The Bank Street Bridge – a call to action

Photo: Bank Street Bridge is better for bikes and walkers during the pandemic – what can we do to foster permanent improvements? Photo: Liz McKeen

By James Grant

As we continue to deal with COVID-19, the relationship between cars, cyclists and pedestrians in our neighbourhoods has been brought into sharper focus. One of the few positives to take away from this period is that we have seen a glimpse of what our city looks like when it blossoms with more people walking and cycling.

Since I moved with my family to Ottawa three years ago, I have struggled with the city’s strong car culture and the reluctance to imagine a world less tied to cars. As a walking and cycling commuter, I lived through a transition a decade ago in Vancouver, and we will all breathe easier when a similar change happens in Ottawa.

Strong local advocacy and a progressive political movement in Vancouver pulled the streets back for human use, by reducing the number of car lanes and redesigning roads to reduce the ability to drive aggressively. Cycling became inclusive, in that everyone bought into the mindset that one could be both a cyclist and a driver, as in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. Vancouver looked outward to find expertise and inspiration from those European centres; Ottawa also needs to look outward.

In non-COVID times when the Bank Street Bridge had four lanes and I cycled in the shared lane (the one painted with green and white “sharrows”), I would often ride looking over my shoulder, ready to bail out to the side should the need arise. I regularly waved at people to slow down as they drove 60 km an hour and pulled up inches behind me. Or I pointed to speeding drivers to move out of my lane, which they would only do at the last minute while flashing their middle finger at me. I daresay there is not one reader who will speak of a positive experience walking or cycling over the Bank Street Bridge before the temporary lane buffer now in place made it a more civilized and safer journey.

The pedestrian experience on the Bank Street Bridge is also disappointing. After moving here, I loved the idea of bringing out-of-town guests to the top of the arc of the bridge to view the iconic canal and soak up what should be the pride of the nation’s capital. Instead, it is noisy and gritty at almost any time, with an ongoing game of chicken as pedestrians jockey for safety within inches of cars zipping along too fast in the curb lane. Instead of pride I felt embarrassed.

When car traffic returns to normal volume, I hope we will not let the opportunity pass to try to improve livability. We should take stock of how to move forward to improve the Bank Street Bridge and our neighbourhood instead of simply returning to the norm of “cars over people.”

Here are some initial ideas to start some community engagement:

  1. Bank Street Bridge volunteer “sentinels.” If we go back to four lanes of traffic, we should set up a rotating band of volunteers who are stationed on the bridge at a few key times of day to wave down and educate motorists. I believe a daily presence on the bridge will make an impact. Let us become known in the media and raise awareness.
  2. Give out many cardboard “slow down” signs to residents, children and seniors who walk in our neighbourhoods so they can help educate drivers on the 30-km-an-hour gateway speed zone. Drivers above the limit could be flagged down by waving a sign. Everyone would come to know what this sign is, and offenders could be called out and urged to respect their neighbours.
  3. Speed/aggressive driving reporting blitz. Create a campaign to get Glebe and Ottawa South residents to make reports to the police. Reports can be made over the phone at 613-236-1222 ext. 7300 or online at ca.

These are simple and doable first steps. Do any of these thoughts resonate to act at the community level? Email us at: trafficandsafety@oldottawasouth.ca.

James Grant is a member of the Old Ottawa South Traffic and Safety Committee and, based on early experiences in Copenhagen, believes in cities designed for walking and cycling.

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