Op-Ed Article

Published on December 22, 2020

Throughout the year, Canadian cities and their residents have grappled with how to make the urban experience more liveable in the time of COVID-19.

Armed with new data on a seven-month experiment in active transportation and livability, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has some ideas on the new normal cities may wish to imagine, even once the pandemic is over. From Spring to Autumn 2020, the NCC opened its parkways to people, closing the majority of its 100 kilometres of roadways to cars at various times throughout the week, the highest percentage of any jurisdiction in Canada. By reserving these spaces for active use – from cycling to roller-skiing to walking – the initiative enabled more than 700,000 safe, pleasant, outdoor visits to our parkways for our residents and visitors. Some 8,000 of those visitors responded to an online survey, the results of which we think are relevant well beyond the nation’s capital.

Two of our major urban east-west roadways were closed to cars during the day on weekends. An additional 2.5-km stretch along the Rideau Canal was closed every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the summer. In Gatineau Park, a massive protected area close to the capital’s urban core, the scenic parkways that traverse the southern end of the park were made accessible only to active users, except on Sunday afternoons.

What did we learn?

Ninety-five per cent of respondents supported the initiative – for many reasons. Chief among them was the opportunity to remain safe, outdoors and connected at a time when people desperately needed a break from the pandemic. Others applauded the opportunity to explore new neighbourhoods, enjoy active family time, and the ability to do so in the absence of engine noise and tailpipe emissions.

Most tellingly, the number of users on our parkways increased when they were closed to vehicular traffic. In other words, we saw more people – walkers, joggers, cyclists, in-line skaters and others – use our infrastructure when roads were “closed” than cars when the roads were “open.” Thus, the greatest lesson for city planners and decision-makers is that we have a powerful opportunity to reclaim our public roads for people, not just cars.

As we digest these results and plan for next year, we want to reduce barriers for those who were unable to experience our pilot project. That is why we are motivated to enhance accessibility to NCC venues by exploring options for electric shuttle buses on our Gatineau Park parkways, e-bike rentals, and coordinating better public transit access.

Knowing the importance of connectivity, we are looking at ways to create a more robust network with our municipal partners. At a time when we need to sharply reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the promotion of sustainable transportation has never been more important.

As we are a federal Crown corporation with a national mandate to ensure our capital reflects the country’s values, exercising leadership in the facilitation of safe outdoor activity during the pandemic was, and remains, important. That this experiment fell on the 50th anniversary of our Bike Sundays program seems an appropriate coincidence. In 1970, the NCC was the first jurisdiction in Canada to close some of its parkways to cars on a regular basis.

While the deep disruptions caused by COVID-19 have made innovation necessary, nobody then could anticipate the toll or cost of the pandemic. The impacts and lessons of COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come.

If there is a silver lining, it is that new best practices such as opening “parkways for people” might live on to provide residents of, and visitors to, the capital a new experience, while providing a national example of making our cities more livable.

Tobi Nussbaum
National Capital Commission

This letter was published in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday, December 19, 2020.

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