We tried nothing, and it didn't work

We tried nothing, and it didn't work
Photo by Nabil Saleh / Unsplash

It was just an irritated tweet of the kind I throw out into the world every single day. But this one hit a nerve.

At the time of writing it had well over 30,000 impressions which, for a tweet about one relatively small piece of municipal governance, is… a lot. It’s still climbing steadily. About 1,600 people have so far engaged with it, too. Most of them weeping with me. 

Now I have even more things to say.

First of all Wellington was not “closed.” A small stretch of it, in front of Parliament, was not accessible to motor vehicles except the authorized ones and also those that ignored the concrete barriers and barreled down the “closed” street anyway. Which, based on my casual observation over the last year, was a surprisingly high number of vehicles. 

Second of all, fuck, man. What is it about cars in this city that depriving them access to 500 or so metres of asphalt is comparable to a long forced march through institutions of cultural revolution or some such faux-communist torture? 

And on the eve of the first anniversary of the convoy that caused that stretch of road to be off-limits to motor vehicles, the message couldn’t have been clearer. It screams this: We don’t care how residents of Centretown feel about the violence they endured for weeks on end. We’re going to allow traffic to flow once more because dammit, we can’t keep asking motorists to make a 150-metre detour twice a year. That’s inhumane, vous comprenez? 

I’ll grant one thing to the pro-cars-all-the-time-everywhere crowd. That stretch of Wellington wasn’t especially full of happy pedestrians and cyclists while it was busy being mostly devoid of vehicular traffic except for the exceptions. 

That’s because we didn’t try to make it attractive to humans. Other than feebly block access to cars, we did precisely bugger-all to make the space something people would want to flock to. It’s like we deliberately set ourselves up for failure so we’d have no choice but to bring back cars because hell, we tried nothing and it didn’t work let’s hurry back to what we’re used to. 

It’s like the argument according to which we shouldn’t plow bike lanes in the winter because nobody bikes when it’s cold except of course for all the cyclists biking through snow whose existence keeps being denied by those who’d rather they’d just disappear already. 

None so blind as those who poke their eyes out to avoid seeing. 

Downtown Ottawa is a sad patch of empty lack-of-fun because we keep making the wrong decisions. Even the much-vaunted Elgin Street redesign is a flop, because instead of going whole-hog on the streets-for-people model, we compromised (evil, evil word) by allowing cars to zigzag through ineffective traffic calming measures on their way to an artificially cheap parking spot. 

Have you tried biking down there? It’s a nightmare. The only place that feels safe as a cyclist is on the sidewalk, which is terribly unfair to pedestrians. And also illegal. 

Ottawa is full of lovely people who know exactly what makes a city vibrant and fun and human-scale and welcoming and cool. But for some reason we keep electing representatives who insist, infuriatingly, on making one wrong move after the next, either because they’re afraid of doing anything that hasn’t been done before or — well, actually, I think that’s it. The only way council ever considers doing something a tiny wee bit different is as part of a pilot project that never gets past that stage no matter how successful it is.

We’re afraid of even trying to be successful at being human and friendly. We can’t seem to find the guts needed to tell drivers, yes, tough, you’re going to have to make a detour of several dozen metres while comfortably sitting in your climate-controlled metal box because prime real estate in this town is reserved for human beings, not cars. 

It keeps happening, over and over and over again. And I cannot understand why we insist on not trying to be less predictably awful.