Grading Centretown’s streets on safety: Active transportation audit looks at walking, cycling conditions

The intersection of Argyle and Metcalfe Streets was flagged as a particular trouble spot. Fast traffic, often coming off Hwy 417 and maneuvering through a set of turning lanes, and a lack of clear infrastructure for pedestrian crossing, spell danger for pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users. Photo: Kathryn Hunt

The intersection of Argyle and Metcalfe Streets was flagged as a particular trouble spot. Fast traffic, often coming off Hwy 417 and maneuvering through a set of turning lanes, and a lack of clear infrastructure for pedestrian crossing, spell danger for pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users. Photo: Kathryn Hunt

by Kathryn Hunt

Safer streets in Centretown was the goal of an active transportation audit that took place on August 7. A group of volunteers walked through the community to identify obstacles to walking, bicycling and wheelchair use.

The audit is one of a number of similar projects being carried out in neighbourhoods across the city. The organizers, from Ecology Ottawa and the Centretown Citizens Community Association (CCCA)’s Transportation Committee, believe that Centretown residents of all ages and abilities will benefit from greater choice in how they move around if they feel safer on the streets.

About 20 members of various community groups, including the Centretown Community Health Centre and the CCCA’s Seniors Committee, participated in the walk, and Walk Ottawa did their own walk through the area on August 8. While Citizens for Safe Cycling could not participate, they will be involved in future audits.

The audit looked at the condition and widths of sidewalks, obstacles to movement for pedestrians, bicycles and wheelchairs, the length of time people have to cross at intersections, and many other factors that influence the comfort and safety of people moving around in the street.

“In the last two weeks two people, a pedestrian and a cyclist, have died on Ottawa’s roads,” said audit organizer Heather Elliot, a volunteer with Ecology Ottawa. “It makes sense that we go out into the community to find the conditions that make these accidents more likely and get them corrected before another tragic accident happens.”

The audit clearly struck a chord with some residents. Many people who couldn’t participate asked to be notified about future audits, and after a member of the audit team was interviewed on CBC Radio One, callers contacted Ecology Ottawa with their own concerns about Centretown streets. Safety on the streets certainly affects everyone.

Ecology Ottawa and the Lowertown Community Association conducted a similar audit in Lowertown on June 19. The Lowertown audit revealed many impediments to pedestrian, bicycle and wheelchair accessibility which were actionable the next day.

The official Centretown audit report won’t be ready until September, but issues that were noted included many places where sidewalks were cracked, sunken, or had holes; the narrowing of sidewalk space due to patios on Elgin Street, causing difficulties in busy pedestrian traffic; and one intersection which was flagged as particularly dangerous, at the corner of Argyle and Metcalfe, where it circles the Canadian Museum of Nature.

“There is no crosswalk or any safety infrastructure on the northern part of that intersection and with cars zipping around the sharp turn, there are concerns about safety and visibility,” Elliott said.

While she could not say for sure which of the problems noted might be “quick fixes,” she suggested that the sidewalk issues might be among the easiest to address quickly.

On streets like Elgin, where more restaurant patios have recently been approved on a sidewalk just over three metres wide, pedestrians and businesses can jostle for space, while narrower streets with faster traffic can tempt cyclists to take to the sidewalk, where they not only run the risk of being fined, but compete for space and endanger pedestrians.

These issues would not be as quickly fixed as broken sidewalks, but data and recommendations from the audit could be considered in future redevelopment of those streets.

There has been interest in conducting similar audits in the future on Bank Street and in western Centretown (Bank to Bronson).

“We’re really looking forward to building community interest in seeing our city infrastructure support all kinds of users,” Elliott said. “Increasing active transportation can help improve our community connections and our health, and lower our greenhouse gas emissions.”

She suggested that anyone with questions or concerns about particular areas of pedestrian and cyclist safety, or suggestions for areas that need attention, should get in touch with Ecology Ottawa (ecologyottawa.ca) or the CCCA Transportation Committee (www.centretowncitizens.ca).