Pedestrians First on Sparks Street, Ottawa

Normally this term I wouldn’t be writing a blog post on a Monday afternoon, but due to the flooding situation in the region, my office building was closed for the day. I had already spent the whole weekend in my house due to the rainy weather, so today I decided I wanted to make use of this opportunity at another day off to go out and explore. Thankfully the weather was somewhat cooperative: it was slightly snowing and a bit chilly, but this was better than cold, constant rain.

Naturally the tourist in me wanted to visit the Byward Market area first. I explored around there for a while – I’m not really the kind of person to visit the shops so much as the kind of person to just admire the buildings and enjoy being around people on the street – even if the weather is not as friendly as they are!

Additionally, I enjoy leaving my phone in my pocket on these sorts of walks. I am a rather stubborn person, and I like checking the map app only when I think I really have to (this is mostly to strengthen my very poor sense of direction). I managed to find my way down Wellington Street (heading West), and remembered from past visits to Ottawa many months ago that Sparks Street is close by, which features a pedestrian promenade called the ‘Sparks Street Mall.’

Where I grew up in Belleville, there is no such thing as this type of grand pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrian infrastructure is often limited, as it is in many cities and neighbourhoods across the globe, to sidewalks and trails only. The system we have built dictates pedestrians are the ones who must wait to cross a street after clicking a button, and after they are given clearance to go there is a measly 20 or 30 second limit to walking to the other side. Had one not pressed this button, cars would be free to cross the intersection as long as they would like – it is often only when a pedestrian comes does the light change. This tells me that the system is built for automatic transportation first and pedestrians second – there is a hierarchy built into the system which favours those in big metal boxes with wheels.

Of course I am not saying that this system is 100% bad. It does often make sense at many intersections to have traffic stop for pedestrians only when it needs to, perhaps because there are only so many pedestrians desiring to cross the road and otherwise traffic would be heavily interrupted causing jams throughout the network. However, this system is simply not completely optimized for both very valid forms of transportation – active and passive. Rather than creating a hierarchy – which, in turn, gives rise to poor attitudes about who ‘owns the road’ – streets and roads should be optimized and engineered to create a level playing field if you will so that everyone can easily and efficiently access their destination, whether or not they are on their feet, on two wheels, in a bus or in a private car.

One way that Ottawa is accomplishing this is with the Sparks Street Mall (along with, for example, bike lanes which are highlighted and sometimes even divided from car traffic on some streets). The Sparks Street Mall runs as a pedestrian-only street for 5 blocks from Elgin Street to Lyon Street, and is lined with many boutiques, delis, coffee-shops, and more. Though Sparks Street has existed throughout much of Ottawa’s history, part of it was dedicated for pedestrians only in 1967. This was done in an effort to revitalize the commercial activity of that section. From my walk today and from previous walks, it seems to have been an excellent planning decision if you ask me.

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Here is a section of the Sparks Street Mall looking West. I mentioned I think it was an excellent planning decision to boost commercial activity by making this a pedestrian avenue – look at the amount of people using it! If you’re not convinced, consider if every person were in their own personal vehicle. Now all I see in my head is traffic congestion. Opening this up to people and people alone allows for a social bounce-back against personal vehicle traffic and congestion, which enables a free movement of people following wherever they want to go without being stuck if they were in a car or limited to the sidewalk and crosswalks if they were on a street alongside cars.

Additionally – look at how pretty it is! It doesn’t sound very academic, but it is true; this is a gorgeous street (even during that rainy day). All along Sparks Street Mall there are flower planters, antique-looking light posts, aesthetically pleasing and kinetically engaging brick paving stones, benches, public art at intersections, and many beautiful architectural facades facing the street housing interesting shops, restaurants, and offices.

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Look at how many people there are in this image. If they were in cars, you can imagine how congested the street would be, limiting the availability of destinations. It is important, then, to equally accommodate all modes of transportation not just to achieve a social equality within a municipality, but to also allow for smooth traffic flow and to avoid unnecessary heightened stresses on our civic infrastructure.

Ultimately what the Sparks Street Mall contributes to (with respect to the focus of my blog, of course) is what is called a ‘complete community.’ A complete community is one that enables accessible transportation routes for both active and passive transportation users – cyclists and pedestrians, and private cars and public transit in whatever organizational or structural way that makes sense for that city. Because of Sparks Street Mall’s existence, there is increased pedestrian inclusion within those surrounding blocks for those who do not desire to use private cars or public transit for whatever reason.

Cities should strive to prioritize these complete communities for the benefit of all citizens. Speaking as someone who lives in an area surrounding by highways, it is difficult and rather frustrating to not be able to access anywhere truly meaningful to my daily life without using a private car or public transit. At least, it is possible to access these places, but only after forfeiting my safety, and that is not okay. Municipalities that equate all forms of transportation rather than prioritize certain kinds are setting themselves up for accessibility failures that unfortunately leave some citizens alienated without the proper and accepted forms of transportation in that area.

Of course, while addressing this problem, it is always important to consider those with accessibility issues as well. For example, Sparks Street Mall is not without faults – the brick paving that I deemed aesthetically pleasing may not be the best for those with mobility issues, where it can actually be considered detrimental to accessibility.

So, while you go out on your next walk or drive, consider how those using other forms of transportation would get from a similar starting point as yours to a similar destination as yours. How would their mobility and accessibility be impacted? What mode of transportation is considerably prioritized along your route? Would another mode of transportation be faster or slower, and why? What barriers exist to those with mobility issues? Keep an open mind about these things. You might be surprised by what you observe.

Below are some more pictures from my walk today:

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