View along a street of a group of people with a dog standing in the roadway talking with cyclists passing in both directions. On the opposite side of the street, people are sitting at a picnic table next to a pond with trees. The photo is taken near sunset and there are thin clouds in the sky.

In Defense of the NCC Active Use Program

During an interview with CFRA on July 11, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe challenged the National Capital Commission’s support of people walking, biking, and rolling, and specifically urged returning the Queen Elizabeth Driveway (QED) to cars. This outdated and regressive attitude is something we’re unfortunately used to in “Autowa.”

We encourage readers below to contact the mayor in support of the Active Use program. Suggested text for you to use is offered in French and English.

The first sign of danger are the mayor’s very first words: he’s “not against active transportation, but…” Advocates know that this phrase rarely bodes well for what’s to come—and the rest of the interview sadly confirms that fear.

I’m not against active transportation, but I am concerned about the number of roads that have been closed to vehicles over the last, you know, few months and even over the last couple of years. You know, the National Capital Commission has been closing more and more of its routes, and some of that has created, you know, problems for the flow of traffic.

So, Queen Elizabeth Drive is one example. It’s, you know, it’s one of only two entry points into Lansdowne Park and when there’s a major event happening if Queen Elizabeth Drive is closed to traffic it creates a lot of traffic on neighbourhood streets in the Glebe and a lot of pressure on Bank Street.

I’m continuing to appeal to the National Capital Commission to recognize the traffic consequences that result from closing a road; and, you know, there are already, in my view, great places to run and bike along Queen Elizabeth Drive. There’s a fantastic pathway right by the water which I use all the time, and when I am on that path and the road is closed, I don’t see a lot of cyclists and walkers and runners using the road; so, I don’t know that we’re getting as much benefit as perhaps the NCC hoped from that; and, in the meantime, it’s creating a lot of traffic pressure; so I’m hoping that they’ll revisit that decision.

Interestingly, the mayor’s only focus during the entire segment is “the traffic,” “the flow of traffic,” “traffic pressure”—apparently referring to car traffic in every case. Is this his only metric to assess the success of a policy? When reserved for active transportation, QED offers a unique opportunity for people to bike together—such as parents with children—since almost all of the biking facilities in Ottawa accommodate only single-file riding. Why should traffic flow outweigh the safety afforded by riding side-by-side, not to mention without the danger of car traffic?

The mayor’s comment on his own experience using the multi-use path (MUP) along QED is particularly telling, and there’s a lot to unpack here. First, not only is he using loose personal observations as basis for policy, but he also dismisses any data that would contradict his opinion. Which is unfortunate, since the numbers released by the NCC directly refute his statement : 126,600 active users used the Queen Elizabeth Driveway in 2022. It’s hard to call this anything other than a success.

Secondly, his view of the MUP as “fantastic” seems informed only by his recreational use as a runner. For active transportation, the MUP—as all MUPs—is subpar at best: the MUP’s narrowness combined with its use by both people walking and biking are a recipe for conflict, and indeed the canal MUP is identified as a high volume corridor that is in need of upgrade (see NCC plan, Integrated and Resilient Network). Going for a leisurely jog on the weekend and commuting by bike during rush hour are two very different experiences with very different needs. Residents, the local community association, and the local councillor all hail the QED active transportation program as a success, painting quite a different picture than the mayor’s. The only stakeholder group sharing the mayor’s position seems to be OSEG.

Moreover, the mayor ignores the fact that it’s the existence of safe and connected cycling facilities that creates demand for it, much in the same way that additional car facilities create more car traffic. By contrast, he doesn’t push for more road diets despite the fact that Ottawa is rife with empty streets, overly wide roads, bloated intersections, and half-empty parking lots that could be shrunk to make space for people and active transportation infrastructure.

Mayor Sutcliffe is muddying the waters by conflating mobility for Ottawans with accommodating drivers. Obviously this is problematic: cars are only one of any number of ways to get around—and of course they’re the most polluting, expensive, and space-consumptive. Even if the goal was to make driving easier, supporting non-car modes would achieve that goal, since it would free up road space.

There’s also the painful coincidence that this interview took place literally the day after we experienced the seven hottest days (average Earth temperature) ever recorded. Is the mayor completely unaware that we are in a climate emergency, and that almost half of Ottawa’s CO2 emissions come from transportation—or does he just not care enough to act?

The new reality of climate change is something the City had previously started to take into account, as reflected in the Official Plan objectives to reduce car dependency (see TMP, Guiding Principles) and tilt modal shares towards sustainable options (see OP, Big Policy Move 2). The same Official Plan even sets a goal to “re-imagine Queen Elizabeth Driveway and Colonel By Drive to reduce the roads’ importance as a commuter route in favour of pedestrian activity and greenspace connections”. So it’s only fair to ask the mayor what his plan is to meet those objectives.

So far, we haven’t seen any indication he has a plan. On the contrary, he rejects the low-hanging fruit offered by programs like the NCC’s for QED—a road which was never intended to be used as a commuting corridor. During his campaign, he dismissed the necessity to invest in biking infrastructure. When he had the opportunity to make Wellington, one of the country’s most iconic thoroughfares, oriented to people, he instead turned it over to cars, confusing “activity” and traffic. So we ask: when will he develop a vision for the city that goes beyond cars?

Mayor Sutcliffe could have taken the opportunity of his recent trip to Paris to meet with local elected officials to try and understand what makes Paris one of the world’s leading cities as regards active transportation and the fight against climate change. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is rightly recognised as a climate leader, so it’s a huge missed opportunity that he apparently didn’t.

If Mayor Sutcliffe truly wants to attract more Parisian and French tourists in Ottawa—the stated goal of his trip—pandering to drivers above all others won’t do. Parisians know what it is to experience a vibrant and attractive capital, and making Ottawa a place for people is an important part of creating such a city.

What can you do about this? Contact Mayor Sutcliffe to tell him how much you benefit from the NCC Active Use program, and how we need more safe biking infrastructure across the city. Suggested text for you to use is offered in French and English. Please also CC the National Capital Commission and your councillor. Fill out the NCC survey about the active use program. Join the Critical Mass rides (next one is 12 August at 10am). And keep walking, biking, and rolling!

Guillaume Gaillard is a member of Bike Ottawa’s Advocacy Working Group.