Whose road is it anyway?

Ottawa is an excellent cycling city—how many times have you heard this statement while talking with neighbours and friends? Although Ottawa may have an admirable collection of multi-use pathways (MUPs) that are safe and accessible for all users, ages, and abilities, they rely on a safe road network to connect them. Unfortunately, many of our roads lack the appropriate infrastructure needed to make them safe, jeopardising the accessibility of our cycling network. 

This past October, Bike Ottawa appeared as a delegation before the Transportation committee to comment on the Cycling Safety Review of High-Volume Intersections, which identified 29 intersections that are hazardous to cyclists and other vulnerable road users. The report came with complete plans, including costs, to redesign these roads to safely accommodate all road users. The total cost to redesign these 29 intersections is around $32M. Although this may seem like a lot of money, the consequence of holding back on this investment is fatal. And to put this figure in perspective, consider that 3.3km of Strandherd Drive is currently being widened at a cost of $112M. That means it costs the same to widen 1km of Strandherd drive as it does to bolster the infrastructure of 29 unique intersections. To better understand the City’s decision-making here, Ecology Ottawa’s Council Watch team researched and compared the processes for creating and funding bike lanes and road projects, respectively.

Who pays to widen roads?

Let’s consider first how road developments are funded. Taking Strandherd Drive as our case study, we learned that there is an important distinction between widening and rebuilding a road in terms of the source of funding. Strandherd Drive is currently being widened, and so the cost of construction is consequently covered largely by development charges, which are fees levied by the City on housing developers (and subsequently buyers and renters) on a per unit basis to accommodate the increased load on municipal infrastructure resulting from new growth. These charges put the onus on the party creating growth to fund new infrastructure rather than taxpayers broadly. The amount of these charges vary depending on the neighbourhood, but for a new single or semi-detached dwelling within the greenbelt, the cost is $32,903/unit. These fees are collected into a budget which funds new growth-related capital infrastructure projects, such as the Strandherd Drive widening.

How do cycling lanes get built? 

All cycling infrastructure in the city is designed according to the current Transportation Master Plan (TMP), which was released in 2013. The TMP features a “complete streets” policy, which determines the role of each street and whether or not it needs to accommodate cyclists. This has resulted in some newly rebuilt roads being more inclusive of vulnerable road users (think Main street), while others have been a disappointment to many (such as Elgin Street) for its lack of segregated areas for vulnerable road users. 

How can we get more, safer cycling infrastructure?

First of all, we need a budget. Here is text pulled directly from page 6 of the Cycling Safety Review of High-Volume Intersections: “Currently, there is no dedicated funding to implement the conceptual designs developed as part of the Cycling Safety High-Volume Intersection Review. Capital cost implications for these conceptual designs could be considered as part of the Long-Range Financial Plan update, which is expected in 2022” (emphasis added). Unlike road widening, there is no real system in place to ensure that growth, or other means, will fund new cycling infrastructure.

Luckily, Councillor Jeff Leiper has found other, novel means of getting bike lanes built. Counc. Leiper has been working alongside Bike Ottawa to make the temporary bike lanes on Holland Avenue permanent. The funding for this will be supplied from the Jackie Holzman Bridge budget. Thanks to their work, the bike lanes were approved as permanent infrastructure at the November 25th City Council meeting (page 27). Councillor Leiper says “the key to seeing more cycling infrastructure in the city is to push for more specific language surrounding public and active transportation in the new Transportation Master Plan.” This new TMP is currently being developed and is planned to be completed in the fall of 2023. The City is looking for feedback from residents throughout this process, although there are currently no opportunities to give input. Expect more from the TMP this spring.

Concluding Thoughts

Cycling infrastructure budgets do not have the same level of security as other capital infrastructure projects, such as road widening. This reveals the City’s bias towards car-centric design, although the amazing work of some councillors demonstrates that it is still possible to fund safe streets—we just need to put in the work. In order to lighten this load in the future, our best shot is to secure strong language in the updated TMP so that we don’t need to fight for scraps to fund safer road networks, but can instead rely on a system that is designed to meet our needs. 

While the road improvements presented in the Cycling Safety Review of High-Volume Intersections might not happen overnight, if we stay on top of future developments we can ensure safer roads for all users in the future! Ecology Ottawa’s Council Watch group regularly attends committee meetings, so follow @ecologyottawa on twitter, Facebook, and check out our website to stay in the loop! 

Click here to stay updated and give input to the new TMP: https://engage.ottawa.ca/transportation-master-plan?tool=news_feed#tool_tab 

For the policy hounds, here is the current TMP: https://ottawa.ca/en/planning-development-and-construction/official-plan-and-master-plans/transportation-master-plan

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