Yes you can, Mr Mayor

John Turner and Jim Watson have lots in common. In a crisis, both  claim they can’t do something. It didn’t work out well for Mr Turner.

So people get killed moving about in Ottawa. Anyone looking at the traffic fatalities knows that other cities don’t accept what we accept. People walking to school or work or riding their bike shouldn’t be risking their lives. Parents should not feel they have to drive their kids to school.

But when it comes to improving truck safety, Mr Watson passes the buck up the line. “But I wrote a letter …” sounds too much like a guilty grade schooler. Or John Turner.

In a subsequent post, I’ll elaborate on what our mayor could do to improve truck safety in our town to save our lives. Today. If we cared.

But first, a broader picture.

There are oodles of cities and whole countries that take road safety seriously. Ottawa, and Ontario too, are conspicuously slow learners.

Sweden cut road deaths by half since just 2000. In 2012, just one child under seven was killed on road, compared to 1970’s total of 58. And in that time the number of cars has doubled, as has the distance driven.

Sweden opted for safety over speed. Roads went on a diet, with particular emphasis on realigned four lane roads to be three – one lane in each direction, one turn lane when required. I gather The Netherlands is now on a national campaign to remove all four lane urban streets as being too hazardous (note that this is not removing freeways or controlled access highways).

Progressive countries and cities invest in safe facilities for people aged 8 to 80, for people who walk, for people who cycle, for people who take transit, knowing that the payback is long lived.

In Ottawa, we are still building new four lane roads. Making them safer for people who drive by transferring the risk to non-driving people. 

Does Mayor Watson remember Bronson Avenue?  The city fought tooth and nail against a road diet there, even though the data, the facts and figures, showed it was a candidate for a road diet.

Sure, we have had some road diets since. And some complete streets. And those complete streets are shifting from being “special cases” with lots of opposition (including from community groups !) to being the minimum expected. Witness the disappointment at the Booth Freeway, which is merely one of the first LRT-related projects to open. More are to come.

But thus far blighted streets in Ottawa will remain unsafe until a total rebuild is required. Only at that point do we consider safety improvements.

We need to proactively fix known hazards first. Consider those freeway style ramp intersections we welcomed onto city streets like Bronson at the Canal, or Carling at Lincoln Fields, or every overpass along the Queensway. Traffic engineers just naturally gravitate to freeway designs, like architects to taller buildings, or moths to a light bulb, or pedestrians to their deaths when venturing out of their homes. We know what the high hazard areas are, but have no program to fix them. Unless someone died high profile, then its time to look busy.

We need to focus on streets that are even now being abused and at the tipping point for ruination. Instead, the City cheers the misuse of residential Booth (south of Albert), and plots to run more commuters along Bayswater. The ‘cars everywhere everytime’ model still thrives amongst the old guard at city hall.

Sunnyside between Bank and Bronson is an excellent example of incremental traffic calming and safe street improvements that shouldn’t piss off driver voters. Look at the pictures below.

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Or Lees Avenue:


The Sunnyside and Lees examples show too-wide streets that encouraged too-fast driving but got a (partial) fix ( I say partial because the lanes are still too wide).

And when the inevitable happens, vehicles hitting people at 50kmh kill people. Green spaces, trees, lane shifts right and left, encourage motorists to go slower regardless of the posted speed limit. At 30 kmh impact victims are 90% survivable. We can fix streets and roads that currently encourage anti-social high speed driving. More traffic signs aren’t the answer. Modified design is.

Why aren’t more streets getting this treatment? Is it cost? What price are we putting on lives lost and lifetime injuries?

Look at this shot of Scott Street, it wouldn’t even require new curbs, bulbouts, sunken or raised gardens, and there isn’t even any overhead wiring to require perpetual tree deformations:


Trees at 16′ centres, with 11 cu m of topsoil in each hole, would make this sidewalk pleasant to use; and the green canopy would close in the appearance of the street thus calming traffic and reducing speed and enhancing safety. Cheap too ! [Maybe too cheap? after all how many consultants would this employ?]

City staff should be able to select trees from a list all by themselves: hmm, no overhead wires, on south side of street, wide boulevard space with room for lots of topsoil …

Elsewhere on Scott we are too content to let existing green space be eroded for all day parking, for FREE. Is this a covert campaign to make walking to the adjacent Westboro transit station unappealing? Is it to scare people off the bike lane? If so, it is working really well. I avoid this Siren-inspired “bike facility” like the plague. My urban bike odysseys follow the paths (when available, even if indirect).


Do those workers in the adjacent office building (CS CO-OP, etc) need that free parking provided by us at our expense? Why is providing free parking still a priority in a cash-strapped city?

Individual changes to roads will always generate some controversy. Ottawans aren’t unique in  hyper-conservativeness, in blind total fear of any change, of growth, or any threat to its special snow-flakiness.

Positive campaigns, like Vision Zero, are capable of gathering widespread support and shifting the focus of a thousand bureaucratic micro decisions towards safety rather than speed, people trips rather than vehicle trips.

A few more missed opportunities – like his pass on vision zero, or truck safety – and Watson will start to look stuck in the slow lane, yesterday’s man leading only from behind. Successful politicians recognize the parade and jump out in front.

Your move, Mr Mayor.

8 thoughts on “Yes you can, Mr Mayor

  1. My belief is that Mayor Watson is more a lead from the rear type of guy rather than jump out in front type of guy. The issue of reducing pedestrian- cycling injuries will only become important to him when he sees another candidate for Mayor gaining some traction on this issue. We will see if any such candidate comes forward in the next election

  2. Do you happen to know what the rules are with respect to planting trees near roads? I think your suggestion is a great one, but my impression is that Ottawa has a de facto ban on trees on boulevards adjacent major arterials.

    1. as far as i know, trees in boulevards between the curb and sidewalk are banned only in lebreton flats, and i think that was a spite move against the ncc.

      but if there is a larger ban, it needs to be replaced, because it is simply another signal to open up roads to go faster. Trees are not a hazard if traffic moves at an appropriate design speed, … but if the design encourages speed …

      anyhow, the point was, some traffic calming costs money but there is lots of low hanging fruit available too.

  3. I think Don hit the nail on the head. Do not expect much from the Mayor, except incremental changes. He is risk-adversed and that is not about to change. We have to put our hopes on a handful of city councillors.

  4. I don’t exactly expect very much from our city government when it comes to vision and being proactive. I only see them discovering problems and then throwing lots of money at big infrastructure “solutions.”

    I’m especially concerned with the 2nd LRT phase, the stormwater holding project, and the proposed tunnel because the mayor has said that sinkholes are to be expected with tunnelling.

  5. Narrow lanes don’t make for very pleasant cycling experiences. Nor do bulb outs and other pinch points. You might accept riding on the paths but I find them intolerable.

  6. Chris: the point of narrowing the car lane is to make more room for the bike lane. Riding in general traffic is acceptable on very quiet streets for most, but not on busy arterials, which accounts for north america’s low bike ridership. Separate infrastructure = more riding = safer roads.

  7. REID

    Its all fine to say the city should have vision but when the citizens lack visions should we really expect the city to have any.

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