Summer Cycling in Ontario, First Stop - Ottawa

Tyrone Burke, May 31, 2011

Making the pilgrimage to Ottawa’s iconic sites is a rite of passage for every Canadian.

Visiting parliament is the kind of thing that just about everyone makes time to do eventually, and the line-up of out of town plates jostling for all too rare parking spots in the city’s downtown streets on any given day in the summer is evidence of it.  The city draws visitors from clear across the country,1 but all of that tourist traffic brings parking problems at the major sites with it.  Shuttling from one destination to the next by car can turn a visit to Canada’s capital into a perpetual search for a parking spot, which will, inevitably, be overpriced.

In May 2011, the city will be rolling out a solution to this longstanding problem in the form of BIXI bike-sharing.2 While parking in prime locations can cost three or four dollars an hour, BIXI bicycles cost just $5 a day. This allows visitors to grab a cheaper parking spot a little further removed from parliament and pedal themselves to the city’s major sights along the car-free paths. Note that the rental bicycles only come in adult sizes, so you’ll have to bring children’s bicycles along with you.  The Montreal-based company already has its bike-share system on the ground in that city as well as in Washington, D.C. and London, England, among others. Ottawa, and simultaneously Toronto, are just the latest urban centres to buy into its vision of shared bicycles that can be ridden by anyone for a small fee, then docked at stations around town. The system will launch with 100 bikes available at 10 stations, and there are plans to grow the system to 500 bikes at 50 stations in the future.3 It’s a small number compared to some other cities—London boasts 6000 of the company’s quirky looking heavy-duty bicycles—but the Ottawa BIXI will be unusual.4 Unlike other cities, where commuters are the major focus, Ottawa’s bike share program will be based primarily around the city’s elaborate recreational cycling network.

“The locations for the bike share stations were chosen for their proximity to the recreational path system,” says Jasmine Leduc, a spokesperson for the National Capital Commission. “It’s a great way to discover the beauty of the National Capital Region, to take in the parks, the canal, and parliament.” At over 235 km long the pathway system threads its way through the capital’s abundant green space, past most of the city’s major sights and along its scenic waterways. The Western Pathway along the Rideau Canal is one of the system’s highlights. Dropping alongside the  final locks in the canal towards the Ottawa River and the surrealistic form of the Museum of Civilization, the path passes between the Parliament buildings and Château Laurier, with the glass atrium of the National Gallery looming on a cliff  overhead.
There’s no other place in the capital where you can take in so much of the city’s iconic architecture at a glance.  But the atmosphere on the path is light. On any summer day, the length of its course running along the canal, then up the Ottawa River to the Chaudière Falls is packed with cyclists and rollerbladers well into the evening.  The city is one of the country’s most active,5 and the extensive path system is at the heart of its healthy vibe.  “There’s a strong culture of recreational cyclists in the city; the recreational paths are heavily used by locals,” says longtime Ottawa City Councillor Jacques Legendre. “They’re great for recreation and a fun, healthy way to see the city.”

Says Leduc, “We expand the system every year, it’s a wonderful way to be active and see the national capital region. We’ve made cycling a priority here, and the BIXI system will be a way to explore the capital at a reasonable cost.”

Next week:

We’ll look at the Dundas Valley Conservation area, in Dundas, Ontario.

About the Writer:
Tyrone Burke, an avid cyclist and traveller, is an Ottawa-based writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Canadian Geographic.


Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Shutterstock
Photo 2: Tourism Ontario
Photo 3: National Capital Commission