Living in Old Ottawa East, I was happy to have Colonel By Drive open for active use all summer long. I love having a safe, convenient and scenic route for biking and running a few blocks from my front door. That said, the space never feels like anything more than a closed road to me: tight and narrow, with few access points and not much green space alongside the asphalt.
Queen Elizabeth Driveway is different. When it was blocked off to motor vehicles during the locked-down months of 2020, I saw the space with fresh eyes. And what I saw was a park–a park that could become one of the city’s most popular and welcoming public spaces, if only we kicked out the cars for good.
You don’t even have to squint to see it: especially from Fifth Avenue to Pretoria, the area alongside the QED is spacious, green and shaded by a canopy of mature trees. The pond at the foot of Fourth Avenue is a great place to observe giant carp. Patterson Creek provides an extended stretch of space right by the water to hang out, or launch your canoe. The Flora Footbridge anchors the area visually and practically, providing both a link to the neighbourhoods east of the Canal and a great backdrop for tourists looking to capture the perfect Ottawa selfie. And shining next to it all is the Rideau Canal, our UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyone who visits the QED when it’s closed to cars has experienced how this simple change transforms the parkway into a vibrant recreation hub. On a sunny day you’ll cross paths with hundreds of people as you make your way up the road: Lycra-clad cyclists, walkers of all ages, little kids wobbling along on their two-wheel bikes, people using electric wheelchairs, in-line skaters, skateboarders, and runners, all with enough space to move at their own pace.
Removing motor vehicles from the road also makes the environment along this stretch of the Rideau Canal simply nicer. It’s calm. You can hear the birds, the wind in the trees, the splashing water. People use the grassy stretches alongside the Canal to play with their kids, picnic with friends, read, or doze in the sun.
After months of enjoying this newly vibrant space for people last year, I’d hoped that the National Capital Commission would take the win on a pilot project the commission itself declared “an enormous success” and close it to cars permanently. Instead, the NCC packed up its wooden barricades at the end of September 2020 and gave this valuable urban space back to traffic.
I suppose it was on-brand for Ottawa to retreat into bureaucratic caution in this case. After all, one could argue that the area is still a park, kind of, when the QED is open to vehicles. People can use the Canal Pathway. Patterson Creek has a new cafe. There’s a pedestrian light at Fifth. Besides, banning vehicles permanently would inconvenience drivers and force the city to rejig traffic flows. There’s sure to be some hassle with all that. So why not stick with the status quo for the QED, be happy with our part-time park, and let traffic flow?
The problem with this compromise is that the traffic compromises everything. No narrow park with cars ripping through at 60 kilometres per hour (or faster) is ever going to blossom into a welcoming space for people. Instead of chirping birds and fresh air, you get exhaust fumes and the screech of modified mufflers. You can’t let your kids play freely beside what’s essentially a highway. Vehicle traffic on the QED splits Patterson Creek Park from the Canal Pathway, forcing pedestrians into a long detour or dangerous (and illegal) scramble across the road to move from one NCC property to the other. Giving so much space to cars forces pedestrians and cyclists to squeeze onto the mixed-use pathway, which feels dangerously crowded at peak times.
But the bigger issue is that keeping the street available to vehicles, even part-time, prevents us from making full use of the space available to reimagine this part of the city. The 2020 QED pilot program revealed a pent-up demand for recreational space in the densifying urban core that won’t go away when the pandemic is finally over. But it also showed that a simple solution exists. With one big tweak (banning motor vehicles from Fifth to Laurier) and a few smaller ones, the area would come alive and become a draw for residents and tourists alike–a vibrant space for four-season enjoyment of the Rideau Canal.
Once we stop allocating so much space to car traffic, new possibilities can be considered. With bike and foot traffic moved to the road, the existing Pathway could be replaced with more grass, viewing platforms and patios for relaxing at the water’s edge, with plenty of space for pop-up cafes. Patterson Creek Park could be integrated into the new park, perhaps becoming a paddling hub with canoes available to rent. Maybe water taxis could shuttle tourists to the park from downtown. In the winter, there could be room for skiing or snowshoeing, or a small snow park during Winterlude.
All that’s needed to start this transformation are a few concrete bollards and some nerve on the part of the NCC. Yes, traffic patterns will have to be reconfigured, and some drivers (including me, occasionally) will have to find a new route downtown. But these issues are solvable, especially for a relatively low-traffic road like the QED. Other cities–Paris, for example–are making bigger changes to busier streets to make them more bike- and people-friendly. We should be beyond the point where driver convenience is a prime consideration on urban land use choices–especially for the NCC. Instead, Ottawa should join the list of cities that will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis better than they were before. Let’s turn this parkway into a park.
Susan Redding is a writer, runner and bicyclist living in Ottawa.