Will Sparks Street Open Up to Cycling?

Haarlem Grote Markt square is bike and pedestrian paradise.
The Netherlands’ Haarlem Grote Markt square is a bike and pedestrian paradise.

Ottawa’s Sparks street tweeted a link to a survey earlier this week.

“We’d like your help to improve your Sparks Street experience. Survey closes Jan 21st. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SparksStreet  #ottnews #sparksstreet #ottawa”

You will likely have noticed that the Sparks Street BIA has put executive director Les Gagné in charge of promoting the street, once the street of streets. I noticed a few cosmetic changes over the last few months and you will remember the New Year’s Eve celebration in Sparks Street. There were many people out to listen to several bands. (Tim Horton’s on Sparks was attracting a huge crowd too). The stage was placed near some scaffolding and one Provence (lots of blue and yellow hues I seem to remember) type restaurant still had its patio fences out, which brought the moving crowds to a stand still. But at least there is some spark coming back.

Generally considered a success: Sparks Street's countdown on New Year's eve: Les Gagné. Ottawa Citizen picture by Mike Carroccetto , The Ottawa Citizen
Generally considered a success: Sparks Street’s countdown on New Year’s eve: Les Gagné. Ottawa Citizen picture by Mike Carroccetto , The Ottawa Citizen

Gargantuan task

Les is facing a gargantuan task: you can invent all the wonderful things in the world, but if for example retail rents are too high, it doesn’t go anywhere. It is the classic chicken or the egg situation: actually probably not, as no retailer is going to start in an empty street if there is no clientèle. So Les has to bring the people back first. There might be one exception, and that is entertainment. Entertainment can attract people from relatively far. Cue Lone Star Café on Baseline and Fisher. I am happy for Sparks Street and Les that Les Trois Brasseurs/The three brewers moved in, although their entrance looks very much out of touch with the building they are in.

Les Trois Brasseurs on the corner of Bank and Sparks. Odd entrance in glass and concrete building.
Les Trois Brasseurs on the corner of Bank and Sparks. Odd entrance in glass and concrete building.

Close to Ottawan Hearts

Considering the number of followers and the interaction that @SparksStreet generates, Sparks Street is still close to many Ottawan hearts. That is a strength that he has to build on. There are no cars other than the illegally parked trucks, but they get ticketed on a regular basis. I suspect they are ruining the pavers by the way.

This picture shows the concerns from a research in Scotland. The least of their worries is traffic safety so let's no worry too much about what could possibly happen and focus on quality instead.
This picture shows the shoppers concerns from a research in Scotland. The least of their worries is pedestrian environment being unsafe, so let’s no worry too much about what could possibly happen and focus on quality instead. Note that retailers concerns are not what shoppers worry about, indicating that retailers often overestimate access to parking.

Some cyclists (disclosure: I suggested it and others reacted positively) proposed to allow cycling in the street and it appears from the tweeting that Les is not opposed to it. There is always the fear of speed, but that is unfounded. Unfortunately, either many think of cycling as a sport (need for speed) or see the odd cyclist cycling too fast. The latter observation is not justified. Cyclists will adjust to their environment as we know that in a collision we will fall badly. Yes, pedestrian accidents happen, but the vast majority happens between pedestrians and cars. (Statistic: around 300 pedestrians die in traffic in Canada every year).

In the city of Delft (Netherlands) the main market square was converted to a place for walking, sitting, cycling, reading and watching the world go by.
In the city of Delft (Netherlands) the main market square was converted into a place for walking, sitting, cycling, reading and watching the world go by. A 400 year old must see student town.

In modern multi modal thinking, the pendulum swings more and more towards mixed use of  public space. Ask City of Ottawa’s Nelson Edwards in charge of Downtown Moves. Countries like the Netherlands have many of those spaces that are only slightly separated from each other, through different colours of pavement, or there might not even be any separation at all.

Recently, Mobycon visited Ottawa and owner Johan Diepens told us that Anglo Saxon countries think way too much in separation of pedestrians and cyclists. Here are a number of pictures I took over the last few years to show that pedestrians and cyclists can mix. The easiest thing to do is to state that “it won’t work“. The more innovative and visionary way to do it is to start a pilot and see how it works. Let’s not be to afraid to experiment a bit.

In The Hague, shoppers and commuters happily mix. Does it look like a no go zone?
In The Hague, shoppers and commuters happily mix. Does it look like a no go zone? By the way, it is just above 0C/32F in this picture.
In Berkel & Rodenrijs, this used to be a a parking spot with a less than exiting retail experience. Now, people flock from other places to shop in this bike and walk friendly zone in the core. Parking is a 100-200 mtrs away and no one balks.
In Berkel & Rodenrijs, Netherlands, this used to be a a parking spot with a less than exiting retail experience. Now, people flock from other towns and even big city Rotterdam to shop in this bike and walk friendly zone in the core. Most parking is 100-200 mtrs away and no one balks.
Main Street Berkel & Rodenrijs converted from a run of the mill standrad two way street into a ped and bike zone. Only the colour of the pavement  gives an indication for 'suggested' cycling.
Main Street Berkel & Rodenrijs converted from a run of the mill standard two way street into a ped and bike zone. Only the colour of the pavement gives an indication for ‘suggested’ cycling. Note the complete lack of signs on what to do or not to do.
A large intersection was converted into a car traffic free zone, although taxis ans street cars are allowed. All traffic other mixes: yes street cars and pedestrians mix.
A large intersection in down town The Hague was converted into a car traffic free zone, although taxis and street cars are allowed. All traffic other mixes: yes, street cars and pedestrians mix. Again, virtually no signs.
That banner is a 'W' for 'Wien' (the German name for the City of Vienna). Two lines indicate a bike lane. Vienna is the host for  Velocity in 2013, after Vancouver hosted the conference in 2012.
That banner is a ‘W’ for ‘Wien’ (the German name for the City of Vienna). Two lines indicate a bike lane. Vienna is the host for Velocity in 2013, after Vancouver hosted the conference in 2012. No signs here either.
The small town of Holten where the original main street was converted to a mixed use walk and bike place.
The small town of Holten, Netherlands, where the original main street was converted into a mixed use walk and bike place. Looks pretty relaxed to me.

What stops us?

What we learn from these examples is that not all bicyclists are created equal. The sports variety is not going to cycle here, just as you won’t find Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 on Queen Street. The commuter might not cycle here too, but the destination shopper who lives in the neighbourhood or drops by after work for some groceries or a beer will. And unless they are desperate for a Beau’s, they won’t race. Remember that the world wide average speed of a commuter cyclist is not much higher than 16-17 km/hr. I bet on Sparks it will be around 13 km/hr. In fact, at rush hour, I don’t even go much faster in my car on the major arteries..

So, let’s go for it. What’s Sparks Street waiting for? More on Sparks street and its looks in last year’s post.

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9 thoughts on “Will Sparks Street Open Up to Cycling?

  1. I notice in the European examples, the cafes don’t have the fencing that our street has. Do you think they’d let the people go “free range”?

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  2. As to the mixing of peds and cyclists, I notice that the European examples have lots of space and there is a degree of implicit separation by way of markings and materials. Moreover, both cyclists and pedestrians tend to respect that kind of implicit separation, perhaps because most cyclists are also pedestrians and vice versa.

    By contrast, the experience of most Ottawans and other North Americans and “Anglo-Saxons” for that matter is that of narrow multi-use pathways (which rather puts the lie to the idea that we Anglo-Saxons think too much of separation, since we clearly aren’t doing much of it in practice). It’s virtually a ritual every spring for letters-to-the-editor to appear with pedestrians and cyclists complaining about each other’s behaviour on the multi-use pathways: pedestrians complain about cyclists going too fast and not ringing bells while cyclists complain about pedestrians walking abreast across the entire path and moving randomly (especially when a cyclist rings a bell!). And then there are the dogs. As it is, our two-way multi-use pathways would not even be considered wide enough for a one-way bikeway in the Netherlands.

    The other place that cyclists and pedestrians encounter each other is illegally on sidewalks, where the results can be less than pretty. If there’s going to be opposition from pedestrians to sharing space with cyclists on Sparks, the sidewalk experience that most pedestrians have with a few wayward cyclists could well be its source.

    So given the real life experience of most cyclists and pedestrians in interactions with each other, it’s hardly surprising that mixing the two is not highly thought of, even though it continues to occur.

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  3. To open up Sparks will require opening up Sparks…by that I mean removing much of the concrete “street furniture” and cafe fences. Like the Euro examples, subtle lane markings using pavers would work fine. I agree – just do it already. Sparks has been dead after dark for too long. Card free is fine but make it an attraction.

    Not sure I like the zip line idea but hey, why not

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  4. Yes, please get rid of the café-corrals. To me the fencing suggests that enjoying a meal or drink in a public place is a shady activity from which the innocent need to be shielded lest they could be tempted to join in. Oh, what a ghastly thought!

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      1. It’s provincial law for restaurant patios in which alcohol is served to be surrounded by a fence. It’s due to the general prohibition on the open consumption of alcohol in public spaces, a holdover from the Prohibition era. It’s so absurd that an exception to the effect that one’s campsite is temporarily considered a place of residence had to be written to allow alcohol drinking in provincial campgrounds.

        There is nothing within the City’s powers that the City can do about it. Council can pass a motion calling on the Ontario legislature to change the law, and that’s about it.

        The NCC might be able to override the issue if it owns Sparks Street, the restaurant properties and if the restaurants themselves are federally incorporated, but even there I’m not sure.

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