More sprawl will worsen our transportation crisis

There is a transportation crisis in this city.

We have a dysfunctional transit system, fragmented cycling network, narrow sidewalks, dangerous intersections, and streets almost entirely dedicated to driving and parking (even when nearly empty). These long-standing problems are being made worse by the need for physical distancing, and will become even more challenging as the economy reopens and we all make more trips around the city.

You might think this warrants a meeting of the Transportation Committee or Transit Commission. But no, the Transportation Committee meeting scheduled for last week was cancelled, as were the April and May meetings of the Transit Commission.   

What’s going ahead, on Monday, May 11, is a meeting of the Planning Committee, where the only agenda item is a report recommending that what we really need as a city right now is to lock in more sprawl.

Let’s not be fooled: we’re talking about driving-dependent sprawl. There is talk about building 15-minute neighbourhoods focused on transit, walking and cycling, but the reality is that our suburbs—especially the outer ones—are built for driving.

Just look at the 2016 statistics on how people get to work, as mapped by the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study (based on data from the Canada Census and other sources). In Centretown, only 25.6% of people drive to work; in Centrepointe, this increases to 69.6%. In the outer suburbs of Barrhaven’s Stonebridge – Half Moon Bay – Heart’s Desire neighbourhoods, it’s 82.2%.

How can more sprawl possibly fix that? It can’t. It will simply funnel more drivers into a broken system and make our neighbourhoods and streets noisier, dirtier and more dangerous for walking, cycling and rolling. At a time of shrinking municipal budgets, it will add more roadways to a city that can’t afford to maintain the ones it has.   

I won’t go into the damage sprawl does to other parts of the city’s finances, to our food security, to social equity, to the natural world, to efforts to reduce and adapt to global heating. Sprawl has always been a bad idea.

The sprawl debate is sucking up time and resources that could be put into adapting our existing transportation networks to life with COVID-19, as is happening in many other cities.

“If we’re willing to learn from this, it can be transformative, but I’m not necessarily convinced that all cities are really learning from this,” Brent Toderian, urban planning consultant and former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, recently told CBC’s The Current, in a discussion about public space and the pandemic.

“The cities that have been really hesitant [to adapt] in Canada—Ottawa and Toronto … they have a leadership that was very focused on the movement of the car. It does really come down to a leadership ideology,” said Toderian.

Janette Sadik-Khan, Principal with Bloomberg Associates and former Transportation Commission for New York City, has also weighed in, with a message for 500+ people who attended Ecology Ottawa’s #HoldTheLine rally on Friday: “Density is destiny, and cities across North America are finding that their strength comes not by expanding their boundaries, but by building walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible communities … Expanding Ottawa’s footprint could jeopardize all the efforts to build a stronger, more resilient city … .”

Most people have no problem with what Toderian calls “density done well,” but for years we’ve been told that we must accept all intensification, even if it flouts newly-minted design plans and the needs of the surrounding neighbourhoods, because the alternative is more sprawl. Now, we’re being told the opposite: that we must accept more damaging sprawl if we want to be saved from harmful intensification. As if locking in more sprawl will somehow put a stop to inappropriate development proposals in the rest of the city.

Damaging sprawl and unsuitable intensification will end only when City councillors decide to defend the interests of their constituents and the city as a whole, when they resist the loudest and most well-funded demands and do what is needed to help us weather this crisis and the ones to come.  

If they don’t, we’ll know who they really represent.