The little things Ottawa is doing to restore the human scale to its urban planning - 1

Every city has its share of megaprojects, tall buildings, major redevelopments, sports complexes, arts centres, flashy condo towers and starchitect-designed office buildings. But does every city have the sensitivity of the human scale, the feel for the fine-grained detail of its public realm, the attention to small things that add up to pleasant, livable urban environments?

The Canadian capital city, Ottawa, has managed to maintain itself as a truly pleasant walking city in part because of its growing ability to mind the small scale in addition to the large scale. In the last decade or so, it has made some interesting strides in the way it combines planning regulation with enhancement of the public realm. This series of blogs will outline some examples of what Ottawa has been doing.

1.    Making it easier to walk


Ottawa is a city of water. Its downtown core is traversed by the historic Rideau Canal, the Rideau River and Patterson Creek. As a result, the street grid has significant connectivity gaps. A few major avenues cross the waterways, but for people on foot or on bikes, significant detours are typically necessary.

In 2005, Ottawa opened the first footbridge linking both sides of the Rideau Canal between the University of Ottawa and the Golden Triangle, a downtown neighbourhood. The project waited over two decades for funding, and when finally funded, the decision to proceed was decried by some as wasteful. Once built, however, the effect was immediate. Now more than a decade old, the bridge (which cannot be used by motor vehicles) gets almost two million crossings per year. At the eastern end of the street served by this bridge (Somerset Street East), a second footbridge was opened, continuing a grid connection across the Rideau River along the same corridor. Within a year of opening, that footbridge (also closed to cars) is up to almost a million and a half annual crossings.

The City is now constructing (with federal and provincial funding) another footbridge across the Canal, between Fifth Ave. and Clegg Ave., linking an established residential neighbourhood with Lansdowne stadium and its redeveloped lands that include an outdoor/indoor market, cinemas, restaurants and shops, and link to a traditional main street in the Glebe neighbourhood.

Rethinking roadway design

Streets have, for decades now, been designed in accordance with transportation engineering standards that derive design elements like lane widths, pavement markings, signage, and other attributes, on “levels of service” which are typically only concerned with cars. Earlier in this decade, Ottawa introduced a “Multi-Modal Level of Service” (MMLOS) which allows the development of design attributes that respond to the desired level of service for distinct users, starting with pedestrians, then cyclists, then transit, then cars, and then trucks. This has been the backbone of Ottawa’s complete streets program. Every time a street is reconstructed, this new filter is applied.  The MMLOS allows the City to prioritize road users based on context and location, recognizing that there are places where cars clearly dominate, but also, that there are places where pedestrians clearly dominate; and places that the city wishes to transition toward greater pedestrianization.

An example of MMLOS that favours pedestrians, which is now typical of downtown key intersections with high pedestrian volumes, is that the pedestrian green signal will go on three seconds before the green light for cars. This allows people on foot to enter the intersection first, without being cut off by turning cars. Out-of-town drivers get caught off guard by this at first, but they instinctively figure it out.

An example of MMLOS that favours cyclists is the prohibition of right turns on red lights from streets that have cycle tracks or separated bike lanes. At intersections, there are bike signals that are smaller than regular traffic signals, and have a silhouette of a bike on top of the red, yellow and green bulbs. By restricting right turns, cyclists can pull up to the stop bar, which is placed ahead of the stop bar for cars, and comfortably wait for their green, which in some cases comes two seconds before the car green.

The MMLOS has also led to the adoption of a design standard for cycle tracks (the Dutch model of bicycle tracks located above the sidewalk curb but separate from the sidewalk), with the associated protected intersections in addition to distinct signalization. In a few key locations, the MMLOS has led to a reduction in car lanes and a widening of sidewalks. In such cases, the effect on the abutting real estate has also been visible: on Main Street (the arterial spine of a central neighbourhood, historically a separate village) the number of lanes went from four to three, the sidewalks were widened, street trees were planted, a new Dutch-style cycle track constructed, and the City received development applications for about 1,200 dwelling units in new midrise condominiums and mixed-use buildings, most of which are under construction as this is written.

In the next blog, we will talk about making it easier to shop on foot.