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:

Katie on, ugh, snow removal.

Weeks away from turning twenty years old, I still don’t drive a car. I’ll learn the skill somewhat soon, but as of right now and in the foreseeable future I am 100% a pedestrian and public transit user. I really like it this way – while I may be bound by weather and transit timetables (and the rare occurrence of a possible GRT strike next Monday), I like the cost effectiveness of my way of travel and how it forces me to be outside in more social environments than when I would otherwise be alone in a car. Also, I’m an environmentalist, and that argument speaks for itself.

I enjoy my transportation lifestyle, but of course there are things that irk me; drivers who think they have the right of way when they don’t, late (or worse, early) bus arrivals and departures, and snow. I will admit that my opinion of snow is that it’s problematic in cities. It is only this way, though, because cities seem to make it so. That is to say that if there were better organization of snow removal, a minor blizzard wouldn’t be that disruptive of an event. Other technologies such as heated sidewalks are an option, too. However, these things can’t happen by the snap of someone’s fingers. This technology is expensive.

What I will focus on in this blog is the relationship between snow and the bus system. However, I won’t really be focusing on the mobility side of things, but rather the accessibility of the situation that snow creates (or, rather, the lack thereof). Everyone knows that snow throws off bus schedules by a little bit due to poor visibility and often dangerous road conditions, so there’s no point talking about that. There’s something else that has really bothered me over the course of these winter months: the lack of snow removal or salting at bus stops. To get you more engaged in the topic, here are some pictures I collected on a recent walk home after the bus:

You can see how difficult it would be to enter and exit the bus at stops like this, especially if you had a stroller with you or mobility issues. Take note that these pictures were taken days after the last snowfall after the snow had frozen over due to low temperatures. The terrain would be just as frustrating to cross in fresh snow, pure ice, and even thick slush.

There is a solution to this that the City of Waterloo doesn’t seem to care for (except at extremely popular stops which look plowed). When sidewalk plows do their sidewalk work, it should not take more than an extra minute to plow over the majority of the snow that currently inhibits the accessibility of passengers entering and exiting buses at those stops. In addition to this, to ensure that street plows don’t negate the work sidewalk plows have done (which happens way too often, unfortunately) better time organization and scheduling would ensure that roads are plowed prior to when sidewalks and bus stops are plowed to keep all snow out of the way. Also, where is the salt? The bus stops I frequent are not salted, making the snow and ice trek all that more dangerous.

You could say in response to this blog post that I shouldn’t be complaining about the snow because I choose to live in Canada, etc, etc. While that’s somewhat of a valid point to make (it’s a little expensive to move to a whole other region at my age, but sure, technically I could move away) I would argue that it’s important for cities to accommodate transit riders and ensure more safe and comfortable areas for people to enter and exit the bus. This should be true regardless of the weather-related situations these cities are forced to be in. However, these winter accessibility issues aren’t the fault of the bus service. It should be the responsibility of both the bus service and the city to provide safe accessibility for transit riders. According to Grand River Transit and the City of Waterloo, they are both committed to high accessibility standards, yet they need to work together on this issue to resolve it.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!