A small section of Percy Street has been fully closed to cars for its Highway 417 bridge replacement (detailed design here) for over a month. The prolonged underpass closure and subsequent terrible cycling detour routes have led me to do some thinking about this simple but important piece of infrastructure.
Bike Ottawa has for years urged the City of Ottawa to create a proper North-South route through downtown. In this guest post, @SjamieIt presents an interesting proposal on where that route should be. We hope this post stimulates discussion on the topic!
A surprisingly popular cycling route
Under Ottawa’s road classification system, Percy Street is unique as the only “Local Road” that crosses under the Queensway between Centretown and The Glebe; all other crossings are on “Arterial Roads” or “Major Collector Roads”.
These other roads are dangerous to bike on – Rochester, Booth, Bronson, Kent, Bank, O’Connor, Metcalfe, Elgin. You may see some brave cyclists here, but they are not exactly the kind of safe roads where you would expect to see children biking. Even O’Connor with its protected cycle track is frequently the scene of collisions with cyclists due to its poor design and location on a busy arterial road.
Percy Street, with its mere 275 m (just three short blocks) of two-way cycle track, gives people the possibility to cross the wall-like Highway 417 on a safe, 30km/h residential street. You will frequently see commuters, families, young children, even toddlers on balance bikes using this street to bike between neighbourhoods.
The highway underpass
As cars are able to access Chamberlain Avenue via the Percy Street / 417 underpass, and as Chamberlain leads directly to the East-bound 417 on-ramp, drivers looking for a short-cut to the highway commonly use Percy Street to avoid congested arterials. This is at odds with Percy Street being a local, residential street.
Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem lately, as preparatory work for the bridge replacement has had the underpass closed to motor-vehicles for over a year, while still allowing people to walk and bike under. This has resulted in a large reduction in the amount of through car traffic on Percy Street, as well as a huge increase in the number of people biking.
I performed a number of peak-hour AM and PM traffic counts in advance of the underpass’s full closure for bridge replacement, and what I observed was consistently double the number of cyclists using the street now vs. motor-vehicles. If you make a street safer to bike on, more people will bike on it.
What if we just didn’t re-open the Percy Street underpass to cars?
Once the bridge has been replaced, the plan is to put everything back to the way it was and bring the through car traffic back to Percy Street. But what if we didn’t do that? By having just this small section of road reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, the entire street becomes safer, quieter, and a more desirable bike route. This could be accomplished a number of different ways, but the simplest solution is to just never open it back up to cars.
Modal filtering like this actually already exists on Percy Street. Just south of the highway, cars are required to turn left onto Chamberlain, while pedestrians and cyclists are permitted to continue straight. This works great at making the section of Percy Street through The Glebe a safe, quiet street, with only local traffic. Even without any cycling infrastructure here, this section of Percy Street feels very safe to bike on.
As for the impact of closing the underpass on local drivers, it would be minuscule, and drivers are already used to not being able to access this crossing. Closing access to this underpass adds a mere minute or two for drivers trying to reach Chamberlain from Percy, as they simply detour a few hundred metres over to Bronson. But that small detour is enough to make Percy Street unattractive as a short-cut, and thus a much safer cycling street.
The sad state of the Percy Street cycle-track
I once heard a person turning onto Percy Street exclaim to another person biking “Ugh, I hate this road.” Not what you would expect to hear about a street with a dedicated cycle-track, but it definitely has its problems.
The existing design of the cycle track prioritizes drivers over cyclists. Rather than having a smooth, flat surface to bike on, there are countless ups and downs and sloped sections so drivers can more easily cut across it to access driveways. As such, heavy vehicles have damaged the surface to the point where many people opt to bike on the smoother roadway instead.
Another reason people bike on the roadway: car drivers regularly use the cycle-track as a parking lane. Parked vehicles force people to bike onto the road, often into oncoming traffic, and those heavy vehicles further contribute to the deterioration of the surface. This is despite there being plentiful and available free street parking on the opposite side of the street.
This important piece of infrastructure, while just three blocks long, the City has seemingly abandoned and left it to crumble. This year they pushed back the date for renewal from 2–3 years to 4–7 years.
Percy Street Cross-town Bikeway
Percy Street is surprisingly not one of the city’s “Cross-town Bikeway” routes, even though, as mentioned, it has a number of features that make it an ideal candidate.
At the North end of Percy, there are direct connections to the Laurier Ave bike lanes and Albert Street cycle-track. However, in its current configuration, the bike lane on Percy Street is only a narrow painted lane with one-way southbound car facilities until Flora Street. If the cycle track were extended up to Laurier and made bidirectional, this would provide people a safe biking route from the Glebe to downtown.
At its Southern extent, Percy Street enables safe connections to the Rideau Canal Pathway and the Bronson Avenue Bridge to cross over the canal. With a simple reconfiguration at Findlay Avenue, a very safe two-way cycle-track could be incorporated along the Eastern side of the Bronson Bridge, providing a safe cycling route to Carleton University and beyond.
The closure of the Percy Street underpass to motor vehicles has provided a glimpse at what this street could become if we emphasized its importance as a cycling route rather than providing drivers yet another way to access the highway.
Through traffic should be removed from this street by reserving the Percy Street underpass for active transportation, like one of the many pedestrian overpasses that cross the Queensway in other parts of the city.
Please share your support and thoughts with the city, and with the councillors for this street, Ariel Troster and Shawn Menard. Together, we can create a city that prioritizes safety, sustainability, and the well-being of its residents.
@SjamieIt is a transportation advocate living in Centretown.