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When is a Walkable Shopping Destination… not so walkable?

And what does it really mean to live near a Walkable Shopping Destination?

You might live in a neighbourhood that includes a block or two (or more!) of shops and services that would meet the majority of your day-to-day needs (think groceries, local hardware, coffee shop, etc.). If they are located within a 15 minute walk/roll or bike ride, then that is definitely a good start.

But, is that enough? Do you find yourself opting to get in your car and drive farther afield to meet your daily shopping needs? Do you notice your neighbours doing the same thing? If you have school age children, would you be comfortable with them heading over to get an ice cream? If not, why not?

Let’s assume for the moment that the walk/roll/bike to get there is safe and reasonably enjoyable, and the shops have what you happen to want or need. But to be truly walkable, the time you spend at the shopping destination also has to feel safe and be enjoyable, or you are a lot less likely to make the choice to go.

There are a couple of scenarios that speak to this and that might seem familiar. Both are related to the idea of a “Stroad”. What is a Stroad? It’s a cross between a street and road. A street is a place where life in the city happens; cars exist, but the focus is on people and their interaction with their homes and the businesses that serve residents. A road acts as a higher-speed vehicle connection between two places.

A Stroad tries to serve the functions of both a street and a road, and ends up failing to do either adequately. Some refer to it as the futon of transportation planning. It prioritizes the movement of cars, which can pose significant challenges to the idea of walkable shopping destination. This failure can lead to local residents deciding to just get in their cars and shop somewhere else, rather than walking/rolling/biking to what is otherwise a walkable shopping destination.

The most common example of a Stroad is the suburban version. Consider most of Merivale Road, or Bank Street south of Billings Bridge. There are lots of stores within pretty close proximity to residential areas. But many lanes of high volume (high speed?) vehicle traffic, cars entering and exiting parking lots out front (and the ensuing potential conflicts with pedestrians) detract from walkability. So do large uninteresting gaps that need to be crossed to get from one shop to another. No or few trees to provide shade, and limited or non-existent greenspace. Does this sound both safe and attractive enough that you might still decide to walk there? Hmmm. Probably unlikely.

And is there also an urban version? Consider the western end of Beechwood Avenue or Bank Street in the Glebe. Increased density with recent developments are adding housing and of course, people, who can help to support and sustain local shops. That’s a good thing. But in addition to playing the role of neighbourhood “Mainstreet”, they are also designated by the City as Arterial roads meant to carry commuter volumes that tend to push or exceed higher speed limits. What is the combined impact of more people, more traffic volume and speed on the perception of safety (for you? for children? for more elderly pedestrians?). Are the sidewalks wide enough to include sufficient buffer or are they relatively narrow and crowded given all the demands of pedestrians, bike parking, sandwich boards, etc., At what point does this make walking from shop to shop uncomfortable, unenjoyable? Does it discourage residents from frequenting local shops and instead getting into their cars to shop elsewhere?

In either of these scenarios, maybe it is too hot to walk around a shopping street in the summer months because no there is no space to plant shade trees along the street. And the streetscape is dominated by concrete or asphalt, rather than green plantings to help cool the area and add to the street’s enjoyment.

Check out this great “Not Just Bikes” video for a detailed and interesting discussion of this topic.

So while you may have shops and services close by in your neighbourhood, there are a number of elements of a Walkable Shopping Destination that will either encourage or discourage local residents from choosing to actually frequent them. If Ottawa is to be a city of truly walkable neighbourhoods, we need to make sure that we get the elements that contribute to a successful Walkable Shopping Destination right.

~ Carolyn Mackenzie, Walkable Ottawa


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