Ottawa

COVID-19 stalls city study on traffic patterns

The City of Ottawa has decided to put the brakes on a major study of how people move around the National Capital Region because the COVID-19 pandemic has sent normal travel patterns into a spin.

Update to master plan for transportation network delayed until after next election

Traffic patterns, like the congestion seen here on Highway 174 near Blair Road last fall, have changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. (CBC)

The City of Ottawa has decided to put the brakes on a major study of how people move around the National Capital Region because the COVID-19 pandemic has sent normal travel patterns into a spin.

The last study of its kind, called an origin-destination survey, was done in 2011 and helped planners decide where to build new roads, pathways and transit.

The National Capital Commission, the City of Gatineau and the development industry also depend on the data to know how many trips people make, where they go and whether they travel by car, train, bus, bike, foot or even e-scooter

Let's face it, I'm working out of a bedroom, and many federal employees across the city are doing the same.- Coun. Tim Tierney

An update was already overdue, but the city wanted to wait to see how the opening of light rail would affect travel patterns. Now, because of the pandemic, it's had to delay the survey for at least another year as thousands of residents continue to work from home.

Last fall's opening of the Confederation Line was to be a significant factor in changing local travel trends, but then came COVID-19 and the shift to remote work. ( Francis Ferland/CBC)

"Let's face it, I'm working out of a bedroom, and many federal employees across the city are doing the same," said Coun. Tim Tierney, who chairs the city's transportation committee.

"We're not really sure how that's going to look in the future ... maybe people will learn to work from home for the rest of their career," said Tierney, pointing to how Shopify has permanently shifted to a remote work model.

Shift 'unprecedented'

"It's unprecedented," agreed Vivi Chi, the city's director of transportation planning. "Every other city is experiencing it, too."

Traffic patterns and volumes have yet to settle into a new normal. Office workers might be at home, but others are still travelling to their jobs, and streets are busier later in the morning now, she noted.

The last master plan in 2013 emphasized alternative forms of transportation, including cycling. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Delaying the survey also means putting off an update to the city's transportation master plan, one of the key pieces of city business that was expected to happen this term of council.

Now that document, which prioritizes road projects, isn't expected to be ready until fall 2023, after the next municipal election.

Missing network links 

In the meantime, the city can still work on cycling and pedestrian connections, and widen and extend roads, all projects on the existing to-do list.

"There is quite an extensive list of projects right now that many, many councillors are very happy to even see those ones progress," said Tierney.

Chi says the data collection would mostly confirm trends her team is already looking into. For instance, with this spring's decision to expand the urban boundary, it's clear some parts of the city are set to keep growing.

Where development happens dictates a lot of the city's transportation planning, Chi said.

There are other big-picture pieces to prepare, such as how to reduce the impact of transportation on climate change, how to plan for a future with autonomous vehicles — and how to pay for it all.

About the Author

Kate Porter

Reporter

Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past 15 years, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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