Bicycle Streets Beyond Europe is a multi-part series exploring the “bicycle street”. The first post overviewed the Dutch implementation of the bicycle street (“fietsstratten”) and the others showcase some of the best examples of bicycle streets in Canada and the US. Special thanks to Justin Jones for contributing to the series. Join the Beyond the Automobile mailing list to stay up to date with the series.
Ottawa’s Echo Drive is an unlikely candidate for “bicycle street” status. But despite its absence from official cycling routes, this street has much more in common with the “fietsstraat” than you would expect.
Visit Ottawa’s Echo Drive on a summer day, and you would probably think the street was closed to cars. Instead of motorists, you’ll find groups of pedestrians taking up most of the width of the street, chatting happily, with cyclists casually weaving left and right as they cruise along side-by-side. Even children freely ride along the street without the need for constant vigilance from parents for their safety. Occasionally a motorist will come along though, at a slow and respectful speed where everyone can comfortably navigate around each other.
Paralleling the south side of Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, Echo Drive was originally the canal-side street. That changed with the addition of Colonel By Drive sometime in the 1940s, a parkway and commuter route that connected motorists to downtown.
After the construction of Colonel By, Echo’s traffic network importance was lowered to that of a local residential street. Since then, several directional traffic closures have been added at various points over a span of several decades, each one further restricting traffic volumes, while allowing cyclists and pedestrians to continue through.
The retrofit to add Colonel By resulted in Echo being very narrow in width, more so than just about any other street in Ottawa, measuring as little as 5.5m between curbs at some points. Echo also sits much higher than Colonel By, offering people quite lovely views of the Rideau Canal below in addition to some noise buffer from traffic. The combination of ultra-low traffic volumes, good connectivity, low noise levels, and pleasant views makes Echo Drive a preferred walking and cycling route by many.
Echo Drive offers an important lesson in user preference. The entire alignment parallels Colonel By Drive, a two-lane parkway with an adjacent multi-use pathway between the roadway and the canal. At first glance, you might expect that someone would surely prefer to walk or ride on a canal-side pathway, and yet Echo Drive seems to be more popular. Why? Echo is much quieter (Colonel By carries 15,000 vehicles per day), has less exposure to traffic (the Colonel By MUP has little to no buffer from traffic at many points), and provides frequent shade cover (Colonel By MUP is mostly exposed as there is little space for trees). These features combine to create a wonderful sensory experience.
And yet, aside from word-of-mouth or self-discovery, you’re unlikely to find out about this option – it’s not listed as a route on the City’s cycling network, or on any tourism websites, which all instead refer people to the Colonel By MUP. Perhaps the local residents prefer it kept that way!
Is it a Bicycle Street?
- Network: Despite its absence from Ottawa’s official cycling routes, Echo Drive provides the network value of directly connecting to three bridges across Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, including Ottawa’s flashy new car-free Flora Footbridge. Though it may not form a large part of many people’s cross-town commutes, people riding more locally are clearly more than happy to adjust their route to use this street.
- Volumes: Traffic volumes on this route are exceptionally low, thanks to a high degree of traffic management that prevents through traffic at all major intersecting streets. At Bank Street, Riverdale Avenue, and Clegg Street through traffic is fully restricted, while pedestrians and cyclists are permitted to pass through.
- Speed: Echo is a great example of a street that self-governs its low speed limit. The roadway is exceptionally narrow, and closely lined with dense, mature trees. The alignment has frequent curves (it parallels the canal), and at these points the sightlines are very restrictive, forcing motorists to drive slowly and pay close attention. Although the posted speed limit is 40km/h, it’s likely that motorists usually travel slower.
- Design: The street itself is very narrow, ranging between 5.8 to 6.4 metres (19 to 21 ft) between curbs. At this width, the street is just narrow enough for two vehicles to carefully pass each other. Parking is also prohibited along the full length, removing the “dooring” hazard for cyclists and improving the esthetic of the street.
- Behaviour: Despite having a narrow sidewalk along some of its length, pedestrians seem to mostly prefer walking on the road. Even when the occasional vehicle approaches, pedestrians will often simply move over to let the motorist pass rather than exiting the street entirely. Walking on the full width of the road makes it easier for large groups of people to walk and talk, something you’ll commonly see. Cyclist behaviour mirrors that of pedestrians; it’s easy to find people of all ages and abilities riding on the street, commonly side-by-side.
Echo Drive is not only exceptional in its design: is also a very wealthy street, lined with expensive homes. This level of resident privilege and power no doubt influenced the addition of today’s non-standard traffic calming features over the last few decades. Though there are likely many streets in other lower-income neighbourhoods that would benefit from similar changes, it’s unlikely those residents could muster up the time and energy required to push against the status-quo.
Finally, Echo Drive demonstrates an important principle of bicycle streets that seems like a paradox: though the street itself is quite narrow, from a pedestrian or cyclist perspective, it actually feels much wider. A busier street does not offer the same opportunity to walk or cycle across the entire roadway width – instead, users are relegated to a designated bike lane and a sidewalk. When traffic volumes and speeds are exceptionally low, the entire street is opened up to people.
Though perhaps an unexpected candidate, Echo Drive certainly earns the “fietsstraat” designation in this author’s eyes.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts in the Bicycle Streets Beyond Europe series below.
This can be done with any street. Think of how rivers meander. It can be done by closing off certain intersections one at a time as was done on Echo Drive. Instead of traffic calming which tries to slow down traffic – which just leads to frustrated drivers but doesn’t give the road to people – closing intersections gives dead ends and far less traffic – but could be designed to allow emergency vehicles or garbage trucks passage. Google will just route people around these new dead ends.
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Matt, interesting column about a great street! The closure of Echo Drive also lowers other costs overall such as those involved in school bus transportation. Many elementary students in Old Ottawa East, which borders Echo, attend Hopewell School near Bank and Sunnyside and are able to walk to and from school rather than take the school bus because of Echo being a quiet street. When this sectioning off of Echo Drive was first initiated in the 1980s, there was vocal opposition from some residents of Echo Drive, citing the difficulty for fire trucks to get through to them. This is why at Echo and Bank there is a chain across two posts rather than a concrete barrier, so emergency vehicles can get through easily. During the first year of the pandemic, Echo Drive was an even more lively and busy pedestrian walkway due to the need for social distancing, and everyone was even more grateful for its closure.