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To improve livability in downtown Ottawa, first slow the cars

We have endured years of speeding vehicles as “necessary” in our cities under the guise of economic activity and mobility, but the tides are turning.

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Few would disagree that the past two years have been exceptionally challenging for downtown Ottawa. Today, it can feel like a quiet shadow of its former self.

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Now, with the convoy cleared and the pandemic waning (we hope), discussions about how to revitalize downtown are coming to the fore. Many yearn for a return to previous times. Some are even calling for a mandated return of government workers to their downtown offices, seemingly oblivious to the ways in which remote working has improved the lives of many and eased issues caused by the mass commute.

What if, rather than trying to coerce people back downtown, we focused on a vision of making downtown Ottawa more attractive as a place to live, work, and play?

Revitalizing downtown cannot be accomplished with any single measure. Ottawa Council’s recent decisions to provide temporary free transit to residents, tax relief to businesses, and to close a section of Wellington Street to traffic will help mend wounds in the short-term, but enduring solutions are needed. Even before the pandemic, the challenges of creating a more vibrant downtown had not gone unnoticed: a multitude of city and NCC plans over the past decade have all made their contribution to addressing what might just be (lovingly) the most 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday, downtown imaginable. So, what can we offer that hasn’t been tried before?

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Downtown has a speeding problem. We said it. Let it sink in.

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Ottawa’s downtown streets, such as Kent, Lyon, Metcalfe and O’Connor, have all been primarily designed to escort commuters between the highway and their downtown parking garages as quickly as possible. Do you think motorists travelling at 50+ km/h have enough time to see the new business that opened on the corner? Or the children crossing the street? Human focus can only be stretched so far, and getting to the Queensway on-ramp as quickly as possible is the clear target at the end of those streets.

Conversely, go for a walk in downtown Portland, Oregon and you’ll notice a certain pleasantness. It’s not the milder climate or the relaxed west coast attitude; it’s a deliberate design of Portland’s downtown streets to “limit” traffic to 30km/h. Talk to Peter Koonce, the renowned traffic engineer responsible for Portland’s signals, and you’ll learn that this is done quite simply: the traffic signals on Portland’s many one-way streets are timed such that if you drive 30 km/h, you hit every green light. Drive faster and you’ll find yourself stopped at the next light, only for slower-moving drivers to catch up and roll on.

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There are many other communities, big and small, that have also slowed traffic in their downtown cores and across residential neighbourhoods. Vancouver, Boston, Rotterdam, Montreal, Oslo, Manchester and Peterborough are just a handful of the cities that have had success with reducing the speed of traffic. The list of cities reducing their speeds is becoming so large that soon Ottawa may be the odd one out.

No one enjoys standing or sitting next to a road of fast-moving traffic. We have endured it as “necessary” in our cities under the guise of economic activity and mobility, but the tides are turning. With improving options for active transportation and transit, driving downtown is no longer the obvious choice for many it might have been even a decade ago.

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We say we should demand more of our downtown streets to set them up for success: rather than traffic thoroughfares for commuters, they must first be livable places for thousands of current and future downtown residents. Everyone benefits from slower speeds: residents and visitors have quieter, calmer streets to enjoy; cyclists are more comfortable; children can safely walk or roll to school; and businesses get more eyes on their storefronts.

And thus, we arrive face-to-face with our opportunity. To kickstart a change in the vitality of downtown Ottawa, start with a simple fix: slow the cars.

Matt Pinder (@MattPinder1) and Justin Goulding (@just.gould) are transportation professionals who have worked for municipalities across North America to help them re-think the way people move in their communities.