The Transportation Budget:: Choosing Priorities
There's a lot of money getting around in Ottawa when it comes to the infrastructure that people use to get themselves around. Transporting ourselves and our many accoutrements around town is an expensive prospect, so it receives a fair bit of attention over at City Hall.
The City of Ottawa spends money on building the facilities and providing the services that walkers, cyclists and drivers need to get around each day.
"They're often interrelated," Catherine McKenney, Councillor for the Somerset Ward in Ottawa, said of cycling and pedestrian issues.
Several key city documents--some finalized, some in the draft unapproved stages as of writing, but all available online--help to break the spending down into easier-to-understand chunks. They help show where the priorities, and the money, should end up in our town for the next several years.
To start, let's take a few key numbers, from the City of Ottawa's 2013 Transportation Master Plan. This Plan covers the years 2014 (already over, of course!) to 2019.
$21.25 million: that's listed for pedestrian projects in the Plan. According to Vivi Chi, who works in transportation planning at the City of Ottawa, the City will use $13 million of that to build pedestrian structures. The City plans to spend the other $8.25 million evenly over the six years of the plan, Chi said.
What about cycling? It has $22 million in the same Plan. In mid-2015, Chi said that the City had spent $2 million so far, so the City would now spend about $4 million in each remaining year through 2019.
In that same 2013 Transportation Master Plan, the City listed $240 million of planned road infrastructure spending (basically for upgrades and new roads).
Meanwhile, the City's newer (and draft, as of writing) Term of Council Priorities document covers some of the same spending as the Plan. The Priorities zooms in on 2015-2018, and the numbers appear similar. McKenney said she was happy to see the Priorities included "winter improvements for cyclists," as well as building more links between cycling paths and other safe cycling spaces.
Where does it go?
Where does that money go? Consider that the City of Ottawa has about 5,400 km of roadways, or 13.7 "lane kilometres" per 1,000 persons, according to the City website. Meanwhile, our town has 1,580 km of sidewalks, the website states.
While exact overall figures are not easy to obtain, it's easy to imagine how the general maintenance, repair, cleaning, and snowplowing costs of those roads would dwarf the same figures for those sidewalks--not even counting the construction costs! Spending more on pedestrian and biking infrastructure could yield significant results, some local groups say.
The Healthy Transportation Coalition of Ottawa has asked the City to pursue several new priorities. These include spending more (to the tune of $20 million a year) on cycling investments. The group says the City is currently spending significantly less than that each year, which makes sense when you look at the spending in the Plan document and the Priorities document.
The $20 million figure, the Coalition says, would bring cycling up to a share of the City's overall transportation budget that would match the share of Ottawans who currently get around on bikes. Potential projects to invest it in could include construction to create a protected bicycle lane network throughout town. In addition, the Coalition would like the City to at least study the possibility of user-pay roads in Ottawa.
After all, driving sure has its costs, and drivers undeniably do not directly pay for all of them.
Pluses and minuses
Consider this short list of external, driving-related costs that likely are not entirely paid for by any city's road budget: car accidents, road congestion, air pollution, vehicle noise, ground vibration, barrier effects (new roads are a little harder to cross than your average bike path), land use (including urban sprawl) and, last but not least, water runoff from hard paved road surfaces.
Many of the above items carry real financial costs, like health care, that are hard to measure. Cycling and walking each carry fewer of these negative impacts (or "negative externalities") and generally have more positive impacts (or "positive externalities") than driving does. That's according to several studies cited by the Victoria Transit Policy Institute.
A 2008 study from Copenhagen in Denmark found that cyclists actually have a positive overall impact on a city, according to the Institute's website. The Danish study even considered lost time spent commuting. That "time" cost cycling some points in the overall score, since cycling often takes longer than driving.
Nonetheless, the other positive and negative externalities included in the Danish study, such as tourism and life expectancy, clearly added up in favour of the bike over the car.
Phew. Even if you haven't just travelled a long distance, it doesn't sound easy to compare cycling, pedestrian and automobile transportation in financial terms.
How much should be invested? How much does each method cost? Which is the cheapest--and is that low cost true for upfront costs only? What about longer term costs? How many cyclists and pedestrians are there today? Can more people be convinced to get around on foot or via bike?
It's that last question that makes investment--by the City of Ottawa and others--in useful cycling and pedestrian projects so important.
Out from behind the wheel
A simple factoid: as non-car options improve, more people gradually get out from behind the wheel of their automobiles and start choosing those planet-friendly options.
A group called Cycling Vision Ottawa explains, in an article on its website, how things worked out in Portland, Oregon. A study in that city, the group says, found that areas where the city's cycling "network is most connected, and where the quality of the facilities is the highest, display the largest growth in bicycle trips."
In layperson's terms? Build it, build it right, and they will bike. But what is "right?"
For a cyclist, you can state the goal in just a few words: "You do not have to go out into the road," McKenney said. Think about a new cyclist's experience of learning, McKenney said. Where would that person, capable but by no means an experienced expert biker, find it comfortable and safe to bike?
When her younger child started cycling a short while ago, McKenney said she soon got "a sense of where we need the infrastructure to get around safely" and of what links were missing. Low-speed residential streets, segregated bike lanes and designated pathways became favourite haunts. "I'm confident teaching her to cycle there," she said of such safe spaces.
Links to connect those types of safe cycling spaces are important, and the City is looking at improving at least a few of those connections as part of its planned spending. McKenney discussed one such plan: by later this year, the existing Prince of Wales bike lane and the path along Dow's Lake should both connect up, across Carling Avenue, to the existing bike path that follows the O-Train's Trillium Line to the north.
Linking projects like the one above do not eliminate Ottawa realities like occasional severe cold snaps. But they do help get cyclists there safely.
What about walking? Once again, McKenney had a simple phrase: to get people walking, you should build a place where "you like to walk." For her, that includes shady, wide sidewalks. Winter maintenance is also important, she added. During our early-June interview, she said she intended to suggest the City add more money for winter pedestrian maintenance in the Term of Council Priorities document.
The transit times are changing in Ottawa. In City planning and budget documents, investments in light rail transit (or "LRT") often dwarf many of the above numbers. That means incorporating biking and pedestrian concerns into transit investment is important right now.
"Oftentimes, we talk about transit-oriented development when what we are really doing is transit-adjacent development," McKenney said. Integration is important. Ottawa should ensure the pedestrians and cyclists--the people--who actually need to reach transit can do so easily, she said. The City must not let an unreasonable lack of winter maintenance throw up an unnecessary obstacle, she added.
"We need to think about our roadways as public space," McKenney suggested. Cars certainly need a good share of space, she acknowledged, but bikes and people on foot need space too. McKenney spoke about a 50/50 approach: cars would receive half the space on many roads, while walkers and bikers would receive the remaining half.
That notion would seem to fit a strategic objective included in the Term of Council Priorities document. The strategic objective prods the City to "integrate the rapid transit and transit priority network into the community...and to promote pathway and community connectivity."
There is indeed a lot of money getting around in Ottawa these days--and a lot of people on their bikes and on their feet. Whether the amounts are enough, and with the right priorities, especially compared to spending on roads, is a subject ripe for debate.
The LRT system is important and expensive. Proper cycling and pedestrian networks, that really are connected networks and not just isolated blips, and that let people get to the LRT system car-free in useful, practical ways, must be part of the mix.
"It's incumbent upon us as a City to get it right," McKenney said.
Adrian Larose writes on environmental issues.