Time to Face the Street

If there’s one thing everyone on the planet can agree on, it’s that we all hate traffic. We hate being in it, we hate being near it. No one wants to live on a trafficky street, no one wants their business on a trafficky street.

"the addition of footpaths to link cul-de-sacs into the rest of the street grid would do wonders to encourage more bike and foot use."

The perennial problem of town planners is how to allow the unimpeded flow of movement through a town, without putting all that “flow” in front of anyone’s house or business. The 1980s and 90s in Ottawa saw a new solution to the problem: build wide, uninterrupted roads for fast-moving traffic, and build the housing with its back to all the resulting nastiness. For good measure, add berms and fences, lest anyone get the crazy idea of going out their back yard to catch a bus on the main street.

"The perennial problem of town planners is how to allow the unimpeded flow of movement through a town, without putting all that “flow” in front of anyone’s house or business."

These streetscapes exist in pockets on Smyth, Walkley, Johnston, and Heron, the part of town I’m most familiar with. One very pure example of it I found on Google Maps, is on Earl Armstrong where it passes through Riverside South. I can see the appeal of this design. The residential enclaves off the boulevard are self-contained and don’t directly lead anywhere, so they are quiet as anything, the only traffic coming from the residents themselves. For road hockey on a Saturday afternoon, you can’t do much better.


But this solution came at a cost. The route into these enclaves is seldom off the main road, as this would lead to the dreaded “cut-throughs”: a term coined for non-residents of the subdivision using the road to get through to their destination. (Which is sort of what roads are for…) Access into the subdivision is deliberately circuitous and inconvenient. Residents of the subdivision who may live within metres of the main road, must take a roundabout route to access the main road from one of its crossroads. What might be a hundred-metre trip becomes more like a kilometre, and residents become understandably unwilling to make any trips out of their subdivision without a car. Kids and teenagers develop the habit of asking to be driven everywhere instead of figuring out how to make the trip on their own. This all leads to an unnecessary increase in overall vehicle miles travelled, by everyone in the subdivision.

"Deprived of the presence of adjacent homes or businesses, the road becomes barren, deserted and dangerous. Any talk of bus shelters, bike paths or trees becomes absurd in such a detested environment."

The worst effects, of course, show up on the main road itself. Deprived of the presence of adjacent homes or businesses, the road becomes barren, deserted and dangerous. Any talk of bus shelters, bike paths or trees becomes absurd in such a detested environment. With no businesses or houses facing it, the road becomes abandoned by pedestrians, unloved and even feared. The speed with which drivers try to flee this landscape is a testament to how much people hate being in these places.



“But it’s just a road”, you may be thinking. “Why should anyone have affection for a road anyway?” But let me put it another way around: why spend precious resources to pave places that everyone hates and wants to escape from? If we’re going to pave, how about paving places to be in? Wide urban boulevards exist in many cities, but if they want pedestrians, they include trees, bike lanes, wide sidewalks and street cars.


In my very first blog for Walkable Ottawa, I suggested that the addition of footpaths to link cul-de-sacs into the rest of the street grid would do wonders to encourage more bike and foot use. I hope this comes to pass one day. And going forward, we should not be building any new stuff that doesn’t face the street.


~JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa