Late last year I wrote a two part post for www.SpacingOttawa.ca 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.
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…