Gridlock! Putting Ottawa’s commutes to the test to see which will leave you stuck in the slow lane

Gridlock! Putting Ottawa’s commutes to the test to see which will leave you stuck in the slow lane

Amy Allen and her fiance, Tyler Black, drove a Subaru Forester and a BMW X4 from Otto’s. Photo: David Kawai

It’s Monday morning, and the traffic surrounding Billie Spartalis grinds to a halt. The air is filled with gaseous mist from dozens of exhaust pipes. Spartalis has finally hit Highway 417, and for her, like thousands of other commuters in the city, this leg of her journey is the most challenging.

Every morning she makes the journey from her home in Munster, a small community southwest of Barrhaven, to her workplace at Robillard Hearing Centres on Carling Avenue. The first half of her drive is peaceful — it takes her past the empty fields, farmland, and homes along Munster and Fallowfield roads. But when she hits the ramp connecting Highways 416 and 417, her peaceful feelings give way to frustration.

“The major traffic jam begins as soon as you get to the on-ramp for the 417,” she says. “It’s stop-and-go for the most part. Everyone’s trying to rush and trying to get in front of each other.”

Without traffic, the trip is supposed to take half an hour, but with the gridlock, it typically takes more like 45 minutes.

Sound familiar? It should, especially if you live in suburban or rural Ottawa. Each day approximately 250,000 commuters hit the streets in their vehicles — that’s almost 55 per cent of all daily commutes, according to the city’s 2013 Transportation Master Plan. And with such a glut of drivers, commutes from the fringe to the core can take anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour, particularly if there’s an accident, construction, or inclement weather.

Klaus Beltzner, president of the Manotick Village and Community Association, pins poor city planning, as well as a move away from grid-system neighbourhoods, as the root cause of Ottawa’s traffic woes. “Housing developers know people don’t like through roads in their communities,” he says, “so communities are built with collector roads. Everyone has to use this same road to get out. This is where jams happen, as well as speeding.”

But Ottawa’s problems can’t be blamed on poor city planning alone. Benjamin Gianni, a registered architect and associate professor of architecture at Carleton University, suggests cities are often forced to play catch-up when urban spaces develop in unlikely ways.

“Cities are very organic things,” he says. “Sometimes cities grow where you don’t expect them to grow in places you don’t expect. The big answer to commuting problems is to distribute centres of employment to all of these areas. The problems occur when everyone is trying to go to the same place at once.”

Other factors that stand in the way of efficient infrastructure growth? Politics.

Amy Allen and Tyler Black 'enjoying' one of four commutes most Ottawans drive every day
Amy Allen and Tyler Black ‘enjoying’ one of four commutes most Ottawans drive every day. Photo: David Kawai

Gianni points to the cancellation of light rail in Barrhaven as a prime example of politics interfering with urban development. In 2006, then-mayor Bob Chiarelli set in motion plans to run light rail service from Barrhaven to the downtown core. This was scrapped by his successor, Larry O’Brien, as many constituents did not believe infrastructure should be built where there was little demand for service. Now, nearly a decade later, Barrhaven continues to grow and public transit struggles to keep pace.

Nevertheless, the city has been trying to remedy commuter problems with a new, comprehensive transportation plan released in 2013. The city aims to have light rail running in the downtown core by 2018, with an eventual expansion to suburban areas. It has also pledged to widen commuter arteries such as Carp Road, Eagleson Road, the Airport Parkway, and Blackburn Hamlet Bypass.

And there are options for commuters not keen on driving. Laura Dudas, president of the Blackburn Community Association in Ottawa’s east end, says more drivers should look to public transit as a viable option in the daily commute. Many Blackburn residents are “using public transit as an alternative to sitting in traffic” and despite the frustrating delays and reroutes in Ottawa’s public transit during construction of the Confederation Line, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Dudas herself takes public transit when the weather becomes too harsh to ride her motorcycle.

So does Ottawa have a commuter problem? Not really, according to Beltzner.

“Ottawa’s traffic congestion is nowhere near as bad as other cities,” he says, alluding to Toronto and Montreal as locations where gridlock is much worse. “Certainly, it’s taking longer than it used to, but show me a place where that doesn’t happen. What we need to think about is, how do we grow smart?”

The Commutes

We tested four different commutes, aiming to arrive at the National Arts Centre by 9 a.m. We did each drive twice, experimenting with departure times. The result? Leave early if you want to get to work on time.



Manotick — Watson’s Mill

Distance: 39 km
Estimated Time: 38 minutes
Day 1 Departure Time: 8:06 a.m.
Day 1 Arrival Time: 8:54 a.m.
Day 2 Departure Time: 7:58 a.m.
Day 2 Arrival Time: 8:56 a.m.
Actual Time: 50–60 minutes

Manotick residents are lucky enough to have three major routes to the downtown core: Highway 417, Riverside Drive, and Prince of Wales Drive. We chose the Riverside Drive route because Google Maps suggested it is the fastest during rush hour. In the outer areas, it wasn’t the most attractive commute. The road was flanked by empty fields, new housing developments, strip malls, and airport industrial buildings. But all was forgiven when we turned onto Colonel By Drive and were treated to the beauty of the frozen Rideau Canal shining in the morning sunlight.

On our first morning, we hopped into the BMW X4 we borrowed from Otto’s BMW and departed Manotick at 8:06. Traffic flowed smoothly along River Road, Earl Armstrong Drive, and Limebank Road on both mornings. On our first day, the only traffic we encountered was on Limebank Road between River and Hunt Club roads. We ended up arriving at the National Arts Centre at 8:54 a.m., 48 minutes after we left Manotick.

On our second day, the drive was more difficult. We set out at 7:58 a.m., but this time, traffic was slow all the way down Riverside Drive between Hunt Club and Hog’s Back roads. We arrived at the National Arts Centre at 8:56 a.m., a whole 58 minutes after leaving Manotick. This route is unpredictable, so we recommend that drivers give themselves at least a 10-minute cushion in the event of heavy traffic.

Wakefield — The Black Sheep Inn

Distance: 34 km
Estimated Time: 28 minutes
Day 1 Departure Time: 8:20 a.m.
Day 1 Arrival Time: 9 a.m.
Day 2 Departure Time: 8:10 a.m.
Day 2 Arrival Time: 8:40 a.m.
Actual Time: 30–40 minutes

We set out for our first drive at 8:20 a.m. on a snowy Monday and were pleasantly surprised to find the winding, picturesque Autoroute 5 Sud between Wakefield and Boulevard St-Raymond almost devoid of cars. In fact, the drive was completely uneventful until we reached downtown Gatineau — it was only when Autoroute 5 crossed Autoroute 50 that the roads started to get a little congested. This was largely due to the influx of cars heading into Ottawa from downtown Gatineau.

Traffic remained slow across the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge and onto Dalhousie Street and Sussex Drive, where traffic lights created a stop-and-go situation. But at worst, it caused a delay of only 10 minutes; at best, two minutes.

The drive from Wakefield was the pleasantest of all the commutes we undertook. The scenery was stunning. The winding highway afforded beautiful views of quaint homes and rolling hills carpeted with dense forest. It also took us past historic and iconic sites such as the National Gallery of Canada, 24 Sussex Drive, Major’s Hill Park, the Fairmont Château Laurier, and the National War Memorial.

Orleans — Trim Road and Highway 174

Distance: 25 km
Estimated Time: 20 minutes
Day 1 Departure Time: 7:50 a.m.
Day 1 Arrival Time: 8:18 a.m.
Day 2 Departure Time: 8:16 a.m.
Day 2 Arrival Time: 8:42 a.m.
Actual Time: 28–30 minutes

We were expecting Orleans to be a challenge. Often, when listening to the radio on the commute to work, we hear about the difficulties motorists encounter at the split where Highway 174 meets Highway 417. Yes, the split was tough, but the rest of the commute was easy enough. It’s a good distance from downtown, but Orleans has the infrastructure to accommodate a heavy flow of traffic.

For our drives, we set out from Trim Road near Highway 174 and, from there, merged onto Highway 417 and into the city centre. On both days, traffic flowed smoothly from Trim Road to the split. It slowed a little near exits such as Jeanne d’Arc Boulevard and Montreal Road, but this had very little effect on our commute time.

The big problem area is at the split itself. At this juncture, four lanes of heavy traffic converge, and we found ourselves surrounded by walls of transport trucks.

Nevertheless, the commute from Orleans was one of the easiest routes we tested. We arrived at our destination within a half-hour and were largely unencumbered by traffic. But leave five to 10 minutes early to ensure a timely arrival.

Carp — Alice’s Village Cafe

Distance: 40 km
Estimated Time: 43 minutes
Day 1 Departure Time: 8:20 a.m.
Day 1 Arrival Time: 9:10 a.m.
Day 2 Departure Time: 8:04 a.m.
Day 2 Arrival Time: 9:01 a.m.
Actual Time: 50–60 minutes

The first part of the commute from Carp lulled us into a false sense of reality. On our first morning, we sailed, unhindered, past the tranquil farm fields that line Carp Road. There was only a handful of cars on the road, and it was even clear on Highway 417 between Carp Road and Moodie Drive. But when we reached the junction where Highway 416 meets Highway 417, traffic slowed to an agonizing 20 kilometres an hour.

Google Maps had told us it would be a 43-minute drive, with traffic, to the National Arts Centre. It actually took us 50 minutes to reach our destination on our first day, and we were, hypothetically, 10 minutes late for work.

On our second morning, we were prepared. We left at 8:05, but traffic was worse. Instead of 20 kilometres an hour, we moved at less than 10 kilometres an hour once we reached the 416 on-ramp.

Overall, we found the biggest problem to be Highway 417 between the 416 and Carling Avenue. We suspect gridlock occurs in this area because suburban drivers enter the 417 at the 416, Pinecrest, Woodroffe, and Maitland on-ramps. We also noticed most of the cars around us had only one occupant: the driver. A potential solution? The HOV lane between Eagleson Road and Moodie Drive might relieve congestion and encourage carpooling if it were extended between the 416 and the Carling Avenue exits.

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