In transportation planning, drivers never lose

Ottawa Sun headline when new signage was put up for the Laurier Segregated Bicycle Lane pilot.

Here’s the golden rule that is applied whenever a municipal project is being planned:

No change can come at a cost to drivers.

Here’s how this breaks down:

1. Travel time can’t ever get worse.

2. Taxpayer-subsidized parking is sacred.

3. Drivers can never be inconvenienced in any other way, and change is inconvenience.


We’re blessed in Ottawa with having a somewhat sane Transportation Master Plan. It says the goal is to reduce auto dependence by making walking and cycling more attractive. So why do countless city projects not follow the city’s own guideline?

Working around the rule

We can and do improve bike facilities, but we always need to work around this axiom. Adding a bike lane is acceptable as long as you don’t remove a driving lane (unless you have proof that Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) isn’t lowered). Bike paths far away from roads are celebrated. Politicians herald these to mark how they support sustainable transportation.

Here’s some examples of what are considered real successes in the city:

The Laurier Segregated Bike Lane pilot

The key arguments against moving parking to other streets to install the Laurier segregated lane were that it would slow down drivers and people would have to park further away. Cyclists won, but only because it could be proven that drivers didn’t lose.

The NCC Multi-use-paths

Just another perfect NCC multi-use path...

Many say that the success here is because cyclists don’t have to deal with traffic. But the only way these were built was because they didn’t have to deal with car traffic. But note that nowhere do cyclists have right of way at intersections with regular roads, ensuring that drivers didn’t lose anything.

So we are making progress, but success only comes when we prove the project won’t hurt drivers.

Projects that are held back

Now consider some examples where obvious improvements to sustainable transportation were thwarted because it impinged on this rule.

Bank St. Bridge

As I’d written about before, the congestion on Bank St. is going to worsen because of Lansdowne. Narrowing the bridge from four to three lanes would accommodate two bike lanes to encourage active transportation, but the car can never lose. Even pro-bike Councillor Chernushenko has given up arguing for lane reduction, knowing full well that he’d never get widespread support.


The city is trying to address busy and congested Bronson Ave. from the 417 northbound while they’re installing new sewers. The city says clearly that they want a balance of modal types, yet the decision is to widen the lanes and make the sidewalks even more narrow (despite local opposition).  I’ve never seen an explanation of how the result fits into either the original goal of the project or the TMP. Unless you disregard both of these because the golden rule trumps all.

There’s lots more, but the list would just get boring: all the new traffic circles, 417 overpasses, lack of adherence to the city’s own construction guidelines, Blackburn Hamlet bypass, snow clearing priorities, use of salt…

The worst part of it isn’t the projects we’ve lost, it is that lobbyists have just accepted this. We don’t even know what we really want.

The political slant

The electorate’s love of the car has ensured taxpayers subsidize drivers. It makes us blind to the huge financial, health and environmental costs of passenger vehicles.

Imagine a politician getting elected on the platform of massive improvements in sustainable transportation at the minor cost of a lane or a signal prioritizing a bike lane (clearly in line with the TMP vision). In Ottawa, they’ll lose every time to a politician who favours the car, or at least respects this golden rule.  We’re screwed.

Change is far away. New York City might be indicative of a tipping point. Janette Sadik-Khan’s plan is a rare, newsworthy exception. There’s limited movement in Vancouver, Montreal and Portland, but North America will always be behind Europe because of this cultural difference.


More depressing news coming up in a future post! But Happy New Year.



  1. It’s pretty depressing the way you paint this picture. Cars do rule.  I understand that they may even be widening the 417 out near Kanata after already having just finished doing so. And no one bats an eye when the 34 million Terry Fox extension gets built so people can go from Kanata north to Kanata “town centre’ 5 minutes faster. But a million or two for the Laurier SBL is seen as an outrageous taxpayer expense. 

  2. The rule definitely applies here in Toronto.
    Update to story: Then Chair of the now disbanded Toronto Cycling Committee, former Councillor Heaps, lost the election to Councillor Berardinetti. She ran on removing bike lanes on the ward’s suburban arterials which was recently approved by City Hall.

  3. You’ve nailed it.

    The only way around making every tiny concession to cyclists and pedestrians not inconvenience the car is making it always about the children. Bloated FUV drivers do not want people driving over their children, though will find an excuse when they run over each other’s, and may eventually become tired of their entire family life limited to chauffeuring.

  4. Pingback: A hollow victory on Bronson « Alex Bikes

  5. Well said, Alex. Too bad you are bang on…

  6. Sadly true, and not just for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. This “Drivers must not be inconvenienced” policy is distorting our rapid transit too. There is no other reason for a downtown LRT tunnel. You can’t run it at street level because that would inconvenience car drivers. Instead we dig a tunnel to keep the train out of the cars way, spending money that could otherwise be used to extend the train past Tunneys.
    We need a mayor who is brave enough to tell drivers that their concerns don’t trump all others.

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