Thursday, April 27, 2023

The skinny on sidewalk design in Ottawa

Thanks to the Ottawa Lookout, I learned that today at the City's Transportation Committee meeting, Councillor Shawn Menard has a motion in relation to an ongoing review of sidewalk designs.

Since I currently have a cold, I can't present in person, so instead I wrote out a presentation to Transportation Committee. I'm reformatting it here, as a more concise rewrite of my 2014 blog series about Ramp style sidewalks (or "Toronto-style sidewalks", as they were called then).

Sidewalk with house porchsteps on the left and grassy lawn on the right, with trees providing canopy cover (west side of Queen Elizabeth Drive near McLeod Street)

So let's start by identifying the problem: the ideal sidewalk is flat and high enough or far enough from the roadway that both puddles and motor vehicles stay off of it. Unfortunately, people do have to drive over sidewalks sometimes, which necessitates some sort of ramp. The configuration of that ramp is the matter up for debate. (The design of sidewalks at intersections is not part of this discussion, but I'm firmly in the raised-intersection/raised-crosswalk camp)

The next best thing to a full-height sidewalk is when there's a nice wide boulevard between the sidewalk and the roadway, so that the entire sidewalk can remain flat and the ramping occurs entirely within the boulevard:

Sidewalk along a road with a wide grassy boulevard, with a concrete sidewalk ramping from the sidewalk to the roadway after the end of the grassy part of the boulevard (south side of Gladstone just west of O'Connor Street)

Even if the boulevard is fairly narrow, so long as the sidewalk is wide enough, this ramp isn't in the way.

Concrete sidewalk with red paver brick strip along the road edge. At driveways, the red strip is interrupted by concrete ramping down to the roadway. Blue Cooper St sign on a black lamppost, apartment building with number 266 (Bronson Avenue)

Unfortunately, for a long time, this was not the City's standard sidewalk design. The "traditional style" sidewalk (labelled below as "Ottawa standard") dips the entire width of the sidewalk at driveways, whereas the more recent "ramp style" sidewalk (labelled below as "Toronto standard") behaves as I've described above. This graphic is from a 2004 pilot study of ramp-style sidewalks on Holland Avenue and Waverley Street:

Line drawing graphic with heading Design Standards for depressed sidewalk at driveway access, and caption at bottom, Holland Avenue rehaibilitation Carling Avenue to Tyndall Street.

There are a number of problems with tranditional style sidewalks. On roads where there are many driveways, it can lead to a roller-coaster effect, such as seen here:

Looking along a sidewalk with the curb edge silhouetted showing frequent dips and bumps along the length of the sidewalk. (LeBreton Street North between Willow Street and Empress Street, looking north on the east side)

And in the winter, when it gets icy, the cross-slope can be menacing to manoevre on for even the most fleet footed of pedestrians:

Looking along a sidewalk covered with patches of ice, where there is a significant slope down from the driveway side of the sidewalk to the road side of the sidewalk, perpendicular to the direction of pedestrian travel. (Lisgar Street just west of Elgin Street, behind the former Elgin theatre, now a coffeeshop at the corner)

But the biggest issue—liability, even, from the City's perspective—with traditional drop-style sidewalks is the assumption that driveway owners will clear the snow at the end of their driveways. This is necessary for water to drain off the sidewalk, but there is no requirement for property owners to clear the snow from the ends of their driveways, and the City doesn't do it for them either. As a result, pedestrians get stuck with ponds across the entire sidewalk like this one:

Sidewalk in winter with a wide treed boulevard covered in snow at a driveway. The sidewalk is clear except at the driveway where a big puddle of water covers it, blocked in by snow on both sides of the sidewalk. (Gladstone Avenue, north side, just west of Bay Street)

Here's a diagram that I drew a while ago that shows water at the same height on two driveways that are blocked by a snowbank, one with a ramp-style sidewalk (left) and the other with a traditional drop-style sidewalk (right). In both cases, the snowbank along the roadway stops the water from draining out to the road, but at least on the ramp-style crossing there is still a dry stretch that is navigable:

Diagram of water ponding along a sidewalk as described above.

Even without a snowbank, drop sidewalks suffer from ponding:

Slushy winter scene of a parking lot where the driveway leading to it across the sidewalk is completely covered in water. (Gladstone Avenue, south side, just west of Metcalfe Street, prior to the 2012 reconstruction)

Meanwhile, on this then-new ramp-style sidewalk on Christie Street, the entire road is covered with water, but the sidewalk behind the ramped section is high and dry:

Night winter scene of a sidewalk with slushy snow gathered away from the curb, and a reflective water surface across the entire roadway. The ramped portion of the sidewalk is flooded, but the flat part is not. (Christie Street, north side, between Bronson Avenue and Cambridge Street North, after the 2012 reconstruction)

There are times when ramp-style sidewalks are not ideal. When there are many adjacent driveways, the entire length of the sidewalk is ramped, leaving a very narrow navigable portion of the sidewalk. According to City standard SC 13.1 here, therefore, traditional style sidewalks should be installed when the total length of this stretch is more than 30 metres:

City of Ottawa standards drawing, line drawing of a sidewalk with three driveway accesses close to each other and a continuous stretch of ramp-style sidewalk, labelled Continuous vehicle access ramp.

I believe that rule came about following the installation of this sidewalk on Craig Street in the Glebe, which, while nominally the minimum 1.8 metres wide, only has a navigable width of 1.05 metres for at least a block:

But wait! There is another way. Championed (at least in my neighbourhood) by Eric Darwin of the West Side Action blog is a style called the rolled curb. This design has a continuous, flat sidewalk with a continuous ramped curb. There's no distinction between driveway and non-driveway; motorists are trusted to mount the curb only when they are crossing it. Here's an example of a rolled curb on Empress Avenue south of Albert Street in LeBreton Flats:

Looking along the curb line of a sidewalk, as described above. (Empress Avenue west side south of Albert Street looking south)

I believe this was first used in Ottawa at the west end of Holmwood Avenue in the Glebe, down the hill from Bronson:

Stretch of uphill urban road with gardens interrupted with driveways. The curb side of the sidewalk is slanted down to the road continuously, both at driveways and not. (Holmwood Avenue, south side, at Gordon Street)

Even though rolled curbs are not the City standard, they've built them in the suburbs too:

Suburban street with sidewalk adjacent to the roadway with a flat sidewalk and the entire length of the curb is ramped from the sidewalk height to the roadway. (Rosehill at Huntmar Drive, Stittsville)

I don't have enough experience with rolled curbs to know if these problems come up in practice, but I can imagine three downsides of rolled curbs, all related to parallel parking:
  • On a hill, it becomes pointless to turn your wheels toward the curb when parking if the curb is ramped like this.
  • Motorists are often too lazy to reposition on when they park with one wheel jutted up on a regular height sidewalk; I can only imagine that sidewalk incursions are even more common when they don't feel a bump from their wheels hitting the curb.
  • It's bad enough in urban neighbourhoods that people park blocking driveways already, removing the depressed curb can make it that much harder for people to see where driveways are.

Adhering to standards

All of this talk about City design standards is moot if the City doesn't apply them. And they don't.

When the first phase of Bronson Avenue (Gladstone to Arlington) was reconstructed in 2012, it was rebuilt with drop-style sidewalks. I called them out on this (at the time I was working in Councillor Diane Holmes' office, prior to which I was the Bronson Avenue rep for the community association), and they partially admitted error: ramp-style sidewalks should have been installed, or at least the Councillor should have been apprised. They said there were grade issues that would have made ramp-style sidewalks difficult to implement.

Recently paved four-lane-wide road littered with traffic barrels. New sidewalks on either side are roller-coaster style, not flat-top style. (Bronson Avenue looking north from Flora to McLeod)

But getting the contractor to rip out all the sidewalks and install new ones would have extended the closure of the street and the impact of this closure on the area businesses, so the City decided to keep them. They did, however, build ramp-style sidewalks for the subsequent phases (Gladstone to Laurier):

New but dusty roadway with wide sidewalks that have ramps only on the curb edge of the sidewalk. Old houses' front steps come down to the sidewalk. The road is closed except for construction vehicles and local traffic. (Bronson Avenue, east side, looking north from Cooper to Lisgar Streets)

Later, in 2016, I noticed it again: on the first block of Lyon Street at Gladstone to get sidewalks installed, they were done with drop-style vehicle crossings instead of ramp-style. I was no longer working at City Hall, but wrote in to Councillor McKenney's office.

Road under construction with newly built roller coaster style sidewalk. Orange and black traffic barrels along the edge of the roadway. (Lyon Street, west side, south of Gladstone Avenue, during 2016 reconstruction)

This time the City did have ramp-style sidewalks specified in their contracts and drawings and—kudos to the councillor and City staff here—had the contractor rip up and replace the sidewalks (an expensive oversight for the contractor!), as we can see in Google Street view of the same location in 2021:

Google Street View of an urban sidewalk with ramp-style vehicle access crossings along the various driveways. (Lyon Street, west side, south of Gladstone Avenue)

Another place where I must come down hard on the City is in its building approvals. In my opinion, when a new building development requires the reinstallation of the sidewalk, it should be built to the City's standards, regardless of what style of vehicle access crossing was there before (and especially if the prior sidewalk was not AODA compliant).

However, in the case of one condo on Somerset Street West completed in 2008, the City said that they can't require a ramp-style sidewalk because the site plan agreement was approved prior to the June 2006 approval of the ramp-style standards, so pedestrians are stuck with a significant cross-slope:

Edge of a driveway along a sidewalk where it is clear that the sidewalk dips down at the driveway and also has a steep cross-slope (138 Somerset Street West, south side, just east of Elgin Street)

I recall a similar situation—not related to vehicle access corssings specifically—where the sidewalk was left unfinished at Bronson and Somerset by the Bronson Avenue reconstruction team due to ongoing reconstruction of the adjacent Petro-Canada site.

I certainly got the impression that the previously agreed design for Bronson would be applied when this work was complete, but instead we got bland grey unit pavers that didn't go at all with the red paver stones on Somerset Street through Chinatown. Apparently, because that's what was on the approved site plan for the gas station, we just have to live with it.

Looking along a street at a major urban intersection with red sidewalks and red concrete crosswalks on all corners except on the right, where there are grey unit pavers. (Somerset Street West looking east across Bronson Avenue)

More recently I've taken to writing in on every street reconstruction and planning application I can (in Somerset Ward) to remind the planner of the City's sidewalk standards. On this one at Kent and McLeod, where the development has the only driveway on the entire block, the planner forwarded me this response from the transportation department:
The City standard “Ramp Style Vehicle Access Crossing – SC13” should be read in conjunction with “Continuous Vehicle Access Ramp – SC13.1”.

The standard SC13 is to be implemented when multiple accesses are side-by-side as indicated in SC13.1, to prevent the “Roller Coaster” affect (see attached). Also it’s difficult for two pedestrians to walk together along an SC13 type access unless the sidewalk is made wider. The proponent is proposing only one access on Kent Street and not multiple accesses. We encourage that they match the same sidewalk and access that exists along their property frontage.
You can read and re-read it as many times as you like, but it sounds like he's saying that ramp-style sidewalks don't apply because it's the only driveway on the block. The way I read the SC 13.1 standard is that anything under 20m long should be ramp-style. The staff comment makes no sense to me, other than explaining why so many sidewalks in private developments are built this way. At Kent and McLeod, they dropped the sidewalk—and the ball.

Google Street View image of a front entranceway close to a sidewalk with a driveway that dips the sidewalk down, partially obscured by a car (443 Kent Street)

I didn't make my regular intervention on this new luxury walkup development on Gladstone Avenue, and it was built with a dropped sidewalk that I'm certain must flood in the wintertime. When I inquired after the fact, the right-of-way inspector who replied said, "The standard used for this monolithic curb and sidewalk depression is SC2, which is what’s on the approved drawing for this site. This could have been to match the existing grade on the other side of the sidewalk of the adjacent property." (link added)

Beige development with large bay windows and enclosed front stairs, double-width driveway has a dropped sidewalk. (509-511-515 Gladstone, north side, west of Lyon Street)

And then Ottawa Community Housing, in its otherwise spectacular Mosaïq development on Gladstone Avenue, did away with the sidewalk altogether on Rochester Street, giving its driveway priority over pedestrians (particularly ironic given the limited parking in this development):

Looking between two new buildings along a block of street where the adjacent sidewalk is broken up by a driveway and TWSI on either end of the sidewalk. (Rochester Street, east side, between Balsam and Gladstone)

OCH intends to do this again (interrupt the sidewalk with their driveway) in their next phase of development south of Gladstone. I've written to the planners but haven't heard anything about the City insisting on sidewalk continuity. I see they resubmitted a couple of weeks ago but have retained the sidewalk interruption (See next paragraph).

Aerial rendering of a building development occupying a full city block, with a winding road through the development that cuts through the sidewalk on either end. (Rochester, Gladstone, Booth Streets)

Edit: Good news! I heard back from the City planner on the file about these sidewalks who said the following:
The Site Plan Application for Phase 2 of Rochester Heights is nearing completion. Public comments received throughout the life of the Application form part of the public record and are considered by Staff. The latest plans online depict the changes made through the process.

One of the comments from Staff to the Applicant was related to the need for a continuous sidewalk across key access points which is reflected in the latest landscape plan below (blue).

Note too that the Applicant has improved the internal driveway so that it has more of a pedestrian feel to respond to Staff comments. This is shown near key internal pedestrian crossings (red).
Site plan drawing showing multiple buildings and parks on a half city block with a dog-leg roadway through the site. The intersection of the roadways with the sidewalk are circled in blue and pedestrian areas within the site are circled in red.

This is the commercial-style vehicle access crossing, which gets a dishonourable mention from me. They installed a variation of this at the Tim Horton's/Beer Store on Somerset across from Dundonald Park. At least this one was in concrete:

Tim Horton's restaurant building with a side concrete sidewalk that has curved outlines of the driveway crossing the sidewalk (515 Somerset Street West, north side, west of Lyon Street)

I realize that this blog post isn't the most polished, and is a bit on the ranty side. It also interrupts my Wellington Street series (the next instalment of which is around the corner).

Anyway, to close things off, here are the guidelines that I recommended to Transportation Committee for what sidewalk design to use:
  1. Where there is a boulevard, the sidewalk should be completely flat and full height, with the ramping down to the road occurring in the boulevard.
  2. Sidewalks 2.0 m wide and greater should use the ramp style vehicle access crossing.
  3. Sidewalks less than 2.0 m wide…
    1. Where there are few driveways, should use ramp style sidewalks, or may use drop-style if the sidewalk is on a hill.
    2. Where there are many driveways, should use rolled-curb style sidewalks
  4. Commercial style driveways (where the driveway interrupts the sidewalk) should never be used on Traditional Mainstreets, in residential areas, or where the sidewalk directly abuts the roadway.
  5. When a sidewalk is reinstated following utility work and/or private development, the City's standards should always apply unless given an explicit exemption in the site plan approval.
Transportation Committee meets at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 27, 2023.

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