Monday, March 26, 2012

Examining the new complaints against the Laurier Avenue Segregated Bike Lanes

This past week there was a front page story in the Centretown News about a new petition started by residents on Laurier Avenue West to get rid of the Laurier SBLs. There were also some new complaints from businesses.

First, let’s deal with the petition and the complaints of the residents. I’m assuming it’s the same gang that complained when this project got underway. These would be residents of the Queen Elizabeth Towers.

Petition organizer Janine Hutt is quoted in Centretown News stating, “ We do not want to cancel the bike lane system but we want the city to use common sense to decide how this can be done with the least disruption to both residents and businesses”. I’m not sure exactly what they want but their suggestions to close the lanes or move one or both to adjacent streets has already been dealt with and dismissed.

Another local resident and petition organizer (Richard Assellin) is quoted as saying “ lack of parking is killing life on Laurier”. Really? Was there ever life after all the civil servants go home in the evening? Is it really any different now? I’m a resident of downtown and I can tell Mr. Assellin that this statement is utter nonsense. And here’s why. Most of the businesses on Laurier that could be people friendly in the evenings and on weekends are closed after the work crowd have gone home. It’s hard to be lively when your cafes and grills close up shop early and are not open on weekends at all. Do you like the Manhattan Grill/Café? Try getting a coffee or bite to eat from them on Saturday or Sunday. Sorry, closed. Think about how quiet the Sparks Street Mall is on weekends and in the evening. Is it the fault of the bike lanes?

Hutt is also quoted as saying that the concrete barriers are a problem. Well, did she even bother to read the City of Ottawa’s plans for the SBL? If she had, she would know that the concrete barriers were only ever meant to be temporary. If the project succeeds they would be replaced by grade separated lanes. So that argument is a lame one.

As is the incessant whining about the lack of guest parking along Laurier Avenue. Since when is it the responsibility of the city to provide guest parking for an apartment building? Assellin is also quoted as saying that “generally you have parking on your own street”. In the suburbs maybe, but there’s no guarantee of that downtown. And anyway, how many hundreds of residents live in the Queen Elizabeth Towers? 450? Is it for the city to provide a guest spot for every resident? Why did the builder of these towers not provide enough visitor parking? My understanding is there is a grand total of four, yes four, visitor spaces for 450 units! Eric Darwin’s West Side Action Blog covered this story well and he had some options for dealing with this parking issue but, of course, these options have likely never been considered.

Now to a few of the business complaints. Hussein Yehia (Calvina Gourmet International) is quoted as saying that he has to open up at 5:30 to accept shipments. This, he claims, is one and a half hours earlier than he normally opens. So he opens at 7:00 A.M. It’s interesting to note that you can’t park on Laurier Avenue until 9:00 in the morning. So where do his customers come from for those 2 hours? My guess is they are parking in garages and lots or taking the bus. Or even walking and cycling. He tosses out the usual 15-20% loss in business, but we have no way of substantiating that fact. You can, by going to the City of Ottawa’s website, read that he has failed to be in compliance with the City’s Health inspections on 3 of the last 5 inspections.

This reminds me of a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen about a complaint from the owner of an Indian Restaurant on Laurier. He was complaining about a drop in business but a little research showed that his restaurant was rarely ever compliant with health inspections. Interestingly, after this was pointed out in some letters to the editor, he brought his restaurant under compliance. I found that interesting. Amazing what a bit of fame, or notoriety, can do. I think what these situations point out is that the media seem so quick to accept on faith the reasons for these business losses without doing their research and examining whether other factors may be in play. Why is that? Why do they assume that everyone who runs a business runs it well?

Let’s examine the case of a business complaint in this Centretown News story.

Press cafe

Presse Café at at L'esplanade Laurier

Jean Elkhoury, owner of Presse Café at 141 Laurier, is quoted as saying that the bike lanes are hurting everyone’s business. By “everyone” I assume Elkhoury means the Presse Café as well. Now according to Presse Café’s website this location has only been opened since November 2011. So this café was never in business before the Laurier SBLs existed. So, on what is Elkhoury basing this claim? There can’t be any comparative data so is it just an assumption? Perhaps this franchise is not hitting its targets in coffee shop rich Centretown. There could be a simple reason for this and it’s as simple as looking across the street.


Starbucks, across the street from Presse Café. Not the best photo but you can clearly see customers inside. On a Sunday. No chance of that at Presse Café

Starbucks at the corner of Laurier and O’Connor has been in business for several years. Could it be that Presse Café has some serious competition? I would think so. I also think that many people show loyalty to certain coffee shops. I know I do and I know others who can only be found at a certain Bridgehead or Starbucks or any of the other cafés in Ottawa. Does this complaining business have any loyal customers? I don’t know. But I do know that if they do you won’t find them there in the evening or on weekends. Here’s an idea for Jean Elkhoury. If you want a successful café downtown why don’t you open in the evenings and on weekends or at least on a Sunday. Why not use some business savvy and try to attract customers. There is a Running Room just a block away. I happen to know that a large number of the people who run out of this store go for coffee and snacks after their runs on Sunday. But they won’t stop at your shop because it’s closed. And that’s a shame because it’s in a nice, convenient location. But I think we know that the reason the Presse Café is closed evenings and weekends is because they cater to the downtown work crowd and these customers are gone after work. And by the way, they are NOT parking in front of your shop during the day. Those who work downtown take the bus or find private parking garages and lots to use.

Something else you might try, which admittedly is more difficult than complaining, is to try and attract the residents of downtown Ottawa. The ones that might walk or, heaven forbid, ride a bike to your café. Jean Elkhoury, maybe your business model is just wrong. Oh, and don’t look now but things are about to get worse. There’s a new Bridgehead opening up on O’Connor just kitty-corner from the Presse Café. I’m betting they’ll be open weekends and evenings. And judging by the number of bikes often found outside Bridgeheads they won’t be complaining about the bike lanes.


Oh, the irony!

A study from Toronto in 2009 makes for some good reading on the subject of bike lanes and businesses.


  1. Excellent points! That press café has a lonely creepy feel if you've ever been inside. Deserted sometimes even during the lunch hour. Oh, and I got there by bike. Irony! But I'll never go again because the service was lacklustre and my tea was overpriced... More overpriced than Starbucks. And at least Starbucks has plenty of free wifi to go around.