“The Plans’ Fatal Flaw,” A presentation to the City of Ottawa Planning Committee on the issue of adopting a revised Official Plan
by Chris Bradshaw, resident of Sandy Hill, November 8, 2013
I retired from planning almost 20 years ago. I have used a good part of my retirement to scratch an itch that was already bothering me. I wanted to solve the car problem. Four of the five plans going to Council see it don’t see any car problem; instead they see a peak-hour road-congestion problem. They see the limited roadway space and think the solution is to build more roads and getting a few people to shift to other modes, a drop in the driver share from 55% to 50%. I see it as there being too many cars and having a roads that don’t work for any of the other quality of life metrics of the plan.
Cars were invented for rural folk and for those wanting to visit rural areas from cities, not to be used in cities. But it grew, as any market does, to fill needs that it itself invented. Using them to drive to work each day took several more decades. From the device to escape the city, it became more: the all-purpose family car, and now the indispensable personal car. Everyone is assumed to either own a car or to yearn to own one. Municipal councils’ role, historically, has been to widen and otherwise improve roads; you are a handmaiden to its growth, and more importantly your every action is a promise to car owners that you place their interests foremost, despite all the window-dressing about walking, cycling, and transit.
We as a society don’t understand cars. They are essentially personal possessions, but designed to be used only on public rights of way, and too large to keep in a bag or purse. They essentially convert public space into private space. Used in large numbers – as private ownership induces and enables – they degrade the places where citizens meet and do commerce, into corridors to be traversed as quickly as possible. Why did cars become personal possessions in the first place? Cars, like buses, as we see in car-rental, taxi, and carsharing, can be a shared community resource, like buses. Technology has arrived that can make it happen, both that used by taxi-like services like Uber to match owner with user, and the self-driving technology on the horizon make it possible.
Ironically, the City has a plan for walking, and another for cycling, but not one for either transit or for cars (which could address private and fleet/communal uses, although perhaps that could (and should) be part of the transit plan. I consider these communal uses MASC, or Metered Access to Shared Cars (in some ways they are more metered than transit, which does not base fares on distance driven).
By using MASC to replace OPOCO (the one-person, one-car orientation), Ottawa will no longer have a car population big enough to create congestion, and will reduce parking demand significantly, for 6-8 times as many cars in the population, thanks to the car’s mobility and its 22.5 hours a day of “inactivity.” Not only are there too many cars, each car is too big, as its owner chooses a model that meets the the most demanding (but usually rare) trips over 4-5 years, despite most trips being able to by done via a bike.
Planners accept the problem as being theirs because they assume that each person who owns one, freely chose it to meet their transportation needs, and that it is up to government to help them reap value from their annual outlays of $10,000 or so in insurance, gasoline, depreciation, maintenance, finance costs, and license fees, which doesn’t include the owner’s labour and his cost of off-street parking at his residence. Sustainable Prosperity’s Costs of Sprawl documents otherwise.
I’m here to say there really is no problem. How can roads be congested if the cars on it are mostly empty? How can a road ever be “efficient” and “safe” but be full of inefficiently used cars and drivers are moving at a legal speed ensures death if there is a minor error in judgement by either the driver or a vulnerable road user?
What can we do here? Perhaps it is inappropriate that I raise my deep concerns during the brief public consultation exercise of what is a “refresh” of these documents. But I can suggest a few changes to you, so that the next review will dig deeper and start earlier. First note that 95% of the capital budget for the next 18 years is being focused on the rush-hour problem, and the continued commitment to bedroom communities. [Sustainable Prosperity, based at the U. of Ottawa, says in its recent Costs of Sprawl report that rapid transit is actually a sprawl-inducing expenditure]. This plan is, as the introductory sections worry, unaffordable, not just to the City, but to its citizens, who have to own a car and buy monthly unlimited-use bus passes it they behave as planners hope.
What I recommend when you start your debate of this plan, is:
First, put back into the plan the statement that your first priority is to create a city in which one does not need to own a car or drive in order to live a full life (“car-optional” lifestyles, if you will). And focus the plan on the core metric of reducing car-ownership, through alternatives to private car-ownership, MASC as a transition from “car-lite” to “car-free”.
Second, drop all parking requirements in zoning bylaws, except setting maximums, with the expectation that off-street parking should be a privately provided commodity, and that with a properly controlled car population, on-street parking might be all that is needed.
Third, petition the province to revamp the property taxes and development charges to bear no hidden persuasions to opt for low-density, isolated suburban bedroom communities, including allowing cities to tax all off-street parking and require landlords to recover such costs solely from the parties that use the parking – including MASC users.
Fourth, formalize the hierarchy of travel modes (walking, cycling, and transit, followed, by MASC, ahead of OPOCO-SOVs). The upper modes are ranked in order of the space they occupy, the embedded energy & pollution of the vehicles they use, and their impact on affordability, health, social, and environmental “goods.” When reports come to Council for each transportation-infrastructure project, each needs to be required to justify itself in terms of inducing further shifting UP that modal hierarchy and to reduce average trip lengths.
Fifth, get a grip on the scale and location of retailing and other public-serving institutions. Bring back the old retail dichotomy – “Convenience” and “DSTM” (department-store type merchandise) — that belong, respectively, in each “complete community” (neighbourhood) and “complete” district (including the downtown core). Then look to bringing back the corner store to serve the sub-neighbourhood level. It needs to be studied first, and I would recommend going to my website, http://www.hearthhealth.wordpress.com, to see more details of what I call “DePoTs (delivery and points of transfer, which include functions to mail delivery and a higher grade of recycling, in the “Walk ‘n’ Roll City” essay).