Manifesto Multilinko
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Saturday, February 04, 2012
a rant about Ottawa urban planning (transportation slice)

French urban planner Jacques Gréber turned a dreary lumbertown filled with with noxious industries and wooden office buildings into an attractive modern capital. The scenic parkways along the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal, the Greenbelt, Gatineau Park, the Queensway and the network of parks and greenery that give Ottawa its postcard beauty today all stem from Gréber’s handiwork.
Ottawa Citizen - Building a better capital - February 3, 2012

No.  No no no.  A thousand times no.  Gréber was almost entirely sh-t.

Ok.  Let me set the foundation.  I am not an urban planner.  I am also in my blog, so I can say whatever I want.

I only walk (I don't drive; I don't have a car).  I walk and observe and I think.  Sometimes I take pictures.  This certainly doesn't make me Jane Jacobs.  I also read about urban planning.  So this is going to be that jumble of thoughts that is the path I've walked so far.

I come from a small town.  I spent time in my grandparents' village.  Also in a cottage by the sea and a cabin in the woods up on the mountain.  And I've walked in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore (shudder), Halifax, Toronto & Montreal (not enough to really count in either city), London, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Talinn, Grenoble, Alicante, Rouen, Le Havre (mostly shudder), and I also like to walk in gardens and parks and in the woods.  Anyway, you get the idea.  I'm not working from a single data point.

There are three basic built forms:
  • the city
  • the town
  • the farm / villa / country estate
The Romans had these forms, we have these forms.  We also have this BS "form" that we invented in the last century called the suburb, but it is a built form for cars, not for humans; it's not an enduring built form.


The city is much more than the town, but it includes some basic services from the town, in repeated patterns: the butcher, the baker, (once upon a time the candlestick maker), the cheesemonger, the tailor, the milliner, the cobbler, the confectioner, the fishmonger, the jeweler, the local (pub or cafe), the restaurant, the general shop, the toy store, the flower shop, the bookshop, the pharmacy, the library, a market, fruit and vegetable vendors.  There are others that probably aren't coming back: the coal man, the ice man, the milk man, the newspaper boy.  Also: the train station, (once upon a time the stables).

If you go to any functioning neighbourhood in a city, or main street in a town, you will find these standard services, the same as if you had walked a market street in an ancient Roman town or city.

So in part, urban space is services.

In functional Ottawa neighbourhoods - the Glebe, the Market, Westboro - you can see these standard sets of services.  In Centretown we still don't have many of these basics.

The Built Form

Urban space is also built form.

In a town there is a main street.  It has some subset of the services listed above.  Buildings are low (a few storeys), they cluster along and around the main street, and then string out a bit at lower density.  You can walk the entire thing fairly quickly.  Everyone knows everyone.  Private life is very hard to maintain.  There is pressure to conform and not much diversity.  There are not a lot of specialised shops or grand buildings (and thus not many spaces for complicated artistic events.)  It is safe and kind of boring.  (This is why Kunstler's fantasy of a post-fall world made entirely of New England small towns is chilling to those of us who are very happy to have escaped our American or Canadian small towns.)  Away from the main street there are very few if any shops, instead it's all residential.

In a city there are neighbourhoods.  In major cities these neighbourhoods are often mini-towns.  There is a good reason that in Paris it seems like there is a bakery on every street corner - every span of a few blocks has all the services you need in a small town.  In the city there are also mostly apartments, brownstones/townhouses and mansions, not detached single-family housing.  In the city almost every street is mixed-use - you can walk north-south, east-west along the street grid and there are shops on the street wherever you turn.

And then you have the rural form, the standalone farm, the villa.  These exist (traditionally ringing towns and cities) to have enough space to farm & raise animals, or to escape the bustle of urban life.  These incidentally require an incredibly high level of safety, as you are alone in the middle of nowhere.  Once the invaders breached the Roman borders, the villas and farms basically disappear as everyone flees to towns & cities for safety.  Villas are far.  Farms are far.  A day or days to bring your produce to market.  A day or days to reach your house in the country.  They are not of the urban world at all.

Ottawa's built form is that of a town.  We have main streets.  Side streets have no retail, they're only residential.  We need to stop this fantasy of a million person city.  We only get a million people by sweeping up an insane country-sized 2750 square km of "city".  We're a small prosperous lumber town, with standard main streets, and (where it wasn't all flattened) working linear streetcar neighbourhoods (the Glebe) and grid neighbourhoods (the Market).  If you want to grow Ottawa, I suggest "town that first relearns how to be a functioning town" not "in 5 years we'll be Paris".


Cities are services, plus housing, plus a transportation network.

It's important to understand that there is no "street".  There is only public space allocated to transportation.  Before cars, THE WHOLE OF THE PUBLIC SPACE FOR TRANSPORTATION was for everyone to use to get around the city.  If you look at old paintings and photos and even pre-WWII videos, you will see people wandering back and forth across and along the street (this is before the invented "crime" of jaywalking).  The only distinction between the street centre and the edges was intensity of use.  The street centre was a mess of mud and horse droppings (at best).  There's a reason people had long skirts and high boots.  The edge was cleaner and drier.  Sometimes the edge was elevated above the mud with boards.  But people walking along the edge of the street who saw an interesting shop on the other side did not patiently walk to a street corner, wait for traffic to clear, and then quickly cross, then walk back to the store.  They just walked right across the street to the store.  When traffic was at horse speed, audible, visible and fairly easy to avoid--not least because in addition to you dodging, both horse and driver would try to avoid you--people just walked across the street.  That was it.  It was all just a transportation space.  For moving people, and for moving things.  Unless you were rich, you walked, cycled, or took public transport.  The street was yours.  It is public space after all.

Once the train arrived, the problem of moving people was completely solved.  I say again: completely solved.  There is no mystery about how to move people around.  It's a completed project.  Paris is a good example but most any European city will work just as well.

Think about a 20 minute or so travel time as the "tolerable" trip time for local.

You start with the 20 minute window you can reach by walking - your neighbourhood.
Then if you want some specialised service or to visit some distant building, you cycle or take surface transit (a tram).
Then if a 20 minute tram ride won't get you there, you go underground and take the subway - it goes much faster, and its stops are much farther apart.

That's it.  That's moving people around the city.

If you want to live outside the city where it's greener / cheaper / whatever, you live in a town.  Your town connects to the city by a 20 minute commuter train ride.  (The town may have pre-dated the commuter line, or been created/arisen at the commuter rail terminus.)

If you want to visit another town, you take a local train, it takes a few hours.

Starting in the late 20th century, even more amazingly, the final piece: if you want to go from one city to another, you take high-speed rail, it takes a few hours.

That's it.  That's moving people around the country.

I want to say this again: the problem of moving people around urban spaces is solved.  It's not a mystery.  In Parisian terms: walking, the velo (including bike rental), the bus (sadly Paris doesn't have many trams), the metro, the RER (commuter rail), the TER (inter-town rail) and the TGV (inter-city rail).  Like I said: this has been done.  This is a completely solved problem.

This leaves only two actual problems: how to move large objects around (things bigger than you can take on the tram), and how to move people & things around in rural areas where you can't just run a train line.

It's entirely reasonable for the solution to be: small trucks and cars.  You see, I don't hate the car.  I just hate the car when it's used for the completely retarded purpose of moving people around CITIES.  It's entirely reasonable for you to have a car at your farm in the middle of nowhere (and to drive over sadly bumpy roads, to the nearest train station / town).  It's entirely reasonable for your piano store to have a small truck that moves pianos around the city (driving below 30km/h, and ideally late at night or early in the morning).

And that's it.  That's the entire transportation picture: priority to walking, wide cycling lanes, gleaming trams gliding down surface rail, thundering subways blasting along underground rail, simple efficient commuter rail (often a mix of surface and subsurface, as in the case of the Parisian RER), quick basic inter-town rail, and amazing rocket-like comfortable high-speed rail (HSR), all in a shining network of steel connecting every major population node in your country (or in some countries like France, even tiny towns - Saillans is a town of 900, but there's a train station that connects it into the entire French rail network nevertheless).

I shouldn't even really have to explain this - we used to do this in Canada, everything except the HSR that hadn't been invented yet.  It was a huge national-celebration-scale deal when we completed the network.  Anywhere you go that has "Station" in its name used to have a train station.  Why is there Londonderry (NS) and "Londonderry Station" when the area just has a town of 200 now?

Because there was a Londonderry Station


The Fucking Car

So how did we get from this solved problem to the mess we're in now?  The car.
And you can understand it.  They didn't know the city would be blown apart by the car.  There were a whole bunch of overlapping things that are hard to disentangle.

How crazy were they?  Please take a few minutes to check out these two videos from the dawn of the car-crazy era.  These appear like some kind of extended joke to us now (if they don't appear that way to you, you probably want to stop reading now) but they were dead serious, this was the real capital-F Future they imagined.

Design for Dreaming (1956)

Disney (Disneyland TV) - Magic Highway USA (1958)

Seriously.  These people were out of their minds.  They thought it was one step from curving ascending highways to flying cars and then rocket cars to the moon.  They thought everything, without exception, should be automated, inconvenience eliminated, physical effort banished, spaces enclosed.  Never go outside!  Never walk!  Man vs. Nature: The Road to Victory.

It's hard for us to understand this - the people standing on moving sidewalks rather than walking from store to store, the car that flies right up to your office door - but we're simply too far removed.  Washing used to be hard work.  The washing machine was like a kind of miracle (as Hans Rosling argues in a great TED video).  The car gave everyone transportation faster than a horse, more personal than a train.  They had just crushed the Nazis with American jeeps and tanks and planes and bombs.  American industry had saved the entire goddamn world.  They were going to the moon.  Can you imagine living at such a moment and not thinking you could just sweep away everything old, all the old musty city and build a shining new future?

It's easy for us to sit in 2012 with fat kids and strip malls and cratered downtowns and wonder how they could have done this, but they seriously just saw it as another step, just more progress.  The car replaced the train.  The plane replaced the transatlantic liner.  The bus would replace the tram.  Everyone would be free, happy, rich, everyone a king in their own suburban mansion, commuting to shining city towers to work on space projects.  You can see it in every frame of the above videos.  They believed.  No one sitting in their comfortable detached brick house in downtown Ottawa in 1950, living their comfortable middle-class life, walking and taking the trolley, thought "hey, let's add cars and turn this into a a bunch of crumbling crackhouses".  They thought, out with the old, in with the flying cars and houses on the moon.

And just about everyone made the same mistakes.
The only difference is at what point they started to realise what they were doing, and work to undo the mess.  And even then, even in the most difficult places to have a car, people love their fucking cars.

In New York where it is incredibly inconvenient to have a car and a parking space might cost you as much as a Canadian suburban house, they love the car.  In France, where you pay high gas taxes and high road tolls and high parking fees and you have endless transportation alternatives they love the car.  Beautiful walkable transit-friendly Paris is jammed with cars.  Stockholm is full of cars.  In fact about the only place you can see the less-car world is in Copenhagen, where beautiful women glide slowly by on bicycles on quiet streets, like something out of a dream.

So let's have no illusions that it is easy to eliminate the car.

But you can work to provide the alternatives.  You can learn from the disaster that was the 60s and 70s (and which continues unabated in many places in North America, to the point where mayors in 2011 triumphantly crow about "ending the war on the car" as if the car hadn't blitzkrieged pretty much every aspect of pre-WWII urban life and culture into utter annihilation).

The Tram

In France they got rid of all the trams... and then started rebuilding the tram lines again in the 90s.  Wikipedia - List of town tramway systems in France tells the tale:

Mulhouse: closed 1956, rebuilt 2006
Strasbourg: closed 1960, rebuilt 1994
Bordeaux: closed 1958, rebuilt 2003
Dijon: closed 1961, rebuilt 2012 (expected)
Rouen: closed 1953, rebuilt 1994
Toulouse: closed 1957, rebuilt 2010
Valenciennes: closed 1966, rebuilt 2006
Nantes: closed 1958, rebuilt 1985
Nice: closed 1953, rebuilt 2007
Grenoble: closed 1952, rebuilt 1987
Lyon: closed 1956, rebuilt 2000

You get the idea.  Meanwhile

Ottawa: closed 1959, rebuilt ????

and no, that is NOT rebuilt 2017 or 2019 or whatever the Ottawa "LRT" date is.  The old proposal, the previous proposal Ford O'Brien killed, was a kind of weird zig-zaggy thing and incredibly poorly explained, but it was a surface tram.  The new proposal is pure commuter rail, a little 12.5km RER line to connect the east suburbs with... a very small way towards the west suburbs.

I tried to be very clear about the different transportation modes above, about the solved problem of transporting people, because it seems Ottawa is incapable of understanding this distinction.  A train that runs above ground is not a tram.  If it has stations far apart and is designed to move people from the suburbs in and out of the city core, it is commuter rail.  Ottawa is building commuter rail.  A little tiny bit of commuter rail.  That's it.  The LRT will do exactly zero for people living downtown who want to move around the city the way actual residents do, which is between neighbourhoods: from the Glebe, to Centretown, to Westboro, to the Market.  Those are the places people who like the urban space want to go.  The LRT will not get them to any of those places.  The LRT is for jamming even more commuters even more quickly in and out of the CBD.  That's it.

Whatever shall we do?

If you want to do a proper Ottawa (transportation slice), what you do is:

1. rebuild at least the S and B lines of the Ottawa trolley

(Didn't know we had a trolley system?  It covered the entire downtown, and since it was for residents, not suburban commuters, it connected together the neighbourhoods of the city -- to some extent it helped create the neighbourhoods of the city.)

(image from the Gréber Plan - see 1950 Plan for the National Capital)

2. Run commuter rail out to defined town centres.  And that's it.  None of this "park and ride" BS.  You want to ride the train?  LIVE NEAR THE TRAIN.

3. Run local rail to local towns (that means towns far beyond 20 minute commuting distance).

4. Run high-speed rail Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto.  It will cost $9 billion and pay for itself.  How do I know this?  Because the federal government told me, although they buried that info so far in layers of clicks and bottoms of paragraphs you would never know it.
Developing the section between Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto could cost between $9.1 [billion] for 200 km/h and $11 billion for 300 km/h. ... a project between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto only could generate a positive net economic benefit at both 200 and 300 km/h
Updated Feasibility Study of a High Speed Rail Service in the Québec City – Windsor Corridor (November 14, 2011) - emphasis mine

and the central station for all this rail activity should be, you know, the central train station: Ottawa Union Station.

5. And yes of course, do a loop around to Gatineau (although the weird 60s inward-facing Place du Portage "employment node" really should be torn down, which would reduce the number of public servants who need to do the loop around).  And run rail to the airport.  These are also obvious and there is dedicated rail to the airport in London, Paris, Stockholm etc. etc.

6. In the space you gain from reclaiming the public transportation space from cars, widen the sidewalks and provide cycling lanes. The high predictability of rails-bound trams means that they very comfortably mix with pedestrians and cyclists.

You may have noticed that I didn't mention a subway - you only need a subway (which is enormously expensive) if there are long-haul distances within the city that your existing transportation network can't satisfy. So IF you build the entire tram network and you find a lot of people still aren't able to get around within a 20 minute tram-ride window, then you think about a subway. But the Ottawa core is small and a long way from densely populated - from e.g. LeBreton Flats to Riverside Park you're only talking what, 7km and only a few tens of thousands of people? It's pretty hard to justify the expense of a subway through kilometres of rock just to save a few people a few minutes of travel time around the core.

The disconnect between what I see as a straightforward transportation plan and our inability to act as a city is a tiny fraction of what drives me insane about the NCC Horizons 2067 and Centretown Design Plan and Downtown Moves (and whatever the hell Choosing Our Future is).

You don't need some effing panel of experts.  You don't need to consult and re-consult and re-re-consult until 2013 to decide what you will do in FIFTY-FOUR years from now.

Just this transportation slice is not only obvious, but could be done within the span of years, not decades.  Don't spend $2 billion on 12km of commuter rail and think you've saved the city.  All that does is encourage commuters to live FARTHER away, and rewards developers who will jam the cheapest, tallest, ugliest towers near-ish to stations and call it "transit-oriented development".  Build a whole entire network.  You don't need a single new idea.  Just remember 1950s Ottawa, 1950s Canada, and 2012 Europe.

You want to fix our little lumber town that was never a city in the first place, that is never going to be Paris or London in some undefined "G8 Capital" sense, but that is at least a more functional space than the created-from-nothing planned city artificial capitals like Brasilia and Canberra?  Just revisit the prosperous, functional 1950s city where public servants lived downtown
(image from the Gréber Plan - see 1950 Plan for the National Capital)

bring back some of the infrastructure that enabled that, and add the modern infrastructure that we have learned about in the last SIXTY YEARS.

While you're at it, you might want to end the insane fantasy that 2760 square km spanning from the woods to central condo towers is a "city".


I have a lot more to say about the built-form issues and general suburban suck, but this is enough typing for now.

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