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  • Writer's pictureMatthieu Gagnon

Ottawa Transportation Trends Shows our Lack of Transportation Freedom

This week the City of Ottawa released a document showing the transportation trends in the city largely based on the results of last year's Origin-Destination Household Travel Survey.

 As expected and to nobody's surprise, cars are by far the dominant mode of transportation for the city. This is obviously a problem for a lot of reasons (I recommend CityNerd's Cars Are A Disaster for Society video for a refresher on why we should reduce car use) but the report had me particularly wondering if taking a car is an individual choice made by the citizens of Ottawa or a choice that is made because of decisions made through our available road infrastructure and housing developments.

Modal shares by origin

Let's start by looking at the current modal share in Ottawa by origin. It is clear that cars are the dominant mode of transportation anywhere except downtown. That makes sense since the city has spent the last 50-plus years focusing most of our resources on developing car infrastructure almost exclusively. There was only a brief period where we had a world-class bus rapid transit system, which was so popular that it needed to be upgraded (which, in my opinion, was done poorly). 

Looking at the numbers for the Downtown Core, we can see what our city could be with amenities easily available by foot, a minimum of transit availability and access to active transportation infrastructure. This to me suggests that our transportation choices are imposed through our urban design and our infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be much smarter to study how people would choose to get around should they have the freedom to do so and build a system on that outcome?

Bar graph showing the modal share of trips in Ottawa in 2022. In the downtown core, 29% of trips were made by car drivers, 7% by car passenger, 12% by transit, 44% by walk, 7% by bike and 2% other. For inner urban the share was 47% car driver, 12% car passenger, 10% transit, 21% walk, 7% bike and 3% other. For outer urban, 59% car driver, 16% car passenger, 9% transit, 10% walk, 3% bike and 3% other. For suburban, 61% car driver, 18% car passenger, 6% transit, 8% walk, 2% bike and 5% other. For rural, 69% car driver, 17% car passenger, 2% transit, 2% walk, 1% bike and 9% other
Daily Mode Share by Trip Origin (2022) from the Transportation Trends Report Highlights

Comparing Ottawa with the Netherlands

I wanted to compare Ottawa numbers with an area where people have full liberty to use the transportation mode that they want. For this comparison, I propose a comparison with the Netherlands. The Netherlands are known as a paradise for cyclists as described by the urbanist channel Oh the Urbanity. The public transportation system is well developed and it has been identified as a great place for drivers according to American expat and car enthusiast, Kerleem

The Netherlands appears to be a good example to follow since people have the freedom to choose how to get around as opposed to places like Ottawa where the transport mode is driven by the lack of availability of all modes. If we look at Deloitte's report on land transportation in Rotterdam, a city the journey modal split is 43% by private car, 10% by public transit, 21% by foot and 23% by bike. Rather than having the different modes compete, they should be extensions of and complement each other in a journey from A to B.

Infrastructure and developments imposed on us?

It could be that as a society we have different values that have led to our development pattern and current infrastructure, but since I have been involved in various consultations with the city, I get the feeling that the infrastructure and development pattern has been imposed on us. There is very little scrutiny and debate when it comes to the approval of single family homes outside of the urban boundary, conceding more people to a car-centric lifestyle, while densification projects take years of consultations for just a handful of large towers. 

Blindly funding car infrastructure

Public transit is a line item in our municipal tax bills unlike car infrastructure which, to me, clearly shows that public transportation is a luxury worthy of scrutiny as opposed to all the car infrastructure which we keep blindly funding. Taking public transportation also often takes longer than biking in many cases and sometimes barely beats walking. Active transportation is mostly relegated to painted bicycle gutters, NCC multi-use pathways and the odd bike lane downtown where you still have to dodge cars coming in and out of parking lots. The city does not provide us with a realistic choice of transportation modes.

I don't think it is reasonable to expect Ottawa to get to Rotterdam numbers overnight, but it does provide us with insight of how people get around when they have a choice. As part of my advocacy work in the city, I hope that I can help bring the freedom of choice that Rotterdam provides its citizens to the people of Ottawa.

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