currently occupied by bus movements will be much reduced.

There were a lot of ideas in those posts, and some are worth elaborating on.  

Today, can the Sparks Street mall be improved by making it a bike mall?

Downtown pedestrian malls were all the rage a few decades ago. Some are still thriving; many more are not. Ottawa’s looks decent, but isn’t the lively and vital place it could and should be.

Frank Gehry, the starchitect, redid the Santa Monica Third Street Mall. Since a major local condo developer is trying to get his team to Ottawa is might be worth tagging on some other projects, like a review of the Ottawa mall. In Santa Monica, they reintroduced off-peak vehicle traffic to the mall, and it works. The road surface is deliberately kept narrow, but there are curbs and the roadway surface depressed from the pedestrian-only-all-the-time surfaces. (there are lots of pic on the internet). But we don’t have to pay Frank Gehry to add some movement to our Mall.

 For Ottawa,  imagine a single lane of through traffic, that winds a bit, and might have a gate that opens automatically only when a  certain (low)  level of pedestrian traffic is attained. I mentioned this single traffic lane idea to an Ottawa engineer who still speaks to me, and he went on and on about how difficult that would be, because of the curbs, new catch basins, the need to take out the little rise in the mall between Bank and Kent, passing lanes, taxi laybys, etc etc. He waxed on until the project consumed millions of dollars and the entire right of way. [Maybe we do need a Frank Gehry after all — ed.]

But there are cheaper and better and much faster ways to enliven Sparks Street. Try to imagine welcoming cyclists back onto the mall.

Now the downtown core has a separated bike lane along Laurier, on the “south side” of the core. What if Sparks had a separated bike lane  for the “north side” of the core (imagine, no on-street parking spaces lost — Jerry Lepage and BOMA would be thrilled).

I picture laying out a gently curving bi-directional bike route down Sparks using the green surface currently used at Laurier intersections. Yes, post a low speed limit. Put in some bits of raised curbs at the curves (to encourage cyclists to follow the route), and some planters (keep cyclist on route, and pedestrians steered away from the cycling path). In straighter sections, add some decorative bollards to each side, both to keep cyclists on the route and to gently advise pedestrians of the “traffic”. Keep it permeable so the pedestrian ambiance is enhanced, not lost.

Cambridge MA -- bike lane and ped space at the same level; notice how the ped paving pattern extends across the bike lane where larger ped volumes are expected

I have no doubt some idiot cyclist would insist on his or her right to cycle down the Mall at 100 km/hr. Or a pedestrian-rights activist will insist on strolling agonizingly slowly down the bike surface *. Especially at the beginning, we would need to enforce civility and the speed limit. But speeding cars on our roads doesn’t cause us to shut down street traffic, and the fear of the odd unintelligent cyclist isn’t enough reason to pass on the bike mall.

Pedestrian-cyclist crashes are seldom fatal, but are still unpleasant, so the pedestrian and cyclist desire for self-preservation will govern most behaviours. We already have shared pathways elsewhere in the city, and more are coming.  The bike facilities on the Portage Bridge or south of the Alexandra Bridge closely mix pedestrians and cyclists with considerable success..

This bike mall feature should be cheap to construct, is easily removable if it doesn’t work, and is well within the bounds of our competent cycling staff at city hall to design and layout by May of this year. Roll out that green pavement texture and we’re ready to go. Urban experiments can’t come much cheaper than this.

If it works well, then later on figure out how to connect it east and west to other cycling infrastructure. Certainly the west is easy (Bay to Wellington/Portage; Lyon for southbound; and a link just past the Garden of the Provinces to the BikeWest route. The east end is a bit more problematic, but I think it can be examined and improved.

What are the benefits of a shared pedestrian and bike mall?

For pedestrians, the mall is largely dead for too many hours of the day. Cyclists will add movement and variety to the space. A busier space will attract more people, the same way as dead spaces fail to attract people. I don’t think the Mall will become too crowded with cyclists — public spaces are usually underpopulated rather than pleasantly congested. Pedestrians will still have lots of space on the Mall. Of course, there will be whiners, Ottawans are human and crave the attention awarded to those with grievances.

Cycling on the Mall will encourage tourists to use the bix bike system, by giving them another safe space to ride.

The Mall is an intimate street by Ottawa standards, but is still much wider than spaces specifically designed for pedestrians, eg shopping malls. The narrower indoor mall widths encourage shoppers to cross from one set of stores to another. I see most people walk along Sparks along one side or the other, but seldom traversing the width. In short, it already functions somewhat as two sides of the street, so a bike lane would not divide the space or be a “barrier”. 

For merchants,   the Mall ideally needs more people who linger there, at coffee shops or cafes or street attractions, ie for whom the Mall is the destination. Cyclists passing through are not exactly what they want, but cyclists can and will stop to shop much easier than motorists can. Similarly, the Mall is currently used by some pedestrians to get from one area to another, who have no intention of shopping, but they still enliven the street by their presence. So will cyclists.

Cyclists of course, will be big winners. They will get a safe, direct, off-road cycle path that is pleasant to ride on, without door prizes. Even if cycled at low speed, I suspect it will be at least as fast as cycling on Queen or Albert where there are delays from parking or turning vehicles, deliveries, buses, etc. The benefit to cyclists will be more than just what they gain on Sparks, as the doubling of safe downtown cycling routes will make cycling all the more attractive.

And if it doesn’t work? Just peel up the green mactac put down on the pavement and unscrew the bollards.

There will be sceptics, naysayers, and critics. They were vocal when we built the first mall in 1959. They will rise up to wail if we modify the pedestrian mall to include cyclists on a limited cycling path. We will only make gains if we venture forth to try something new, that’s as true today as in 1959.

Do you think we should bring cycling onto the Sparks Street Mall ?


* I have a uncle, now long deceased, who worked on the Mall back in the 60’s. The “no vehicles” signage was English-only. A French-rights motorist (or at least, he had Quebec plates…)  insisted on driving down the Mall each day at noon to “make a point”. My uncle and his buds made a point of walking — verrrry slooowly — in front of him. This is the same uncle who harassed motorists that blocked crosswalks, by opening the rear passenger door, crawling through the car, and exiting the other side, leaving all doors open. Ahh, the joys of cars when locks were manual…

9 thoughts on “Is it time for a Sparks Street bike mall ?

  1. I have heard this idea many times before (Sparks Bike Lanes) and beleive it has merit. I wonder what it is that has kept it from happening in the past? My belief of the Downtown Moves project is that it too much is involved with Transportation. What is really needed is a changing of our height bylaw that only produces squat ugly strucures that most large businesses can’t use because they are to small in area. Also a general look at what we want the core to be and how to more effectively govern it. Most of all we really need hard numbers of how many people we want to work and live there, then worry about the transportation.

  2. The joint ownership of Sparks St. between the NCC and City of Ottawa makes this an even more challenging project, as these groups rarely speak.

    Bike projects in Ottawa typically come about because of motivation to make biking easier, or to make driving easier by removing cyclists from the street. What’s new here is the motivation to revive retail.

    1. Maybe something for the NCC list of dreams… oh wait… correct name: Horizon 2067

      Unless Sparks revitalization is somehow tied to the concept of “celebrating Canada” and “putting a loon on things” or creating an elaborate “promenade” with a sightline to a statue, it’ll take a lot of effort to engage the NCC to do something of use to residents of the city. Their interest is in selling the “vision of Canada” to others.

  3. I don’t think a bike path along Sparks really needs to connect to anything at the east side. Just a few blocks of hassle free biking would make reaching those Sparks street stores by bike so much more convenient. If I worked in a building off Sparks and knew the store I wanted to go to after work was just a couple of blocks away in the wrong direction, getting on a bike and going there before heading home would be no hassle at all. But if the alternative is to walk a couple of blocks to the store then walk a couple of blocks back to pick up my bike to then bike home, I would just go find a more convenient store on the way home or decide to wait until the weekend to buy whatever at a suburban big box store.

  4. There’s that “squat ugly structure” nonsense again. It’s hard to find a more beautiful city than Paris and it is full of “squat” buildings. Is this some new phrase that developers are trying to put out there? Haveacow…why does short have to be ugly? Please explain this?
    Bringing bike lanes to Sparks is a great idea. I often see groups of cyclists sitting outside at cafes and restaurants around town…why not Sparks. I would think the retailers would push for this and embrace the idea. They should be trying whatever they can to liven up that street. I walked along Sparks the week before Christmas and it was dead dead dead. This street should be so much more. Bike lanes are not the only answer…we need people to live on Sparks Street but that may take longer. A bike lane project could be done quick and cheap. I think it’s a no-brainer.

  5. I was just in Barcelona where there are many many integrated Ped/Bike malls (along the water leaving Barceloneta for example). It seemed to work fine there – to forestall the inevitable criticism that ped/bike cannot interact

  6. The mall is pretty crowded at lunch time, and pretty vacant the rest of the time, tho tourists skew it up on summer days. How about some paint or mactac and a 1130-1330 “walk your bike” sign?

  7. I have no problem with “slow moving” bikes on the Sparks Street Mall. I am sure they could co-exist safely with pedestrians. What I DO have a problem with are the car drivers who somehow believe that the stretch of the Mall between Bank St. and Kent St. is a city road. There seems to be no enforcement in place to stop motor vehicles from using this part of the Mall as a shortcut between Bank and Kent, especially at rush hour. Very dangerous mix… perhaps a more controlled access should be considered from Bank Street for the safety of pedestrians.

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