parking in downtown Ottawa

The car is a ridiculous thing in a city centre, in a dense people space.  Tonnes in weight, metres wide in dimension, it is a giant metal tank better suited to landing on an enemy-held beach than for urban transportation.  Imagine instead of your metal can that you carried around a cardboard box the size of a car on your shoulders with you, everywhere you went in a city.  The absurdity of using this giant container for a small individual in a dense urban fabric is only masked by the vast overallocation of space to parking.  A trend which is now reversing as we start to make cities for people again.

The New York Times has a great piece on how parking lots can be used as spaces for pop-up urbanism: Taking Parking Lots Seriously as Public Spaces.  Because these blank spaces in our city centres are less and less useful as car storage.  There is even an event, Park(ing) Day, when people reclaim street parking spots for citizen use as mini-parks or other fun things.

Ottawa has parking all over the place, including precious urban spaces like right next to the river beside Parliament.  Overallocation of space to parking is a general problem.  But there is a particular example that illustrates it.

The Museum of Nature didn’t have to reclaim a space from being used for parking: it already had a west lawn park.  What a great situation to be in.  A newly-renovated building just waiting to have a revitalised green space to highlight it as an urban jewel.

But the Museum took a remarkable position: it must have more parking.  Not “we will measure the demand for parking” or “we will prioritize citizen greenspace” but “we assume increased visitors means we must have new parking, and since underground would cost $10 million we don’t have, we’ll obliterate the west park instead”.

In the centre of a city, in 2012, this is ridiculous.

For a Museum of Nature, this is ridiculous.  For an institution devoted to science, to evidence, this is ridiculous.  For an organisation that is supposed to understand ecosystems as a whole rather than just looking at things in isolation, this is ridiculous.  When we know that adding capacity to the car transportation system just induces demand, this is ridiculous.

UPDATE 2012-05-22: The Museum of Nature posted a West Side Update (PDF) on May 17, 2012

the status quo [will] be maintained with respect to the west side. Therefore, given the current status, and until a conclusion is reached with the NCC, there will be no public information session at this time.
Over the next two months, improvements will be made to the west side as follows:

  •   A contractor will be hired to remove the surface gravel outside the parking area, add top soil and re-seed it using low- or no-maintenance grasses.
  •   Leftover concrete curbs will be removed from the site.
  •   The parking lot’s granular surface will be re-graded and compacted to remove ruts.
  •   Poop and scoop signs will be installed on the site for dog walkers.

As the process continues to unfold, the Museum will provide on-going updates, through advisories such as this one and updates on nature.ca. A public presentation will be considered when there are final plans to present.

The Museum also indicates an official subsite for the West Side: http://nature.ca/west

Much of the content is provided as PDF with content protection enabled (e.g. copying of text is blocked), which is unfortunate. The documents should be provided as standard HTML.

There is a presentation (PDF) that explains their thinking.

Some issues with the presentation:

  • There is a built-in assumption that parking must meet current and projected PEAK demand.  There is no indication that having a green space 365 days a year might be more important than meeting the peak demand that lasts roughly 3 months in the summer.
  • They measure the peak of the peak – that is the most parking used, in the busiest months.  What about averages and minimums?  Maybe they tell a very different story about the capacity.  What is, for example, the average daily use of the west parking lot, over the entire year?  I’m guessing it’s something like 20% tops.
  • There is no indication of using pricing to influence behaviour.
  • There is an assumption that if staff cannot get to work by alternative means, the Museum must provide parking for them.  I wasn’t aware that it was the job of the employer to permanently protect their employees’ choice of location to live and transportation.  (There is an entire slide devoted to this.)
  • There is no statement about a walk shed – that is to say, there is no statement about the maximum distance people should have to travel from their cars to the museum.  There are two slides showing “nearby” parking but they are not to the same scale and in general all of the map views omit a clear scale.
  • There is no indication that, what with a childhood obesity crisis, it might be good to incentivise people to walk a bit.  They appear in “Loss of Privately Operated Parking Lots in Last 2 Years” to be indicating 350m as “Near the Museum” (it’s not entirely clear to me what they’re pointing at, the arrow is over Staples).  If I extend that to 450m, I get the lot at O’Connor & Gilmour and oh look big surprise, it’s completely empty in Google satellite view

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If I extend it to 600m I get the lot at Kent & Gilmour and oh look, it’s completely empty in Google satellite view
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In fact as I show farther down in this post, there are all kinds of empty parking lots all over Centretown.  A healthy city that didn’t say, want its children to die in car crashes (the single biggest killer of young adults in Canada) or didn’t want its children to suffer the health consequences of obesity might want to prioritise a park and walking over storage space for cars.

This is the public space the museum claims in its slide deck to want, in some hazy distant future (image below from the Centretown Community Design Plan)

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The way to get to that goal is to JUST MAKE THE PARK NOW.

  • In the presentation there is a meaningless comparison of parking capacity with other Ottawa museums, as if site location meant nothing.  You might as well compare suburban mall parking with downtown store parking and then conclude that downtown stores need to be surrounded by parking lots.

ENDUPDATE

It seems official Ottawa is only able to think of buildings as containers, not as part of a surrounding environment.  The new Museum of Nature is beautiful inside, but step west and it turns into ugliness, gravel, neglect.  It seems if we teleported most government buildings into the middle of a suburban mall parking plaza, they wouldn’t skip a beat.

There are many many ways to deal with the invented west parking lot problem.  The first as mentioned would have been to create a beautiful park and then measure parking demand and compare it to park use.  Another would be to close the west parking (e.g. one month open, one month closed, repeat a few times) and see if it makes any impact on visitor numbers.  Another would be to discourage parking longer than a “standard” visit time, for example $10 to park for less than 3 hours, $50 for 4 hours, $100 to park all day and then see how much “demand” you have.  Another would be to count the actual use of the parking lot and report that data to the public, noting both 1) employee use of the lot–which incidentally is subsidized for them–and 2) long-term parkers (UPDATE 2012-05-22: It appears they collect some of this data.  ENDUPDATE).  Another would be to report year-over-year maintenance and staffing costs for the parking lot (plowing, cleaning, etc. etc.) compared to the cost of creating a garden idyll on the west lawn.  Another would be to look around for parking alternatives.  Like say right across the street.

Opus right across the street has underground parking (I guess the Museum can’t do a deal with them).  And Hulse, Playfair, McGarry kitty-corner has an empty lot most of the time (I guess the Museum can’t do a deal with them).  Plus which there will possibly be a condo with underground parking where the McGarry lot is now.  Or as you will see, lot after lot in downtown Ottawa stands empty or near-empty, outside of Monday-Friday 9-5, as Ottawa’s core is a commuter core.  Which means that in the main visiting hours for the museum THERE IS LOTS OF PARKING EVERYWHERE.

Have a look (this is just me walking around downtown, I didn’t have to go to any special effort to find empty lots):

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Tommy & Lefebvre lot a block away from the Museum is almost always empty.
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Dominion-Chalmers church lot
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Hulse, Playfair, McGarry is kitty-corner to the west lawn
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And here’s the essential west parking lot, which at 7 cars, had more people sitting in its neglected surrounding benches than it had cars in the lot (Sunday May 13, 2012 at 1:24PM according to my iPhone)

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Note the completely neglected grass around the parking lot.

In case you think I hit upon an off day, here’s @BytownBanner observing 5 cars in the lot, on Victoria Day (Monday May 21, 2012)

[Aerials by Chuck Clark removed.]

And here are more images from Google aerials, just to show even more empty parking (and to show I get the same results when Google chooses the images as when I walk around).

The useless Beer Store lot
Screen Shot 2012-05-21 at 7.57.25 PM

Kent & Gilmour
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Derby & Gilmour
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In conclusion: there is no shortage of parking in Centretown, and even if there was, the Museum has put forward no weak measurements, no actual weak evidence of parking demand, and it hasn’t provided any analysis of the tradeoff between parking lot (a use which seems to attract very few cars and whose value would be debatable even if it did) and park (a use which even in its dilapidated state draws people and whose value is clear).

Close the parking lot. Test the results. And then when they prove you don’t need the lot, own up to your failure and make it into a park. Again. And by the way you might want to stop subsidizing parking for your employees.  And this holds generally for everyone downtown.  Jan Gehl, who spoke at the Museum of Nature about urbanism (yes, quite ironic) insists that you must disinvite the car from the city, in order to make it a place for people.  That a Museum of Nature would instead chose to have its grounds be a parking lot in 2012 fills me with puzzled sadness.  There are others who agree – Facebook: Canadian Museum of Nature Needs Park Space not a Parking Lot.

ideas for Dundonald Park

The next meeting as part of “Dundonald Park: Make a Place for People” is June 7, 2012 at 7pm at the Legion (330 Kent).
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Here are some ideas:

  • get rid of the fixed tables and uncomfortable seats in the centre, and replace them with movable chairs and tables
  • replace as much of the cheap aggregate (concrete), asphalt, and falling-apart treated wood as possible – in particular do nice permeable pavers in the central area
  • the garden plots could be extra seating areas if you elevated them (built them up higher) and put a wide ledge around
  • the areas around the trees will never grow grass and in fact the scraped-away dirt exposes the roots to damage, so put raised beds of pebbles around the bases of all the trees (another opportunity to do ledges for sitting)
  • the areas around the picnic tables will never grow grass, so put permeable pavers under and around the picnic tables
  • the number and location of the garbage cans is good, but they could use replacement with higher-end, nicer-looking metal ones, all with a Dundonald Park logo or brand
  • the aggregate (concrete) planters in the middle of the central area should be replaced with a fountain – it doesn’t have to be a fancy fountain, just something nice and simple with running water
  • The drinking fountain should be replaced with a nicer one, and ensure it is accessible – may need multiple heights to serve standing and wheelchair.  A bottom outlet for water for dogs would be nice too.  There should be some signage indicating the drinking fountain.
  • The lighting is crap.  Dim and wasteful (bulbs put most of their light up into the sky, not dark sky friendly and waste of energy).  As a bonus: more ugly concrete aggregate.  Get some bright, downward-pointing, high-quality lights.
  • Post signs with numbers to call under what circumstances (for example, if someone is being disruptive in the park, who do I call?  911?  311?  Bylaw?  Somerset CPC?).
  • Post signs saying how you can join e.g. Friends of Dundonald and contribute money or time to the upkeep of the park.
  • Some kind of food cart surrounded by tables and chairs in one corner done with permeable pavers (the park has lots of unprogrammed green space, it could use another space for sitting).
  • Have programming in the Beer Store parking lot every weekend.  Farmer’s market, children’s fair, pop-up coffeeshop, whatever.
  • A single striking piece of public art would be nice, ideally something that kids could clamber over.
  • WiFi
  • UPDATE 2012-05-21: The entrance area of the playground (the area just either side of the gate) needs to be paved, as it is high-traffic and worn down.  Right now when it rains it turns into a big muddy puddle.
  • Bike racks at the east end and in the centre.  ENDUPDATE

Other than replacing the lights, and maybe the public art, those should all be fairly inexpensive.

UPDATE 2012-05-20: There’s no reason that Dundonald couldn’t look like a corner of Bryant Park

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ENDUPDATE

If you wanted to go a bit further you would replace ALL the asphalt with permeable pavers, and ALL of the concrete-backed benches with higher-end ones.  And put in a carousel.

It would also be very good to replace the Beer Store and its useless parking lot entirely, with a six-storey condo with ground-level retail (it used to be a row of housing before the Beer Store).  At a minimum, price out the cost for the community or the city to buy the land and/or buy the store, see if it can be done with community fund-raising.

I’d also like to see traffic slowed around the park, particularly on the Somerset side.  I’d almost like to have a fence around the outside of the park as a whole, so kids can’t run or ride into the street, but all the urban planning advice is to make parks as open to the sidewalk as possible.

The park’s outer green strip between the inner path and the sidewalk is not really usable, particularly on the Lyon and Somerset sides.  In fact it is used as a convenient location for Ottawa’s ever-popular giant metal boxes sitting in the open. (They are sometimes traffic control, others I think are local cable & phone connections.)  This empty strip around the edge of the park seems a bit of a waste – it would be nice to have some kind of landscaping or something to make it more usable, and to get rid of the invading metal boxes.

William H. Whyte did great observational studies of how people use public space, mostly in downtown New York.  My ideas above are in part based on the video that accompanyed his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), and reading his follow-on book City: Rediscovering the Center (1988; reissued in 2009).

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In particular he emphasizes having movable chairs, lots of seating in various configurations, food vendors, water features, and high-quality spaces.  New York had plenty of (his words) “undesirables” in its public spaces – his solution was simply to increase the quality of the space, attracting many more people and outnumbering les marginaux.  He said very clearly that the only result of making a place unfriendly (by say having dim lighting as in Dundonald) was to make it a magnet ONLY for undesirables.

There are lots of good features to Dundonald, and with some more attention I think it can be a great small park.

Ottawa commuter rail is not the right battle

Canadian cities have limited funding options.

Modern planning takes years, both in preparation before the project and to complete the project.

Completed, funded plans based on years of analysis can be stopped, overturned based on a single election, even a single elected official.

Amalgamated cities mix the interests of suburban and rural, which are mostly about NOT doing things other than roads (and which prefer to not even be taxed enough to fund that), with the interests of the city core.

You want a problem?  That’s the actual problem.  We had a completed, funded, signed North-South LRT plan.  Well, really more a “shape of backwards Zed east-west north-south then east-west again” LRT plan.  You can read beautifully detailed reports built on years of pre-planning:

The quality of a city’s transportation network has a major impact on citizens’ quality of life and on the local economy, and having a well-run, well-designed public transit system that meets the needs of residents is critical to building a more sustainable city. High quality public transit reduces or defers the need to build more roads and offers significant side benefits, such as less air and water pollution, less traffic congestion, more compact and efficient development and the creation of high quality community living. With rising fuel and insurance costs, it is expected that more and more residents will want to be able to choose comfortable and reliable public transit to move around their city.

from Report to Council, 12 June 2006, “North-South Corridor Light Rail Transit Project Contract Award for Design, Construction and 15-Year Maintenance” (Ref N°: ACS2006-PGM-ECO-0014) by Kent Kirkpatrick, City Manager

And then.  The suburbs elected O’Brien.  Who had no plan, except an anti-plan.  To NOT do North-South.  What did the Report to Council say about that approach?

Option 3 – City Council does not approve the Contract Award for this Project

Some of the key anticipated outcomes from a failure to develop the North-South LRT project are (beginning in 2011):

  • The failure to meet Council’s 30% transit modal split target
  • The need to redo the South Nepean Town Centre and Riverside South Community Design Plans, which were based on a ‘transit first’ development model with the North-South LRT as the backbone of each community
  • The following north-south arterials, which are already at capacity, will fail:
    1. River Road
    2. Limebank
    3. Hawthorne
    4. Airport Parkway
    5. Albion
    6. Bank
    7. Conroy
    8. potentially those on the Barrhaven side
  • Connecting east-west roads in this section of the city will also suffer, such as Lester and Hunt Club
  • About 2,000 extra vehicles per peak hour will be on N/S roads
  • Most of the above roads are already operating at capacity today
  • Any additional demand on these roads will increase congestion significantly because demand would be in excess of capacity
  • Peak hour travel times will almost double by 2021, for example, 75 minutes from Barrhaven or Riverside South to downtown

If the City was to maintain the existing level of service, then the following roads will need to be widened in place of constructing the N-S LRT (although the construction of additional roads in place of transit is not in line with the 20/20 vision and the Official Plan)

  • 3 additional lanes per direction (in addition to what has already been identified in the TMP) for these roads –

§         Limebank – Riverside

§         Bank Street

§         Albion – Lester – Airport Parkway

§         (other combination of roads instead of the above would be possible)

  • Also some east-west widenings would be required to reach the north-south roads

In other words what it says is the obvious: in the absence of new transit, the car.  Now since O’Brien had no actual alternative plan, it took years more to get to a new plan, whose priority was: do not challenge the car.  That means:

  1. Wherever transit is in the way of the car, move it (in this case, underground).
  2. Only make changes elsewhere if it won’t interfere with the car (which means alter the existing car-free Transitway).
  3. Where capacity from the Transitway might temporarily interfere with the car, widen the highways and roads, because you must never take capacity from the car.

It is not so much a plan as a set of ideological preferences made physical.  Which is how we get an East-West “plan” that changes nothing except moving downtown transit out of the way of the car.  A mix of suburban and rural dependence on the car, and a childish “I hate what you like” ideology in which if the left likes transit, the right decides it must HATE transit.

This would seem like a one-off, if not for the fact that Mayor Ford came to Toronto in exactly the same way, except with even stronger rhetoric.  Funded transit plan in the trash, alternative: no actual plan.  In place of alternative plan, some jumbled together underground magic fantasies guided by a single vision: do not challenge the car.

Toronto’s councillors eventually woke up to the stupendous non-existence of a plan, to the obvious non-funding of an underground fantasy compared to a real funded surface-rail plan.  Ottawa’s councillors did not recover.  It didn’t help that Ottawa’s council had done a spectacularly bad job of explaining the original plan.  (To the extent that, even in trying to follow the plan, I had only a vague picture of an oddly-shaped route plus trains through the downtown.  Never once did I understand that they were proposing a surface tram network like in many European cities.)

Ottawa’s council failed to communicate their plan, Ottawa’s media failed to do a better job explaining the plan, Ottawa’s voters failed to embrace the plan, and Ottawa’s council failed to defend the plan after the election.  Yes it was surface trams.  Yes it was cheaper.  Yes Siemens had agreed to fixed cost.  If we could travel back in time with what we understand now maybe we would have chosen differently.  But we can’t.  THE NORTH-SOUTH PLAN IS NOT COMING BACK.  THE NORTH-SOUTH PLAN WAS SIX YEARS AGO.  Unless someone stole the DeLorean from ComicCon, we can’t fix this problem.

In place of the North-South trams we now have an expensive commuter rail plan.  It’s almost as if the right prefers transit projects that are 1) so stupendously expensive they may not get off the ground at all and 2) serve ONLY their suburban base voters.  Oh wait, that’s exactly what the right prefers, and that’s exactly what we got from O’Brien.

Mayor Watson, in case people have forgotten, was not too keen on the stupendously expensive part.  But he was eventually convinced that he had to accept the plan.  And so he’s going to build it.  But not for a penny more than the original 2.1 billion price tag.  Ottawa is a town full of people with expertise in proposing endless policy options.  What if we did it this way?  What if we changed that?  What if…  What if we endlessly debate the effing east-west plan until in the end we get no new transit AT ALL.

Having killed North-South, people apparently think they can just wish the East-West into being a different system.  No amount of “options” is going to make it a subway.  No amount of options is going to make it a tram (a tram is surface rail with frequent stops).  No amount of options is going to make it a system for tourists.  It is by design a commuter rail replacement for the existing commuter bus Transitway.  Moving a stop or adding a stop will not magically change it into something else.  A commuter rail system delivers commuters to employment nodes at 9 and back home at 5.  The current East-West system will do this.

The most you can do with an East-West commuter rail system is try to build some development around the stations, which I guess is one reason for the spectacularly overdesigned stations in the current plan (although I fear most of that soaring wood and steel will be replaced with concrete and plastic when the realities of a constant-dollar 2.1 billion budget collide with a construction schedule that doesn’t even start until 2013 and runs until 2019).  The mostly likely scenario however given Ottawa’s developers and legal-political development environment is that we will have ugly towers dropped from the sky near transit stations, rather than actually building the walkable mini-village Transit Oriented Development Holy Grail.

There is a strong historical and logical argument for making Union Station a stop on this commuter rail line, what with it 1) actually being a train station and 2) being right on the path of the line.  But apparently that would be far too logical for our multi-layers of government to implement.  In which case the debate about whether commuters should be dumped to the east of the actual train station or to the west of it (or both) is kind of ridiculous.  They will arrive regardless and scurry, gazing at their BlackBerries, to their designated work containers.  The idea that tourists somehow stumble onto this commuter rail system, and that they have an “iconic experience” emerging in a jumble of suited commuters to see the glory of… a War Memorial surrounded by Elgin Street traffic, viewed from narrow lifeless sidewalks… it’s ridiculous.

We’re replacing commuter bus with commuter rail at great expense.  It will be slightly better.  But it’s either that, or just stick with commuter bus.  There is no other alternative.  Watson knows perfectly well if he doesn’t get this thing shovels-in-ground, six years after the last plan died, the alternative is that we NEVER BUILD ANYTHING.

In any case, commuter rail is fine.  Commuter rail is nice.  Endlessly re-fighting a battle around commuter rail is, however, a waste of time.  The problem is not commuter rail.  The problem is the car.

Now let’s put this in context: the car is a great rural technology.  Getting from farm to village in a car on a dirt road is much nicer and more sensible than riding there in a cart.  Webbing the countryside with roads is perfectly fine.  The problem with the car is not the technology itself, it’s a technology mismatch.  The car is a terrible mass transportation solution.  The car is a terrible high-speed transportation solution.  The car is an absolutely incompatible technology with the city.  We didn’t know this at the time.  But we know it now.  Which means the solution is to unwind the presence of the car in the city.  This is actually easy to do in our pre-car cities.  (We used to understand this so well that most of New York and even Los Angeles was designed for rail – rail on the streets, rail across the bridges – rail which incidentally, and obviously when you think about it, carried more people in and around those cities before the single-occupancy car than the street infrastructure can move now, half a century or more later.)

(It is hugely painful to fix the suburbs which were designed for the car, but that’s not my concern.)

We already know that you can move more people, safely and rapidly, with surface rail (and underground rail where densities warrant).  I already wrote an entire post about transportation.  This is a solved problem with proven results worldwide.  It is not currently a solved problem in Ottawa, but it will eventually be.  The main question is how to hasten that solution.  That means instead of endlessly arguing about this imperfect-but-ok commuter rail, fight the car.  Yes I mean War on the Car.  Not on drivers.  Not on people.  On the car.  It’s a ridiculous 2 tonne metal can containing usually a single person.  It’s as if people entered the city on elephants.  It would be a fucking absurd transportation technology for the city even without the pollution, particulates, noise, parking demands and oh yeah CONSTANT KILLING OF PEOPLE.

So please, Ottawa activists, devote your energy as follows:

  1. Many fewer cars in the city
  2. Much slower (30km/h or less) cars in the city.
  3. Public space reclaimed for greenspace, childen playing, pedestrians, cyclists and transit.

Remember, there are no streets, no arterials, there is just public space between buildings.  It belongs to us, for a diversity of purposes.  We surrendered it all to the car.  That is the battle to fight.  Fight the car.