McLeod: Ottawa’s ‘flex space’ stretched by automobile overuse

What’s flex space, you may ask? Basically, it’s a type of shared street space. If the city feels that there’s not enough space to accommodate all uses of a street—or that demand is not consistent enough to devoting space to a specific use 24/7—they’ll deem some of the space “flex space”. It’s like multi-use space, though usually only one use can happen at a time.



We’re getting this on Elgin Street, apparently (and on Queen Street). With the new design, the city has widened the sidewalks, but declared about half of the new sidewalks to be flex space. Sometimes, it’ll be used for extra width for walking (yay); sometimes, it’ll be used for patios (yay); sometimes, it’ll be used for parking.

Flex space can be an invitation for conflict. With competing uses, it’s easy for one form to dominate. It’s pretty clear that when a patio is erected, the particular space will be for a patio, only (although, considering how many buildings drivers drive into, maybe that’s not a valid assumption).

The conflict will occur when people want to walk and drivers want to park. To figure out what may happen in this situation, let’s look at some existing shared spaces in Ottawa

Lansdowne Park

There was a real push to make Lansdowne car-free, but, alas, it failed. So they went with shared space, in this situation, a “Pedestrian Priority Zone”. Pedestrians are allowed to walk anywhere, and cars were to carefully navigate the few routes they were allowed on.

At first, there was some confusion—which was completely overblown in the media, by the city and by OSEG. Drivers were, gradually, getting accustomed to an area that was not tailored to them. This couldn’t stand.

The powers-that-be decided to add lines everywhere to demarcate the roadway (which was still a Pedestrian Priority Zone). The result is as expected. Drivers were emboldened to take over, often speeding through the Park and making much of the area hostile to pedestrians.

Further, they will drive everywhere and anywhere, winding up in parks, plazas and art installations. Bollards were installed to help protect pedestrians. Pretty much every bollard has been run into and damaged. Some have been completed knocked over, pulling up the stone they’re bolted into.

Flex space has turned into car space.

Sparks Street Mall

I know what you’re thinking, Sparks Street isn’t flex space; it’s a pedestrian-only area. You’d think, wouldn’t you? It’s called a pedestrian mall. There are signs saying there’s no driving…but they don’t really count. Sometimes, drivers will even move “no drivng” signs to ensure they can drive:

There are cars and trucks on the mall, all the damned time. This isn’t even flex space, and it’s been taken over by cars.

The sidewalk on my street

There’s a sidewalk across the street from my home. Probably about five days a week, you’ll find a vehicle parked on it. It doesn’t matter that there are free spots across the street (who wants to cross a quiet, narrow residential street, amirite?), nor does it matter that you can legally park on the street right beside the sidewalk, drivers will still pull up over the curb and block somewhere between half and the entire sidewalk.

I don’t even bother calling the city anymore. I used to, but I’d get one of three results: (1) I’d be told people can park there if it’s an emergency (it never is; firefighters, paramedics and cops stop on the street); (2) No one ever comes; or (3) By-law drives by and doesn’t even stop.

Hell, one time it was a by-law officer who was parked on the sidewalk.

This happens throughout the city. It is not exclusive to my street. We’re not even talking about flex space. Sidewalks get taken over by cars.



So the next time you see a rendering with flex space, or you hear a politician or planner talk about how cars and pedestrians will both get to use a street, remember: anywhere cars are offered even the slightest accommodation, they will take over. Our politicians and our city bureaucracy will do nothing to prevent it; in fact, they’ll enable it.

In our local culture, flex space is a scourge that will kill livability, bit by bit.

Jonathan McLeod is an Ottawa writer. This column is republished from his Ottawa political blog Steps from the Canal. Follow him at twitter.com/jonathanmcleod.

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