Missing links: Ottawa's cycling network rife with gaps

What good is a bridge if it doesn't connect at one end? That's the feeling you get riding a bike in Ottawa when your bike lane comes to a sudden stop, at times dumping you into busy traffic to fend for yourself.

Take a tour on the CBC Ottawa bike with Giacomo Panico

A cyclist reaches the southern limit of the raised cycle track on Churchill Avenue, where they're deposited onto Carling Avenue.
A cyclist reaches the southern limit of the raised cycle track on Churchill Avenue, where they're deposited onto Carling Avenue. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

What good is a bridge if it doesn't connect at one end? That's the feeling you get riding a bike in Ottawa when your bike lane comes to a sudden stop, at times dumping you into busy traffic to fend for yourself.

While the City of Ottawa has made progress in recent years in building dedicated cycling infrastructure, including segregated lanes on Laurier Avenue, Churchill Street, and Main Street, the city's bike network still suffers from notable missing links and gaps that cause pinch points for cyclists.

  • Where have you experienced a missing link in Ottawa?  Email Giacomo.

To better understand these missing links, I rolled around town recently on the CBC Ottawa bike, equipped with video cameras. 

Here are some of the missing links I found, followed by comments from the president of Bike Ottawa, an advocacy group that promotes cycling in the city, as well as from a program manager of transportation policy and networks with the City of Ottawa.

First, have a look at this pinch point on St. Patrick Street.

And while the Laurier Avenue segregated bike lane has been deemed a success by many since it became permanent in 2013, its eastern end at Nicholas Street is still fraught with adventure

"It can be really off-putting," said Heather Shearer, president of Bike Ottawa. "People need to be able to trust that infrastructure continues and is not going to abandon them in a situation that feels uncomfortable."

Shearer said she's heard from Ottawa residents who'd like to commute by bike, but aren't prepared to deal with the unpredictability of the network.

"The infrastructure is only as good as its weakest link. If you have that bad experience with a missing link, it can be the kind of thing that puts you off cycling for life."

That sentiment recently led Shearer and her colleagues at Bike Ottawa to launch a series of interactive online maps that let riders plan their route based on their own tolerance for stress.

The maps tap into data collected on collisions, road width, and the presence or absence of a bike path.
Heather Shearer, president of Bike Ottawa, has heard from residents who want to commute by bike, but worry about missing links in the network. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Planning your route is something Kornel Mucsi acknowledged will remain an important task to avoid busy roads for years to come.

As the City of Ottawa's program manager for transportation policy and networks, Mucsi said the issue of missing links and gaps is understandable, given that the city has been playing catch-up in making its streets bike friendly.

"Providing segregated bike lanes is a relatively new thing to Ottawa," said Mucsi. "This is something that is evolving. We are aware of these gaps, we're trying to minimize these gaps, but it will take years. We cannot rebuild the whole street network in a year or two. It will take a decade or two."

Part of the challenge for Mucsi is the need, and desire, to include segregated bike lanes in street rejuvenation projects, even if the new lanes won't connect to existing bike lanes.

Such was the case on Churchill Street, as this video illustrates.

Mucsi said in the case of Churchill, it was a chance to build the first raised cycle tracks in Ottawa.

"It didn't connect to anything on the north side or on the south side, but it was an opportunity to try something new," said Mucsi.

"The city is working quite hard on developing new standards and guidelines so that when we build new streets in the suburban areas, we don't create these deficiencies," added Mucsi.

New Mackenzie bike lane tricky to access

When the Mackenzie Avenue bike lane along the U.S. Embassy opened to great fanfare in 2017, Mayor Jim Watson declared: "We're constantly building new lanes and filling in gaps in our network so cyclists can ride comfortably and safely within our city."

But as you can see in this video, accessing and leaving the lane isn't always comfortable, or efficient.

Not as obvious in the above video is how a cyclist riding east on Wellington Street has no safe way to turn left onto the Mackenzie bike lane, and cyclists riding west on Rideau Street in front of the former site of the Daly Building must ride on a major OC Transpo and STO bus route.

According to Shearer, it's an example of just missing out on the prize. 

"Ottawa has the foundations for being an amazing cycling city, but making the most of our potential is going to require attention to all the missing links and pinch points," said Shearer

In many cases, the solution to a pinch point would mean removing a lane of traffic, or widening a bridge or underpass. The former can be politically unpopular, and the latter can be very expensive.

Take for example this pinch point on Carling Avenue.

"It is expensive. But cycling infrastructure is relatively cheap compared to building other kinds of road infrastructure," said Shearer. 

As an example, converting an existing vehicle lane to a cycle track during a street's rebuild can reduce the cost of the project, since cycle tracks are built to a lower standard, on account of the lighter load they're expected to support. 

In the end said Shearer, it comes down to the feelings the person, old or young, expert or novice, experiences while getting around town on two wheels.

"A bike ride should put a smile on your face. If someone, especially someone new to cycling, can finish a ride smiling, then we're doing things right," said Shearer.


Giacomo Panico

CBC Reporter and Host

You can reach Giacomo by email