I guess you might consider this a commissioned post – Mike, who commented here, asked for my thoughts on how to make Chemin d’Aylmer a more walkable place and my thoughts take up more than a comment bubble’s space.
So the Chemin d’Aylmer is Aylmer’s main axis – it runs as a continuation of Principale past Wilfred-Lavigne and a turns into Alexandre-Taché past Saint-Raymon. It’s a four-lane road and completely unworkable throughout: Not only is it thoroughly unpleasant to walk between parking lots and traffic along kilometer-long blocks on a treeless road, but it’s completely uninteresting with almost no streetside buildings (the two exceptions being two small-scale infill projects completed within the last three years) and generally nothing to look at besides asphalt with moving cars and asphalt with parked cars.
Further down Chemin d’Aylmer past Fraser, the road assumes an almost bucolic character, cutting through the “golf-belt” and passing just north of old cottage colonies.
It is my belief that the Chemin d’Aylmer past Fraser can’t be made walkable – it just isn’t urban enough to sustain any true walkability which requires people, after all. However, the rest of Principale could potentially, with a lot of effort, become a real place to be instead of a road to drive through. It depends on three main aspects: the street, the blocks and the buildings.
The street is all of the rights-of-way (RoW) between buildings, including those for pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation and automobiles. As it stands, there are about three meters of space dedicated to pedestrians right beside 15m for automobiles and there’s about another eight meters of city-owned buffer between the road and the parking lots. Using the 24m of space, the street could be reallocated:
(from the side to the middle)
– two four meter sidewalks, including space for frontage (like merchandise displays and patio seating) and streetside furniture (trees, bike racks, benches, news stands, etc.)
– two 2.5 meter parking lanes paved with pavers in order to prevent moving vehicles from speeding up when the parking is empty and encouraging it to be taken up by pedestrians if the need be (like a public market or during events). Where more space is needed (like at tramway stations, pedestrian crossings or left-turning lanes), the parking would be the first to go to make room.
– two three-meter lanes of automobile and bicycle traffic with left-turning lanes at intersections
– two 1.5m tree and catenary medians. Now, I know that 1.5m isn’t enough to grow mature street trees, but new construction techniques permit the root system to grow under roads, reducing the space needed for the trees.
– two three meter tramway RoW.
The total space used would come up to about 25m of space with its full width and as little as 17m without sacrificing the street’s walkability (by removing the centre trees and the parking) and it would lay the groundwork for a truly walkable street to emerge.
Now, I realize that many are very skeptical of removing lanes of traffic, weary of the tie-ups they think it’ll cause. Of course, that’s not the case for several long-to-explain reasons, but I’ll just address the concern with throughput, or the number of people able to move through a given space in a given time. Currently, the Chemin d’Aylmer can carry about 12 000 people per hour per direction (pphpd), assuming no slowdowns and that every car seat is filled. Reducing the traffic by one lane would, for argument’s sake, reduce that to 6 000 pphpd. However, when combining that with tramways capable of running at 90-second intervals and to carry 220 people with the smallest Alstom Citadis tram and 500 with the largest, the road capacity jumps from 12 000 to 15 000 (220-person trams) to 26 000 (500-person trams). An improvement, to say the least.
There grass is always greener on the other hill, they say. And that is precisely why a walkable thoroughfare must have many interruptions in the traffic: to allow people to cross the street to get to the attractions on the other side. Currently, if you want to walk from the Giant Tiger to the IGA across the street, it’s a 1-km walk via the nearest crosswalk or a adrenaline-pumping run across four lanes of racing cars. So, a walkable Chemin d’Aylmer should have small blocks with crosswalks every 200 meters ideally to insure that people can safely cross the street without having to make an enormous detour.
A walkable Chemin d’Aylmer needs more than nice streets with frequent crossings: it also needs its attractions to be walkable, i.e, not a quarter-kilometre from the road across treeless parking lots. Buildings have to come right up to the street, no stairs or parking in the front. This is in fact my biggest disappointment with the infill along Chemin d’Aylmer which doesn’t have parking in the front, but which is prevented from interacting with the street by stairs (whose utility I can’t quite understand). When you walk, you want to be able to see what’s going on inside a store, just as knowing that you can be seen from a store makes you feel like someone would come to your rescue if ever need be. However, though the storefronts should come up straight to the street, the whole building does not need (and indeed shouldn’t): to let the light in and avoid the canyons of buildings all too common in Downtown Ottawa, floors higher than half the length of the street should be set back (so, in this case, floors 4 and up). The rule of thumb here is to try to always make the distance between a tower and the middle of the street the same as from the base of the building to its top. This permits density on a comfortable and human scale, a big component in walkability.
The face of the building would also have to be interesting and varied: large windows offering view inside the building and a lack of dead space (i.e, blank walls, parking lots, etc). This usually goes hand in hand with a high density of shops as seen from the street: instead of 200m of one store, there should be as many storefronts as possible to make the street not only more useful, but more appealing. That is not to say that there cannot be big stores, but they can’t dominate the streetfront: many larger stores (department stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, etc.) in urban areas have adapted to this constraint by having a small entrance leading to a large building behind the smaller stores beside it or even by building second stories and-or basements to make the floorspace fit on in a smaller footprint.
Bonus section! Renewable places
This is an issue that I have never seen discussed in any project, but it may be one of the most important ones: how will the buildings die? We live in a culture in which death has become a taboo, but just as it is unwise to live as if you were going to live forever, it is just as foolish to build thinking that it will never become obsolete. As Jane Jacobs touches on in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, a successful neighborhood requires both new buildings – whose high overhead cost attract businesses with higher profit margins – and old buildings – whose low cost attract the necessary low-profit businesses such as grocers. A place with just old buildings indicates a lack of investment in the place, but, more seriously, a place built as a whole with new mega-structures is doomed to become obsolete and to die. We should avoid these mega-buildings which take up a whole block because it is that much more difficult and disruptive to renew it when it becomes obsolete. Instead, we must opt for smaller, structurally independent buildings where one may be taken down and rebuilt without having to redo the whole block. For a lack of a better term, I’ll call these renewable places, that is to say places that can be gradually and continually renewed like a forest in which trees fall and are replaced one at a time.
So in order to make sure that Chemin d’Aylmer can sustain an attractive and useful place, the buildings along it have to be small, independent structures which have been built with their eventual renewal and replacement in mind.
The rest of Chemin d’Aylmer
As I said before, the rest of Chemin d’Aylmer can’t be made walkable yet due to a lack of urbanity. However, I believe that it can be made bikeable by building a large bike path parallel to the road, though not directly beside it: it should be separated by trees and greenery both for aesthetic and safety reasons. Moreover, this extra RoW space would give Chemin d’Aylmer the space needed to give it the large sidewalks and street amenities needed if and when places around it become more urban and a walkable streetscape is warranted.
– Rebuild the roadway as I described in the first section
– Create new streets and crosswalks crossing Chemin d’Aylmer and connecting to the surrounding neighbourhoods
– Build structurally independent buildings with a high density of storefronts and with height setbacks atop the parking lots of the malls and strip malls along Chemin d’Aylmer
– For the Chemin d’Aylmer between more urban areas (Aylmer, Fraser, Connaught), bikeability should be implemented with large paths separated from the roadway which, as the thoroughfare becomes more urban, will allow for conversion into a walkable streetscape.
So there you have it. My two cents on how we can transform Chemin d’Aylmer from an eyesore into a destination. I have reason to believe that, if the Aylmer tram project does indeed come into being, it will be a great opportunity to implement these improvements, both because the roadway would have to be partially redone in order to build the tramway and because the significant increase in property values due to the tram would spark development on the underperforming parking lots along Chemin d’Aylmer. In that case, it would be imperative that the development be done right -following what I believe to be the essential guidelines mentioned above – in order to help Aylmer grow in a way which values and respects people.