This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
After a busy summer of construction, we now have a sense of what the footbridge that crosses the Rideau River at Strathcona Park will look like. When the bridge is finished next year, Sandy Hill and Vanier residents can cross the water on foot or bicycle without detouring north to the Rideau Street–Montreal Road Cummings Bridge. Cyclists will have a clear ride across town, along Somerset Street on the Ottawa side and Donald Street in Vanier, all for a cost of about $9.2 million.
Meanwhile, another footbridge at Hickory Street in Little Italy — scheduled to be completed this year at a cost of about $1.8 million — will make life a little easier for O-Train users and other downtown pedestrians.
If you love footbridges, that’s the good news.
The bad news? Ottawa doesn’t have many footbridges, and most of the recent glass-enclosed, all-weather-friendly versions stretching over the Queensway and other traffic arteries get little use.
The city doesn’t have current usage data for footbridges, but putting together existing counts and my own informal surveys, perhaps a few hundred people use the Queensway overpasses daily. The two city footbridges with the most traffic — the one across Woodroffe Avenue at Algonquin College and the Corktown Footbridge spanning the canal from Somerset to the University of Ottawa — are near schools and high-density residential areas. This should tell city planners something.
The Corktown Footbridge is particularly popular. Named after the ramshackle shanties that sprang up beside the canal to house Irish workers, the bridge sees about 7,000 people daily. In spite of these numbers, the decision to build it didn’t come easily.
Then councillor Clive Doucet says that at the time, the project was derided as a “bridge to beer” for University of Ottawa students and a waste of tax money.
Former councillor Diane Holmes recalls the mood before the Corktown vote. Though the idea went back to the early 1980s, “the province, which normally paid 75 percent of urban infrastructure costs, wouldn’t pay for it because there was no interest in anything to do with pedestrians. So it sat on the books forever,” she says.
When the University of Ottawa revived the idea in the early 2000s, many councillors were still opposed to anything that wasn’t vehicular traffic, Holmes explains. Apparently Doucet even joked about asking pedestrians to pay to use it. The suggestion wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but it indicates the divisive nature of footbridges at the time.
Finally, in 2007, the Corktown Footbridge project passed — by a margin of one. Given that struggle, it’s no surprise that we don’t hear much enthusiasm from city hall about footbridges.
But there are places where footbridges are used by throngs and take a real bite out of car traffic: Munich, for example. The German city has 1.5 million people, one river (the Isar), and 58 beautiful footbridges — most built since the early 1990s, according to Sarah Munoz in Munich’s department of civil engineering.
Her boss, Bernard Pfleger, an enthusiast for his city’s bike friendliness who rides to work every day, says that cyclists now make up 18 percent of the city’s traffic — and they love those bridges. “I can’t think of another city in the world where I’d have this experience,” he says.
The Munich website has a section called “Five Reasons to Ride a Bike,” which assures visitors that
“a bike will get you through Munich more quickly and flexibly than any other means of transport, and it’s good for your health.” The city has plenty of other bike-riding bumf in English, with routes, maps, and sightseeing suggestions. Put alongside Ottawa’s single segregated bikes-only lane along Laurier Avenue, it’s impressive.
Getting footbridge approval is easier for Munich than for Ottawa, Pfleger speculates, because “Munich is so far along in the process” and more used to the idea of bridges.
While Pfleger estimates that each Munich footbridge project is discussed for three to five years, that’s paltry compared with the lag time on the Fifth Avenue–Clegg Street bridge over the Rideau Canal.
A 1915 “master plan for Canada’s capital” by Sir Herbert S. Holt, chairman of the Federal Plan Commission, called for a canal bridge there. So did Jacques Gréber’s 1950 vision for the city; the National Capital Commission proposed the idea again in 1968. That means the Fifth–Clegg bridge has been mulled on and off for 100 years.
It looked to be a real contender last year, until it was postponed when council didn’t come up with the money. There are plenty of reasons to keep this one on the books; it shares many similarities with the Cork-town Footbridge. On the east side, it’s close to two universities (St. Paul and University of Ottawa’s Lees Avenue campus) and a high school (Immaculata), while on the west, there’s the new TD Place. (And historically, it’s a site that has ached for a crossing: a ferry operated there until around 1950, and a nearby wooden footbridge spanned the canal in winter.)
The postponed bridge sounds like a beauty. The website for its architect, DTAH, mentions Brazilian walnut wood handrails, a lookout zone, decking and seating, natural stone, and LED lighting to reflect in the water by night.
Seems fitting for a city of about a million people and a transportation committee that states its number one priority as “a range of modal choice, including walking and cycling, in all areas of the city, and encourag[ing] residents to choose alternatives to driving.” Given how desperate the city was to ensure the success of the Lansdowne redevelopment, one would think increasing its appeal to pedestrians would be a no-brainer.
But despite the fact that the 2012 budget included a program called “Ottawa on the Move,” which called for $340 million of capital (transportation) projects to be completed from 2012 to 2014, as well as a record amount of funding allocated to cycling infrastructure, too often footbridges fail to come to fruition. At prices ranging from $2 million to $12 million, footbridges are peanuts compared with road construction projects (the province is spending $200 million to widen the Queensway).
When they are built, footbridges span heavy traffic lanes, not waterways. Even though they attract few users, the city has built a slew of them in the suburbs in the past few years. For example, the bridge spanning the Airport Parkway that was completed last year gets about 200 daily users. Doing slightly better is the spiffy 2004 enclosed bridge at Castlefrank over the Queensway, which sees about 600 users a day.
The good news? There are passionate people committed to footbridges. City councillor David Chernushenko says he’s confident the Clegg–Fifth bridge will get built. “There certainly wasn’t much opposition to it on council,” he says, “[but] unless we find infrastructure money from other deferred projects or from greater borrowing, this [foot]bridge waits until the 2020-to-2025 phase of spending. And even then, it will still seek contributions from other levels of government.”
Perhaps some of that money should go toward a few return tickets to Munich. Call it an investment in the future.