Time to reach for your walking shoes - Metro US

Time to reach for your walking shoes

It’s easy to get the impression cities are built for cars, not people, and that pedestrians are an afterthought in our ever-growing tangle of multi-lane roads. Sometimes, though, walkers catch a break, and encouraging signs abound in Ottawa these days that they have not been entirely forgotten.

The city’s Pedestrian Safety Evaluation Program has targeted Ottawa’s 23 most dangerous intersections — where pedestrians are most often hit by cars — for desperately-needed safety improvements. Between 2004 and 2009, 1,600 Ottawa pedestrians were struck by vehicles.

Plans are afoot to widen the crowded sidewalks downtown on Metcalfe Street between Slater and Albert. Metcalfe at Slater is the city’s busiest pedestrian intersection, with some 3,000 people crossing its multiple lanes of traffic every rush hour and then jostling for space on the curbs.

As a staff report notes, “The sidewalk in this section of Metcalfe is so busy during rush hour that even a casual observer would say it functions at an undesirable level of service.” Thanks for noticing.

Even some of the diehard detractors of the ongoing Lansdowne Park reno project are happy to see pedestrian bridges over the Rideau Canal figuring prominently in the finalists’ plans for the park’s front lawn design competition.

In the ByWard Market, where traffic not only makes walking and cycling, but even driving a bit of an adventure, the plan is to reclaim some space for walkers at William and York Streets with the construction of a pedestrian plaza this fall. Last month, they started redirecting traffic away from the area as a trial, and already the extra breathing room is noticeable. The city estimates that banishing cars from the square permanently will reduce air pollution in the immediate area by 26 per cent.

The market this time of year is jammed with tourists. This place is the face we show visitors, and so it makes sense to get it right.

I did a little time as a tourist this spring on a trip through the southern United States, home of the drive-through liquor store. After seeing countless places where cars came first and foremost, I spent a few days marvelling at the walker’s paradise that is downtown Savannah, Ga.

The city is designed around 22 squares located at major intersections, where they slow traffic and provide appealing urban mini-parks populated with plentiful benches, gorgeous trees and historical monuments (some with historical personages buried beneath them.) The traffic tiptoes around pedestrians, instead of the other way around.

Ottawa could use a little Savannah, and these days it seems we’re moving in the right direction.

Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca.

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