Myths and realities about closing Wellington

There’s been a lot of discussion about Wellington’s closure to cars in the last few weeks.

If you haven’t been keeping up, new mayor Mark Sutcliffe called for Wellington to be returned to full access to cars in February—one of the few issues he’s come out on since becoming mayor. City Council’s Transportation Committee considered and ultimately passed a motion to this effect on January 26, and then City Council discussed and passed the motion on February 8.

In all this discussion, a number of misconceptions about Wellington arose, and we thought it important to set the record straight.

Myth: Wellington needs to be fully returned to cars so area businesses can get deliveries.

Reality: There are no businesses on this stretch of Wellington.

While there certainly are businesses along Sparks Street—one street to the south—they can still access Wellington by vehicle. (There’s signage that permits deliveries from 7 to 10 am [see image below], but anyone who’s gone through knows there’s a vehicle or two on there most hours of the day.) Note also that Wellington isn’t a truck route, and so it isn’t like returning it to cars would change the situation for deliveries by truck.

Metcalfe St. viewed north from Queen St., with a sign inviting deliveries (by vehicle) between 7 and 10 am.

Myth: Wellington needs to be fully returned to cars for residents in the area.

Reality: There are no residences on this stretch of Wellington. For the rest, please see the above on businesses.

Myth: Wellington needs to be fully returned to cars to ease traffic congestion downtown.

Reality: The City’s own report (PDF) states that “the current closure [to cars] has not had a significant negative impact to the transportation network”.

While the same report also states that there may be more car traffic with upcoming construction projects, this is backward thinking: traffic must be managed. More space for driving leads to more vehicles driving. This is called induced demand. Traffic patterns are largely a result of infrastructure decisions, and returning Wellington fully to cars would in fact add congestion to the downtown. It’s disheartening—and frankly baffling—why the City refuses to recognize principles basic to traffic engineering.

Finally, the City should consider restoring Albert and Slater to two-way streets from their current one-way configuration. Not only would this increase options for car drivers, this would also make it safer for everyone else. Both Albert and Slater—currently wide, inhospitable, car gutters (see image below)—would benefit from this treatment, but the City has been talking about doing this with Metcalfe since at least 1974 and as recently as their 2012 “Discussion of Potential One-Way Street Conversions in Downtown Ottawa” (PDF), along with other downtown one-ways. Let’s get on with it!

View of Albert Street looking east from Kent St.

Myth: Wellington being (mostly) closed to cars makes it overall less accessible.

Reality: Wellington being (mostly) closed to cars meant that people could access it by walking, rolling, biking, scooting, rollerblading, skateboarding, or just about any other mode you can think of. Furthermore, apart from the odd vehicle on it, it was safe for people—as indicated by the protestors whom you’d often find standing in the middle of the street. And once again, drivers still had access, if on a restricted basis.

When Wellington is fully returned to cars, it will no longer be safe for any of the above—except for drivers.

Myth: Wellington needs to be fully returned to cars so people can access Parliament Hill by car.

Reality: Parliament Hill has been inaccessible by car for years—unless you’re a Minister in the federal cabinet. Once it’s returned to cars, visitors will still need to park in a nearby lot and walk up—exactly as they do in its current condition. As for those who simply want to drive by Parliament for a brief glimpse…it’s hard to imagine that that 30-second glimpse is worth making the entire stretch of Wellington inhospitable for so many other people. Of course, the best solution would be an accessible drop-floor tram—as presumably NCC plans would have it.

Myth: Wellington needs to be fully returned to cars for seniors, people with disabilities, and Personal Support Workers.

Reality: To start, please see the above on residents: there are no residences on this portion of Wellington. If anything, fully returning Wellington to cars will increase congestion downtown (again, induced demand), and therefore make it more difficult to get around—including by those using a car.

Myth: Wellington being (mostly) closed to cars has made the downtown core more dangerous for people walking and biking.

This idea appeared in the City’s report to Transportation Committee (PDF). The idea was that because there were more cars downtown, there are more cars turning, and turns are high-conflict for people walking and biking. (Note that the report provided no data for this.)

If an intersection is dangerous, that intersection should be modified. For example, the City could ban turns on red for cars, or it could add physical protection, such as inexpensive and simple-to-install pinned curbs (think Laurier). In fact, if cars were fully returned to Wellington, there’d be more cars overall downtown—again, because of induced demand—which means more potential conflicts with people walking and biking. To all appearances, this part of the report looks like pedestrian- and cyclist-washing.

Myth: A biking facility with flexstakes offers protection to people biking.

Reality: Flexstakes only serve as a visual marker; they offer no actual protection, as would pinned curbs, planters, or some other physical barrier. (For a good illustration, see this video.) It’s disappointing that when Councillor Kavanagh raised this point to Council, it was ignored.

These are some of the myths that came up. We encourage you to watch the full proceedings linked above to hear councillors’ thoughts.

We’re disappointed that councillors have peddled these myths, particularly those with wards closer to the area in question; if they didn’t know these things, they should’ve—and if they did, why do they continue propagating these myths?

While it’s too late to reverse Council’s most recent decision on this, Council also made clear that this isn’t the end of the story for Wellington. We encourage you to continue following this issue, urge elected officials to make decisions that benefit all Ottawans and not just those in cars, and hold them accountable for their words.