STO presentation to NCC on Gatineau west-end rail June 2020

STO presented to the NCC Public Board of Directors Meeting on June 25, 2020.

The NCC has replied with staff analysis:

including a recommendation that the entire segment in Ottawa, including the crossing of the Portage Bridge and any segment on Wellington, use battery power:

The tramway will have to be battery operated on the bridge to avoid any equipment that diminishes the aesthetic quality of this section of Confederation Boulevard.

In [the Wellington Street] section, the tram would operate on batteries only and no overhead wires or structures would be necessary, in keeping with the aesthetic requirements along Confederation Boulevard.

which would not have been my choice.  Much better to have overhead wires than to introduce more complexity into what is already a very complex transit planning problem.

Plus which, let’s be super generous and say Confederation Boulevard is 35 years old (“Planning began in 1982 and construction in 1985.”)  Ottawa had streetcars with overhead wires from approx. 1891 to 1959.  That’s 68 years.  Overhead wires are way more a part of Ottawa’s built heritage aesthetic history than Confederation Boulevard.

NCC summary:

A presentation was made to the Board of Directors on the Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO) study for a transit system linking Gatineau’s west end with downtown Gatineau and Ottawa.

The study

  • will help to determine the mode (or modes) that would be implemented
  • refine the corridors in the west end of Gatineau (Allumettières and Taché)
  • define the alignment of the future tram / light rail system (which will take the Portage Bridge) into downtown Ottawa (via a tunnel under Sparks Street or a surface route along Wellington Street).

The NCC is in favour of public and active transportation initiatives in the National Capital Region. In evaluating this project, the NCC will have to ensure that the proposed solutions comply with plans governing the use of federal lands.

The sections of the alignment that affect federal lands will be submitted to the Board of Directors for approval in October 2020 or January 2021.


The STO has launched a consultation on how the proposed tramway should arrive on the Ottawa side.  Should it go on the surface on Wellington or in a tunnel under Sparks?


For more information about STO’s proposed transit system, you can see my previous blog post proposed rail transit for Gatineau west end – May 2020 update to City of Ottawa.

NCC Interprovincial Transit Strategy 2013

NCC Interprovincial Transit Strategy 2013

Since everything that goes around comes around, having eliminated all of the interprovincial rail, the NCC circa 2009-2013 tried to conjure up some ideas about bringing it back, as a light rail loop.

There was no money and no plan so the whole thing is moot. This is a historical document only.

In usual NCC fashion, almost all of the documentation has vanished from the web, including the website

www interprovincial-transit-strategy ca

and the archive website

archives ncc-ccn ca/planning/transportation-strategies/interprovincial-transit-strategy

In fact the only thing remaining on the web is the summary hosted by Quebec’s STO – Connecting Communities: An Interprovincial Transit Strategy (PDF).

Some other sites have preserved the report: Action Sandy Hill has the full report in a Google Doc, and City Centre Coalition has all of the annexes/detailed reports as Google Docs.

I saved the presentation deck, and here is the key slide with their imaginary LRT loop.

NCC Interprovincial Transit - Infrastructure

That diagram is pretty small, basically the idea was that Bayview Station would be the hub with connections across Prince of Wales Bridge, and that rail would also come across the Alexandra Bridge, making a loop.

Here is a a clearer version, from page 52 of Interprovincial Transit Strategy for Canada’s Capital Region: Connecting Communities (January 2013).  From the Action Sandy Hill copy.  I have also put a copy in the Internet Archive.

Figure 12 NCC Recommended Long Term Rapid Transit Infrastructure post-2031

This post adapted from the NCC Interprovincial Transit Strategy 2013 section of my post Ottawa – Gatineau interprovincial rail.

What is actually being built instead

Ottawa Stage 1 LRT is complete.

Ottawa Stage 2 LRT is under construction, with a further Stage 3 proposed.

Gatineau has proposed a west-end rapid transit system including trams, crossing the Portage Bridge to connect with Ottawa LRT in the downtown core.

Big Ideas for Ottawa 2067

The NCC wants 17 “big ideas” for 2067, so here are mine:

  1. convert parkway lanes, or the entire parkway system, to separated cycling highways e.g.
  2. restore Union Station’s use as a (VIA) train station, with connections to Ottawa LRT
  3. replace the parking lots with the original symmetrical park (see )
  4. demolish L’Esplanade Laurier (block between Bank and O’Connor) and build a park to serve new towers along LRT line
  5. replace the high-speed arterials through downtown Ottawa with safer complete streets e.g. (also see map with arterials as red lines at )
  6. Make Gatineau Park a National Park (protected by the National Parks Act)
  7. Permanently close Gatineau Park to vehicle traffic; only active transportation in the park
  8. have a regular shuttle bus from Ottawa and Hull into Gatineau Park ; ideally with space for skis etc.
  9. replace current busy mix of OC Transpo & STO buses on Wellington/Rideau with a tram loop e.g.
  10. extend train service over Prince of Wales bridge to Gatineau again; but also have a cycling bridge at same location
  11. free Chaudière Falls (remove ring dam), connect to Rideau Falls with clearly signed, safe, separated cycling path
  12. separated bike lanes (cycle tracks) on Sparks Street, with good and safe connections to rest of cycling network
  13. well-signed, free public washrooms and water fountains throughout the downtown, along paths, and in parks
  14. Make Ottawa a Dark Sky Community, restoring beautiful night sky for residents and visitors – for more info see
  15. Make Ottawa a Blue Community, with bottled water banned – for more info see
  16. Make Ottawa a carbon-neutral community – for more info see
  17. Implement “Most surface parking should be removed from the plateau” from 2007 Parliamentary Precinct LTVP (p. 27) – also see image from plan at

Bonus idea: Clear (shovel, plow etc.) all steps, walkways and pathways, including in parks, throughout the winter.

The entire exercise is a bit puzzling as the NCC already did a big Horizon 2067 consultation.  Of note, in the 28 pages of the local consultation (PDF) there are zero mentions of the parkways, commuter highways beloved by the NCC and which many of the urbanist residents of Ottawa would like to see replaced with narrower, slower streets or replaced with bikeways (as I suggest above) or just removed altogether.

the sky gods are puzzled – Ottawa urban planning (built form)

This wonderful photo sums up basically everything about Ottawa built form planning
[Greber with a big stick]

Originally from Ottawa Citizen – Building a better capital – February 3, 2012 – text available in the Internet Archive; image recovered from La PresseLe plan Gréber dévoilé aux Communes – 08 mars 2013 (Internet Archive)

How does the NCC see Ottawa now?


Models tell us a lot about the people creating the model, and often much less about the thing being modelled.  In this case, to the NCC the actual city of Ottawa, the downtown (Centretown) simply doesn’t exist.  It’s flattened out, nothing but a grid of streets.  In NCC world, all that exists are two things:

1. First and foremost, CONFEDERATION BOULEVARD, a shining ribbon of gold where imaginary 1950s-era tourists in cars have Sunday drive promenades gasping at (a very select set of) built wonders.

2. Secondarily, the built form that NCC considers significant, spanning Parliament (which is fair enough) to… Place du Portage.  Place du Portage, an inward-facing clustercuss of 1960s era design that presents a blank yet ugly and hostile concrete face to anyone unfortunate enough to be outside it at street level.

It’s no wonder that if you think Ottawa is a golden street ribbon edged by two dozen buildings, you’re not going to do so great at urban planning.

You might say I’m not being fair to the NCC, that’s an outside model.  Ok, here’s page 18 of the 2005 Capital Core Sector Plan “[The Plan] sets out how federal government lands in this core area will be developed until 2025.” (Internet Archive)

AVPageView 06022012 92339 PM

And here’s a display from Downtown Moves


And here’s the 3D model for the LRT

twitpic 5r0uwz

There’s a problem with all of these displays: no one lives hovering above the city.  No one works hovering above the city.  No one travels hovering above the city (as much as one might wish there were, say, dirigibles).  People live at street level.

In his fantastic book Cities for People, Jan Gehl describes three scales in Chapter 5.1 “The Brasilia Syndrome”.  You can also hear him describe this briefly in the movie Urbanized and for a while you could watch a video of him in Ottawa describing the issue in an extensive, very funny speech. I used to periodically beg the NCC to put it back online, but they are never going to.  His presentation has also been disappeared from the web, so all you can see right now is the page where his slides used to be (Internet Archive).

The scales are:

  • the large scale (the entire city) – we rarely see much Ottawa planning at this level which is not surprising since the “city” is supposed to pretend it covers 2760 square kilometres.
  • the middle scale (Gehl also calls it the helicopter scale) – most Ottawa planning happens at this level
  • the small scale, the human landscape – almost no Ottawa planning happens at this level, which is a problem, because the small scale is WHERE PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE

The problem is that when you look down godlike, like Christos looking down on his artificial town in the Truman Show, it looks like you can control everything.  It looks like it’s all just a matter of arranging shapes and lines, and everything else will sort itself out.  It’s actually even worse.  At the helicopter scale, all you see is streets and the tops of buildings.  Check out the NAC.

Ottawa, ON - Google Maps - Mozilla Firefox 06022012 113405 PM

Wow!  Hexagons!  Cool!  But you can stare down from the sky all you want and you will never know that the canal front space is dead, blank brutalism, to the point that even though there is a public patio overlooking the canal in the heart of downtown, no one ever goes there.  To know that, you have to look across, look at the three storeys that span the the viewing field of people walking around.

NCC canal

You can stare down from the sky at some red zone called “Sparks Street Capital Core Character Area” and never be able to understand why it is a dead zone at ground level.

In fact, when you look down from the sky, people are either invisible or insects.  Watch sometime you are taking off and landing in an airplane – look at what you can see – what’s the first movement?  That’s right, it’s cars.  It’s rivers of cars that look from the sky all the world like orderly silent conveyor belts, zooming red blood cells in arteries, glowing lines of energy.

When this is your view of the city, it looks like the cars are what keeps the city alive, what animates the city. So of course you’re going to think the only things that are important are buildings and roads (ideally nice wide roads for the lifeblood of cars to flow). What did Greber think? He thought the beating heart of the city should look like this

206 confederation park proposals from 1950 Plan for the National Capital (Gréber Plan)

And of course if your view of the city is looking down from the sky, you think the solution to urban life is to drop new buildings in.
Now I have no objection to great buildings as part of city building.  And again we don’t have to have a special committee or plans upon plans to figure out what to build.  A central library and a concert hall for the chamber music festival have both been begged for (the concert hall only needed a few million dollars).  Ottawa is not short of ideas, it’s short of action.

BUT.  I disagree fundamentally that simply zoning, Section 37 (a way for the city to be compensated when developers exceed the zoning) and a few monumental successes are going to save us.  When I went to the SAW City Debates screening of Urbanized, Andrew Cohen and Barrie McKenna listed the usual litany of monumental failures: LeBreton, Lansdowne, the Daly Building, Union Station and so on.  This is a typical Ottawa lament (NCC Watch even goes to the effort of a catalogue of the NCC’s blunders).  Where did we go wrong, woe is us, etc.

Where we went wrong is the 1950s were crazy and the Modernists were crazy and Brutalism was crazy and ripping the heart out of your city for cars was crazy and tearing up working streetcar lines was crazy and… well, basically urban planning was shit for like 40 years straight.  But it was wrong EVERYWHERE.  We weren’t unique.  New York almost failed in the 70s.  The parks tourists flock to now were full of drug sellers and drug users.  Detroit actually did fail.  (Detroit whose impossible size and low single-family-home density, mentioned in Urbanized, are 370 square km and 1985 people per square km, as compared to Ottawa‘s 2760 square km and 292 people per square km.)

What was unique is we happened to be building our city, making our transition from a town, in the 60s and 70s, at the very height of the clustercuss of bad urban ideas.  Which is how you end up with all these inward facing employment-only towers and a mall downtown that sucks up all destination retail, and so on.

Ottawa is just Detroit, except worse by a factor of at least 10, except our single industry didn’t collapse and they haven’t been able to (yet) move Parliament Hill into the suburbs (although they do invite the suburbs right to Parliament’s doorstep, with sprawling parking right on the river, using land in the most scenic, most historic area of Ottawa for… empty asphalt).

Where Ottawa actually went wrong, where you can actual blame it for a unique failure, is that as everyone was pulling themselves out of their car death spiral starting in the 80s but really ramping up in the 90s and the 2000s, to the point where New York simply reclaimed an entire stretch of Broadway for pedestrians, Ottawa is still a suburban-flight, car-commute “city”.  You can’t just drop some building into this


and hey presto! Urbanism!  Because those red lines viewed from above are not abstractions.  Those are very fast mostly one-way streets where cars KILL PEDESTRIANS AND CYCLISTS.  Over and over and over.  That is the reality of the street-level city.  That’s why you can’t just look down from the sky at lines and boxes.  There are actual people trying to live down there in your SimCity.  And the cars pouring around the city and the lack of street-level retail and the lack of good local parks and the lack of all the things that make people want to walk outside at street level are what kill the city.

I told Cohen and McKenna their solution to monumental failures was monumental successes, as if some magical anti-Robert Moses was going to come and build only GOOD giant projects.  If I’d had time, I would have told them that their fantasy of dropping a stadium nearer the city core could work, but most times city stadiums end up being massively subsidized (sucking up tax dollars for decades) and killing the local area, not lifting them up. What I did say was something like:

You list monumental failures (which I agree with) but your solution
appears to be monumental successes.
You’re talking about the city as viewed from Google Earth satellite
view, I’m interested in the city that I can see, in the viewplane that
Jan Gehl describes.  If ten stories above me the building is ugly,
that’s not a big deal, if the street level is ugly, that’s a serious
problem.  Jane Jacobs talked about the city she saw from her window,
the shops and stoops she could see across the street.  What you’re
talking about is needing to find some Robert Moses, except one with
good ideas, one who builds grand buildings instead of highways.

If the city was a book, you’re saying it doesn’t have enough
exclamation points.  I’m more concerned about having interesting
sentences, about an interesting day-to-day experience of the city.
While I would love to have a great Central Library, if I have to
choose between that and an interesting Bank Street, I’d choose an
interesting Bank Street.

The New York city planner talked about creating an envelope within
which interesting street life can thrive, about setting the parameters
so that you get good design, how can Ottawa do that?

Cohen basically said it’s up to individual store owners and the
shopping choices of citizens.  Of which um, a little bit sure, and a
fair bit on where we shop (in particular spending money on the street,
not in the mall or online).  He also said that the city can play
around with street furniture but it’s individual decisions that are
more important.

But what I would have said in a followup was that it is unrealistic to
place the burden of urban design on city users.  The burden needs to
be on city builders, including the city and NCC (if they ever actually
built anything) and in Ottawa’s case, the developers.  If Ottawa can’t
enforce design, we’ll get lowest-common-denominator developer design.
If it can’t enforce zoning, we’ll get whatever giant ugly tower
maximizes developer profits.  If it can’t engage developers in a
positive conversation with neighbourhoods about building a liveable
Ottawa, every building will be yet another one-off fight about height,
rather than a discussion about using developer dollars for good, to
build a better city (a city in which, incidentally, developers could
charge much more for their new buildings).

So this is what it comes down to: if you look at the city from the sky, all your solutions are about big scale plans, wide roads, traffic flow, a bunch of abstract architecture BS that doesn’t touch the actual street level experience of being in the city.  We live in sentences, not in exclamation points.  We went from Robert Moses road heroics to Gehry Bilbao magic buildings.  That’s not how you build a city.  How you build a city is: constraints, culture and lots of time.  That’s why Lansdowne and LeBreton are so utterly disheartening.  You don’t do city building with some master-planned community.  That doesn’t work.  Ottawa is not Celebration (and Celebration and this kind of porch-front small-town America fantasy New Urbanism don’t work anyway).

What to do

1. Set good zoning parameters that allow for diverse use


If we can’t make zoning that survives OMB, it’s game over.

2. When there is a very strong case, extract maximum Section 37 benefits for any alteration to the zoning.


3. Mandate high-quality design, including rich, interesting street-level interaction, street-level retail, street-level beauty.


4. Allow important parcels that you want to be city-like to evolve organically

This means LeBreton should have been sold off in parcels with good overall constraints, to become an actual Market-like neighbourhood (as it used to be before they flattened it), not some Claridge condo tower in a field “we’re building the urban village any day now” disaster.

5. Observe, measure, engage with the richly detailed fine grained heterogeneous street level.  I know this is not as easy as the big sky god abstraction of looking down.  On the street there are actual people moving around, and they move around in the ways actual humans do (not, for example, standing in the middle of vast empty windswept plazas, as architectural renderings would inevitably have you believe).  It is hard work to engage at this level, to raise a street from a pure pedestrian corridor to an actual lively place where, as Gehl says, people linger.


6. Experiment and adapt

We actually, incredibly, did this with the Laurier Bike Lanes (Internet Archive, or slightly newer archived page).  No permanent install.  Just concrete barriers, some paint, and 2 years.  That is the way to evolve the downtown space.  We know how to do this.

Also, every time a regular streetscape renewal comes up, make sure you do it right.  We can evolve to a good town, maybe even a good city.  But it will take decades of incremental, thoughtful, adaptive improvement from the public and the private sector, not just some one-time solution that descends from the sky.

7. And of course, build and fix the obvious things.  Put in a standard transportation infrastructure and replace the pedestrian-killing (and urban life killing) arterials.  Put in the Museum of Nature East and West Lawns.  Get rid of the beer store across from Dundonald Park.  Build the effing Central Library.  Build the chamber music Concert Hall.  You don’t have to search for the big things.  We already know the big things.  Just fucking do the big things.


The good news is at the planning level, both the city planners and the senior NCC people seem to understand some of this.  But we don’t seem to be able to execute on anything (it doesn’t help that no one wants to spend any money on anything).

There is a lot more to say about the importance of the fine-grained streetlevel, but for the moment I’m just going to say please read The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jan Gehl’s Cities for People. If you have extra time, Greenberg’s Walking Home and Doucet’s Urban Meltdown also provide good perspectives and ideas.  Read Eric Darwin’s WestSideAction blog, he has a great understanding of street-level design.

And please, please stop fighting about spot zoning height and one-off street changes and megaprojects.  Fight for good enforced zoning, fight for loophole-free section 37 for (rare) cases when zoning should be exceeded, fight for street-level design that makes people want to actually stop and interact with those glorious new towers, not just zoom by them in cars or zoom up them in elevators, open a street-level store, figure out a way to bring Art-is-in and Nicastro’s and Saslove’s into Centretown, fight for a funded modern transit network, fight for the few big projects that would make a difference, fight most of all to move the street-level life and the urban culture increment by increment, adjustment by adjustment, so that in 5 years we’re better, in 10 years we’re good, in 20 years (I can dream) we’re Copenhagen.