By Nick Grover

Planning in the City of Ottawa routinely ignores climate change and public transit. And that’s no surprise, given city council’s political commitment to our high carbon, car-centric transport system — and the constant expansion of pavement over green space it requires. As parts of Canada burn, summer headlines in Ottawa include several recent proposals to pave over green space to make room for more cars.

It’s time to stop debating whether parking complexes should be located above or below ground, over this habitat or that one, and call into question the expansion of car infrastructure altogether.

The first instance of this is the reckless plan that would see a BMW dealership expand its parking lot further into the Hunt Club forest, felling four acres of red pine trees to sell more cars. Another is the provision in the Ottawa Hospital development plan to place a four story parking garage over the Queen Juliana Park, near Dow’s Lake. Meanwhile, planners make “no guarantee” about convenient access to the future Trillium Line extension via the south side of Carling Avenue, which would make it easier for visitors and staff to get to the site by transit.  

These two applications will appear before the Planning Committee in the fall, and vocal community organizing practically guarantees they will face opposition. Whether councillors will listen is less certain.

It’s time to stop debating whether parking complexes should be located above or below ground, over this habitat or that one, and call into question the expansion of car infrastructure altogether. 

We are in a climate crisis and transportation is the single largest source of carbon emissions in Ontario, with private vehicles accounting for the vast majority. There is no way to meaningfully reduce emissions without getting people out of cars and onto public transit. 

The largest emitting sectors in Ontario are transportation at 35% of emissions, heavy industries (including iron, steel, and chemicals) at 24%, and buildings (residential and commercial) at 22%. Source: Ontario Energy Profile

Electric cars are a false solution to these challenges. As personal vehicles, they still require far more resources per person than buses. And they generate incessant pressure to expand roads and parking lots into green space.  

Planning must make driving less convenient and public transit more attractive. A straightforward approach is to limit parking space and redirect money towards improving transit reliability and accessibility. 

In the Ottawa Hospital case, planners must narrow the distance between the LRT stop and the hospital. The city should also explore ideas like shuttle buses, a covered moving sidewalk, and on-site covered and heated bus stations. OC Transpo should also increase the number of direct bus routes to the current and future hospital campus, for example by restoring Route 3 along Prince of Wales. 

Hospitals are often dependent on parking fees to shore up their budgets, but they shouldn’t have to be. The federal and provincial governments should step up to ensure we are addressing and reversing the health impacts of pollution and climate change, not letting healthcare be indirectly funded by it.

To entice transit use, and as a gesture of thanks for their work during the pandemic, the city should provide free bus passes to all hospital staff.

This would complement the demand made recently by dozens of community associations for free transit for social assistance recipients. Getting to medical appointments, like vaccinations, should not be accompanied by concerns over whether the fare is worth the trip, having exact change, dealing with ticket transfers, or malfunctioning cards and scanners. 

Taking the bus should be easy and accessible. Once it is, we’ll likely see more transit riders and less pollution from cars.

2016 Ottawa Census Data compared to Ontario, on the main modes of transportation to work. Source: Census 2016

Instead, the city betrays its affinity for cars over climate with its numerous road widening projects as well. Take the proposal to expand Brian Coburn Boulevard from four lanes to six into the Mer Bleue wetlands, for example. 

Despite intentions to relieve congestion, widened roads consistently attract new traffic and are packed with cars again before long. While the plan also includes two dedicated bus lanes — which we absolutely need to improve service reliability — it should not be at the expense of green space. 

If the city is serious about reducing traffic congestion, they should convert existing car lanes into bus lanes rather than widen roads. It may seem counterintuitive, but a 2001 study confirmed that when road space is repurposed for buses, bikes, or walking, there was less congestion on the target street and surrounding area. Traffic was reduced by 22% on average and 11% most consistently, reducing pollution and increasing road safety.

Put simply, “if we build it they will come.” Specific design schemes matter, but the evidence shows shifting to sustainable transport is possible with some creative thinking. 

Designing for sustainable, multi-modal communities. Illustration: Crystal Yung

This city will tackle neither congestion or pollution by continuing to prioritize car infrastructure. Millions of tax dollars are spent on new roads and parking lots for drivers, while transit riders get fare hikes and service cuts to an already unreliable system. If Ottawans had a choice — between reliable, comfortable, and affordable public transit or spending the $8,000 it costs on average to keep a car on the road — many would choose the former over the latter, saving our green spaces and reducing our climate impact in the process.

Nick Grover is a member of Free Transit Ottawa, a grassroots community group advocating for affordable, reliable, and accessible transit in the city of Ottawa.

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