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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Back to the ’60s: council votes on retro road for southeast commuters

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If you're driving through Alta Vista, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.


Three plaques went up on Toronto’ s Spadina Avenue last year celebrating the 1971 victory over the never-built Spadina Expressway: a victory over car-centric planning won 40 years ago.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is marking a different milestone. We’re voting on whether to build our commuter expressway: the Alta Vista Transportation Corridor parkway, phase 1.

The phased approach is making it hard for councillors to realize the gravity of their decision. On March 8-10 they will debate and vote on phase 1—the $55 million, 1.2 km AVTC hospital link.

Councillor Hume is calling it a “standard city street.” The map in the budget document shows a simple black line linking Riverside Drive to the General Hospital.

But have a look at the real plan. Note the similarity to the layout of the full parkway through the corridor. The $55 million price tag covers the underpass, bridge and loop necessary for a much bigger road.

Hundreds of comments on the petition site indicate the level of outrage throughout the city. Eight city centre community associations are officially against the road as designed. Many have for years tried to get the city to consider alternatives to pouring more cars onto our roads.

The Mayor says he has no plans to build the full road. It’ s a nice sentiment. But whether today’s mayor wants the commuter parkway or not, the first phase of this road will beg future mayors to build the rest.

Growth and intensification will demand it. Southeast commutes, now circuitous cut-throughs that anger drivers and residents alike, will increase. But with no room for dedicated rapid transit in the corridor, extending the road will be the only solution.

Though the exact numbers are unclear, the full parkway will cost hundreds of millions to build. It will intensify traffic in the downtown core and on the 417. It will put a serious dent in transit ridership, mix buses with car traffic, and break Ottawa 2020’ s smart growth promises of a modal shift to transit, biking and walking.

Hospital expansion over the next decade is one factor driving phase 1. But in examining this growth, are we conflating the needs of patients with the needs of staff? Right now, poor transit corners thousands of hospital employees into driving to work and paying for expensive parking. Better transit for commuters—both hospital staff and local residents—would free up surrounding roads for patients in cars and ambulances.

Many hospitals are nestled, like the Ottawa General, into their surrounding neighbourhoods and served not by dedicated thruways but by local roads. Think Montreal’ s Royal Vic or the Toronto General. Employees walk to work from all around, practicing health leaders’ mantra of prevention as cure.

Perhaps the former planner in town this week from the world’ s most livable city, Vancouver’ s Larry Beasley could weigh in on how we can keep quality of life top of mind.

For next week, councillors need to be clear on the meaning of their decision. Will they irreversibly set in motion the building of the full AVTC commuter parkway? Or will they take the bold step of deferring the budget item and working towards a smarter solution that will grow with our city?

Sherry McPhail is a writer living in Ottawa, after also living in Calgary and Vancouver. Leisure and work time spent in Toronto, Montreal, the maritimes and overseas gives her a broad perspective on smart, usable design that works in an urban setting. Often found on the local rinks, fields, forest trails and ski runs, she is keen on getting outside and building community. She sits on the board of her local community association in Riverview Park.



  1. We had a similar victory in the eary 70’s where neighbourhoods banded together to stop expressway offramps plowing through established neighbourhoods. Check out the documentary on the CCCA’s website ( The Pretoria Bridge section starts around 2:50. Also check out the plaque on the bridge!

  2. What is missing from this commentary is that this proposal will dramatically improve transit links to the hospitals as well.
    The comparison with Royal Vic in Montreal and the Toronto General is a bit silly. The Toronto General is on a major arterial (University Avenue) and a subway line. Royal Vic was built 100-odd years ago and is very slated to move to the more accessible MUHC campus in a number of years. Not exactly compelling comparisons.

    I’m against the parkway as a whole, but there is clearly a need for improved transit links to the hospital. And since those links will be buses for the foreseeable future, only this type of plan will offer any real improvement of bus access. Perhaps a dedicated bus link would fit the bill. But I am quite sure that these community associations are not in favour of that either. As is often the case, the emphasis seems to be entirely on the impact on their community without any thought to the need to improve access to a major community facility.

  3. As we heard last night at Jim Watson’s budget meeting, the cost of this over designed folly will actually be $65.6 million – and, oooops, that’s the cost in 2003 dollars….so you do the calculations.

  4. Here’s a direct quote from Watson: “I DO NOT support the Alta Vista Corridor”.

    It’s a straw man argument to paint this link as the first step in the larger parkway, because this same debate would have to happen for the parkway to be completed at a later date. It would be foolish to put off this solution to the hospital’s transportation problem simply because it MAY be part of an evil future plan.

  5. Except the hospital isn’t asking for it. That suggests to me that they don’t consider there to be a problem. (And if it’s just to help the hospital, why isn’t the hospital or provincial government not contributing to the exhorbitant cost?)

    The people who want it are the ones who want to send more cars downtown, where there isn’t and never will be room for them.

  6. Arguments about transit links are just a smokescreen to obscure the fact that this proposal is a bad idea.  If you want transit links, why not make this an extension of the transitway rather than a 4-lane arterial road with underpasses and on-ramps?  And why should the Ottawa taxpayers pay $65 million dollars ($54,000 a meter!) to pave over public greenspace and parks?  Plus Alta Vista and Smyth aren’t even that busy right now during rush hour compared to most other roads, so why are we building an expressway to nowhere?  

    The math just doesn’t add up.  I can think of other motives… One of them is the revival of the old North-South expressway.

  7. A Transitway extension does make far more sense at an instinctive level than a “standard city street”…if there’s a legitimate case for any roadbed to be built at all.

  8. “Ottawa is marking a different milestone. We’re voting on whether to build our/another commuter expressway: the Alta Vista Transportation Corridor parkway, phase 1.”
    There, fixed that for you.

    (the Ottawa River “Parkway” / Western Commuter Expressway, and Airport Parkway, Bronson/Heron-Data Centre Road interchange and Bronson on to Brewer Park, and the Rockliffe Parkway are all also commuter expressways)

  9. Html tags do work on the site, but only if you enter them properly. You didn’t close either tag.

    They don’t render in the e-mailed version of comments (if you are subscribed to them), which is how I can see your broken syntax.

  10. This is not about getting to the hospital quicker. I have not heard Ottawa’s ambulance services calling for this. It is being built to get commuters from Findlay Creek and the south Conroy/Hunt Club area downtown faster. It seems to be an anachronism that we do not need. This is not Toronto. You can get anywhere in this city relatively quickly.