Ottawa Citizen: Healthy Ottawa – Let's make it safer to move around the city

By Brigitte Pellerin
Photo by Ashley Fraser, Postmedia

The trick to helping a population become healthier isn’t to make everyone do jumping jacks. It’s to design our public spaces in ways that naturally nudge us into moving around more without having to think about it.

Good health doesn’t necessarily mean grinding it out at the gym three times a week. We’d do better for ourselves — and our environment — by prioritizing transit, active transportation and urban design that encourages everyone to move naturally.

The trick to help a city’s population become healthier isn’t to make everyone do jumping jacks. It’s to design our public spaces in ways that naturally nudge us into moving around more without having to think about it.

The City of Ottawa has ambitious goals to increase active transportation (that is, walking, biking, using public transit). Additionally, the new official plan will focus on creating complete “15-minute neighbourhoods” where everything you need on a daily basis is within a short walk, decreasing our dependence on cars.

This is great. But in order for it to work, it needs to be — and feel — safe. This summer has been a difficult one, with three cyclist deaths including that of a 13-year-old boy in Orléans.

Every time you discuss cyclist safety, someone pops up to say that cyclists need to obey the rules of the road like the rest of us. I agree. They shouldn’t ride on sidewalks either – unless the road is really not safe and there are no pedestrians.

There is one break for cyclists I’d recommend – something known as the Idaho stop. Basically, it says that if a cyclist comes to an intersection where there is nobody else around, the cyclist doesn’t have to come to a full stop. This rule is advantageous to cyclists as it lets them keep their momentum when it is safe to do so. Several U.S. states have implemented the rule in recent months and so far it appears to be working well.

We’re not starting from scratch in Ottawa, where we already have a healthy cycling community and a good number of paths. Érinn Cunningham, a board member of Bike Ottawa, says the Laurier bike lanes, multi-use pathways along the O-Train and some sections of the Transitway are “a good start at building some important active transportation links.”

But much remains to be done, especially in connecting those various paths to one another and improving winter maintenance on pathways and sidewalks.

Here’s another beautiful idea: City council approved a three-year pilot project in April that would let people leave their vehicle at Andrew Haydon Park and cycle the rest of the way downtown. This could start next spring, said Vivi Chi, director of Transportation Planning, subject to various approvals. Estimated cost? $11,000, plus staff time.

Bringing back a bike-share program after VeloGO left Ottawa this year (for reasons nobody can explain) is something Coun. Catherine McKenney would like to see, suggesting we could encourage firms “by offering right-of-way for a very nominal fee.” She also believes the city should invest in bike-sharing “at all LRT stations to expand the reach of riders who would cycle to take the train.”

But if we are to get serious about safety, we need to commit to Vision Zero.

Vision Zero is, above all, a principle, one that forces us to challenge the assumption that road-related deaths are to be expected, that they are a tragic, horrifying cost to mobility. They’re not.

Accidents are inevitable, sure. But deaths aren’t. That’s the basic idea, which you achieve by designing infrastructure that assumes people will make mistakes. This means, among other things, bringing in lower speed limits, segregated bike lanes and raised crosswalks. Or banning right turns on red anywhere there are pedestrians or cyclists.

Sweden pioneered Vision Zero about 20 years ago and since then, the country has reportedly halved its traffic deaths.

Edmonton was the first Canadian city to adopt the concept in 2015 and the idea is spreading to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and Kingston. McKenney has been pushing her Ottawa Council colleagues to implement it here as well, but in June they decided to refer the idea to staff. It should come to the Transportation Committee in the fall, she said, and, if passed, will then go to city council.

Safety-conscious design is a great idea that, when coupled with proper road-safety behaviour and mutual respect on the part of everyone, should make the time we spend on our streets safer, more congenial and healthier.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer who wants this city to be the healthiest in Canada. Her series appears on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Catherine McKenney