Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Expensive new Park & Ride planned for Kanata

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen published a new Kelly Egan column on the planned Park & Ride in Kanata at the intersection of Innovation and Terry Fox drives. As Egan explains, it's a pretty expensive project:
"It’s to open in the fall of 2016 and Phase 1 will have room for 300 or so cars. It will cost $8.3 million. This excludes the $5.7 million for the land. Yes, that makes $14 million, or $47,000 per spot, given away free to the user."
The Innovation Park & Ride is expected to open in the late fall of 2016.

Park & Rides are a double-edged sword. They make it easy for suburban commuters (and especially rural or out-of-town residents) who have a car to leave it in the suburbs--thus avoiding downtown parking fees--while still getting to work in a reasonable amount of time, thanks to Ottawa's well-developed Transitway system. This makes the service easier and more convenient for a certain group of riders.

On the other hand, as Egan discusses, they can be very expensive capital projects.

From a system standpoint, though, Park & Ride lots can also undercut OC Transpo's efforts to build a system that offers service within reasonable walking distance of most houses. Express buses are a significantly costly service to offer; it takes a lot of time to deadhead the bus to its starting point, and then have meander through suburban streets, before hitting a Park & Ride, filling up, and heading onto the main Transitway arteries. That time means money, going to the operator's salary as well as fuel and maintenance. Many express buses aren't full by the time they arrive at a Park & Ride lot, but they're usually full when they leave because they offer riders the option to bypass the express route's "local" segment and just hop on for the speedier portion.

This option, it turns out, is very popular, and Ottawa's Park & Ride lots are, in many ways, victims of their own success. The Eagleson Park & Ride, for instance, is regularly above capacity--which is why the Innovation Park & Ride is being planned, and why it's plan includes an optional second phase that would include another 500 spaces on top of the 300 included in Phase 1.

Looking at the issue critically, it seems odd that Ottawa invests such a large amount of money building these lots to make transit service more convenient for those who can drive to it, yet they have given little consideration--aside from a small number of permits sold--to recovering much of that investment. It may be time to examine parking fees for everyone who elects to use the Park & Ride service.

The fee need not be large; a nominal fee of $2 per day would help control the currently off-the-charts popularity of Park & Ride Lots, while also offering some much-needed additional revenues for OC Transpo and without making the service less accessible--those who can't or would rather not pay the parking fee can simply connect with a local bus, or catch an express route nearer their home.

Parking fees for Park & Ride lots would also allow Ottawa to recover money from those who may not otherwise be paying for these services, including commuters and users from communities outside city limits.

Growth of Ottawa's Park & Ride lots is a good sign of the convenience they offer, but it's also an unsustainable. New options need to be considered, and one of those may be charging Park & Ride users.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

City proposes 2.5% fare increase for OC Transpo for next three years

According to a CTV Ottawa report, the City of Ottawa is proposing three more years of 2.5% fare increases for OC Transpo. Here is CTV's report:

Property taxes and water charges are also proposed to increase. The proposal still needs to be voted on by the city's Finance and Economic Development Committee and then full City Council. The fare increases would take place in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

This proposed increase is in keeping with fare hikes of recent history; although the fare increase was "just" 1.9% in 2014 (which just so happened to be an election year), it was 2.5% in 2015, 2013, 2012, a little higher than that in 2011, plus the incredible 7.5% fare hike of 2010.

It's worth noting that all of those increases have been by margins above the national rate of inflation. Add them all together and you get one clear reason why ridership has decreased every year since 2010 and appears to have--at best--stagnated at current levels.

This news, conveniently, comes just one week after I published an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen calling on OC Transpo to freeze fares for three years, while also offering promotions, in an attempt to stabilize the service and increase ridership. Given the ongoing disruption due to Confederation Line construction--which will get even worse when buses are rerouted from the western Transitway in December, just in time for winter snows--OC Transpo badly needs to work towards rider retention. Three more yearly increases of 2.5% certainly won't encourage those with a choice to continue using OC Transpo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Feds commit $1B for LRT's Stage 2 extension

In the lead-up to this year's federal election, the current Conservative Government has committed its one-third share of Stage 2, the City of Ottawa's planned $3B extension of our nascent light-rail system.

From the Ottawa Metro:
Ottawa-Orleans MP Royal Galipeau confirmed Wednesday the long-awaited money from the Conservative government that have been earmarked to fund phase two of the $3 billion project, which will extend the LRT farther east, west and south for a combined 30 kilometres of rail and 19 stations.
Ottawa City Council recently endorsed the full plan, which will extend rail service south to Riverside South (and likely the Airport), west to Bayshore and Bayview, and east to Place D'Orléans. All in all, the expansion will add 10 new stations to the system, with construction expected to begin as soon as the current phase is done with the expanded system scheduled to take its first riders in 2023.

The province has not officially committed its share of the funding, but the current Liberal government has heavily invested in transit for other cities and should be expected to do so for Ottawa, as well.

Friday, March 6, 2015

City and NCC come to agreement on Western Corridor alignment

In a joint press conference this morning, the National Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa announced that they have come to a mutually acceptable agreement on the alignment of the Western Corridor of the city's LRT project, stretching from Dominion to Cleary stations.

The agreement, which came out of the much-ballyhooed 100-day truce mayor Jim Watson and outgoing MP John Baird agreed to, will see a fully-buried tunnel connecting the two stations. The tunnel, as illustrated above, will run underneath a re-aligned Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway from just after Dominion Station to Cleary Avenue, at which point it will turn south towards Richmond Road. The section underneath the Parkway will be a "stacked" transportation corridor, where the roadway will run on top of the underground rail line. There are a lot of other details in the memorandum of understanding, which you can read on the NCC website if you'd like.

From there, it seems to proceed as envisioned in the Richmond Underground proposal, hitting the new Cleary and New Orchard stations before emerging from the tunnel nearer to Lincoln Fields station. The only real difference between this one and the Richmond Underground alignment is the fully-buried tunnel under the Parkway, the NCC's major sticking point. UPDATE: According to more detailed information on the city's website, the alignment will transition from under Richmond Road to under [the] western portion of Byron Linear Park," where it will presumably continue toward New Orchard station.

There remain several key groups, including the First Unitarian Congregation and Neighbours for Smart Western Rail, who will likely be opposed to this alignment, but it generally meets the broad needs of most stakeholders:

  • It won't affect sightlines along the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway: In fact, it should improve them, with a realigned roadway that increases potential greenspace as well as two proposed cycling/pedestrian connections from the residential area to the riverside (illustrated above, connecting Dominion and Cleary stations to the riverside).
  • Parkway buffer is retained: There will still be a 30-metre tree buffer between the roadway/rail tunnel and the residence bordering the affected areas of the Parkway.
  • It won't affect the Byron Linear Park.
  • It adds stations where people are: The addition of Cleary and New Orchard stations to this stretch of train corrects a longstanding flaw of the existing Transitway, increasing access to areas that weren't served by high-speed transit previously. It won't increase access as much as a Carling alignment might have, but it's still pretty good (especially if trams are one day added to Carling, as is proposed).
  • It won't increase cost: Apparently the work done here can be done for the same $980M budget as the previous alignment.
There are still a lot of details to work out, of course, but it is promising that both sides were able to come to some sort of agreement. The City will host an information session on March 30 at City Hall to gather feedback on this proposed alignment.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Inside the Confederation Line train mock-up

Over the weekend, I made a visit to Lansdowne Park to check out the mock-up of the new Alstom Citadis Spirit light rail vehicle that will be servicing the future Confederation Line. The length of the mock-up is about a third of a "car", but it's enough to get an idea of what you will be riding in 2018.

Each set of doors has a green button on both sides to open allow passengers to enter and exit. During the winter and summer months, opening the doors only as necessary will help reduce the cold or warm air coming in at outdoor stations.

The blue and dark square pattern of the seats appears to be consistent with the colour scheme of the seats on the O-Train Bombardier trains. Cooperative seating is faced sideways with all of this spacious standing room in between. Each car will have four areas for mobility devices.

The aisle looks wide enough for people to squeeze by to exit or find a seat. But if you go further down the train (in either direction), the aisle narrows to a similar width as an articulated bus aisle before the bend.

When a train is full during rush hour, passenger flow will be a challenge. Getting by someone or allowing someone to get by you will feel uncomfortable just like on an articulated bus. Dwell times will be longer during rush-hour anyway, but poor passenger flow will only make them longer.

Below, this area has few poles to grab onto if you do stand. The lack of an overhead horizontal bar will only create pockets of unused standing space where there are no vertical bars. One can hope that an overhead bar can be added later.

If there's one thing that wasn't overlooked, it's the safety features. Each car will have six passenger intercoms for emergency use.

Right above the intercom is a message screen for displaying station names, public service announcements, and emergency messages. These messages will also be shown overhead at the accordion part of the train.

At the top, there's an emergency door release and right across, also near a set of doors, a security camera is installed.

These are only my initial observations of a model, which can't be compared to a moving train with passengers on board. You can view and step inside the mock-up on any day of the week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park until March 31.

(Correction: The mock-up will be displayed until March 31st, not "until mid-March" as initially written on OC Transpo's page.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Algonquin College students say yes to U-Pass

Algonquin College students have voted in favour of a universal student bus pass.

More than four years after the U-Pass was approved for students at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, college students are getting in on the action thanks to a vote in which 83% of voters supported the mandatory pass, at a cost that will not exceed $199/semester.
The pass, however, remains controversial--just as it was four years ago for university students. The mandatory nature is the sticking point, since full-time students (with very few exceptions) who walk, cycle, or drive are required to pay for the U-Pass even if they don't use it. Although the Algonquin Students' Association is in favour of the pass (as were the student associations of both local universities), sectors of the student body are opposed.

For full-time Algonquin students who use transit, a $199/semester U-Pass will represent a 40-50% discount over standard passes depending on their age.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Burying transit, and the people who use it

In its shotgun announcement yesterday, the National Capital Commission laid down the law on Ottawa’s light-rail extension plans from Dominion to Bayview stations: A deep tunnel within the current alignment, or a path across Rochester Field leading Richmond Road—where it would, presumably, also head into a deep tunnel. The obvious commonality here is the complete burial of the light-rail line.

These options, which the NCC “invited” the city to consider, brought to mind an interesting point made to me during the 2013 Car-Free Day street party. A woman there discussed the city’s preferred alignment with me, and expressed her dismay that the beautiful scenery of the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway was being taken away from transit users. Her point was that the users of transit, many of whom are lower-income residents of our city, were being buried underground in order to preserve the “experience” of private automobile drivers who use the Parkway.

The woman pointed out the fact that as buses today drive along the Parkway, riders are often visibly relieved by the vistas of trees, greenery, and the Ottawa River. Many look up from their phones, books, or magazines and out towards the Gatineau Hills, breathing more deeply and seemingly releasing tension from their daily activities. As a user of the line, this is an experience I can testify to; I often prefer to take an inside seat on the right side of the buses, where I can get a better view out the window.

The city’s preferred plan involves a partially buried line along the Parkway, and it takes our transit vehicles—and the people within then—and pushes them underground. The NCC’s two options would take it one step further, forcing them even deeper underground and out of sight.

One of the NCC’s conditions was that the city achieve “minimal visual impact” and maintain the “user experience” of the Parkway corridor. Their recommendations fail to acknowledge that OC Transpo riders are also users of the corridor, and they should be allowed to enjoy it as well. Although it’s easy to forget, there are people inside the OC Transpo vehicles. They are at least as entitled to the Parkway’s scenery as private automobiles that also use it—and perhaps more entitled, since drivers must remain focused on the road while riders are free to take in the sights.

Ottawa’s western light-rail extension needs to take ecological and community considerations into account. But it also needs to consider the desires of the riders of our transit system.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Name that line

2018 O-Train system

Update (September 17): At the Transit Commission meeting today, OC Transpo confirmed the line colours on the map will be used in wayfinding signage (via the Ottawa Sun):

The Confederation Line will apply to the east-west LRT currently under construction. It will also be referred to as the 1 Line and have red wayfinding signs.

The Trillium Line will become the existing north-south diesel train service (currently called the O-Train). It will be referred to as the 2 Line and wayfinding signs will be green.

There are only two lines, but an early adoption of a numeric system for public use is a good idea. One, the public may very well refer to the lines by their numeric names for simplicity. And two , when there are more lines in the future, it's a bit of a challenge to number them many years later, which was exactly what the TTC in Toronto did this year, and have the public learn what number is associated with which line. 

OC Transpo is currently using red and green to identify bus routes as regular fare peak-hour and premium fare "express" peak-hour, respectively. To distinguish the modes of transit services from each other, different colours may be needed for the rush-hour bus services. Red and green signs inside rail stations with bus connections are not particularly useful if the rush-hour bus service continues to use the same colour scheme.

OC Transpo's rail system in 2018 will be called "O-Train", according to a report to the Transit Commission. The two rail lines in the network will also have names. The report recommends that the project name "Confederation Line" to also be the name of the east-west line and "Trillium Line" to replace "O-Train" as the name for the existing north-south route. Currently, the "O-Train" name is typically used to identify the type of transit vehicle, rather than the rapid transit line.

The "Confederation Line" name seems to have had the public's support from the very beginning. One has to wonder if this was the name all along and it was floated out before construction started to see how the public would react to it.

Labeling lines with names is supposed to minimize confusion among passengers. Interestingly, the 2018 map of the rail system above shows the "Confederation" station name on the exiting north-south line. Confederation station on the Trillium Line is not a stop to transfer to the Confederation Line, but the stop name implies it does. A different name is needed.

The report states the new name of the north-south line has to be easy to read, pronounce in both English and French, and be clear and unambiguous. After city staff reviewed some candidates for the new name, they decided "Trillium Line" fit the bill. "Trillium Line" will be introduced into the OC Transpo lexicon sometime within the next four years.

In addition to the name identities, the map of the 2018 O-Train system labels the lines by number and colour. The presence of the number names on the map may be a hint that red 1's and green 2's will appear on other customer information such as wayfinding signage at stations, especially at Bayview, the only station where the two lines meet. On the other hand, there are still four years away from the opening of a second line, so the numbering system may turn out to be nothing more than an idea.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Powerful, heart-wrenching driver's perspective on tragic Sept. 18 bus crash

The September 18, 2013 collision of an OC Transpo bus and a VIA train affected everyone in Ottawa, and the dozens of injuries and six fatalities left us all shaken. I'd long wondered how bus operators made it through the day, and, thankfully, Drives In Circles has offered that perspective and published his account of the day on his website:
A regular passenger gets on my 122, puts an ominous hand on my shoulder, and says "Drive safe today, we're all thinking of you." 

I thought about that strange interaction all the way back to Place d'Orleans. I had no idea what had transpired in Barhaven. When I arrived at Orleans Station, I could see a group of drivers huddled around the front of a bus, one was crying. I parked, and picked up my phone. Twenty texts, all asking if I'm okay, who is it, what happened? I flipped over to Twitter, and I could not believe what I saw.
It's a powerful, personal, and emotional essay, and I'm thankful that Drives In Circles was willing to share it with us. Click here to read the entire post.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Updated: Survey results appear to be inconsistent

Update (March 24): I misinterpreted what "we report on the percentage of survey respondents who give a rating of 6 or higher" meant. It's not a subset of the sample, but it's exactly how it's described: a percentage of those who rated 6 or higher. So, yes, about half of females feel safe waiting for a bus late at night. As I looked through some of the summarized results sent to OC Transpo, which were made available today, from the survey research firm Core Strategies, some of the numbers regarding service weren't consistent with what OC had presented. A rating of 7.3 was given to route planning in OC Transpo presentation slides, but in the newly released document, a 6.7 rating was listed. Stats on safety appear to be consistent, so there's less concern with the results of safety questions now from what I can see. Summary tables of each survey question were published via the Sun's Jon Willing.

OC Transpo presented its 2013 survey results on customer satisfaction to the Transit Commission on Wednesday. The transit agency received a rating of at least "good" from 80% of transit users in a sample of 1525 transit and non-transit users in Ottawa. It's the highest proportion since 2008, when the winter strike began in December. The telephone survey, which has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points overall and 4 percentage points for transit users, was conducted in November and December.

Ratings on various aspects of service quality rise compared to the past few years. Route planning increased by nearly a whole point in one year (from 6.4 in 2012 to 7.3 in 2013), even though there have been no major routing changes since "route optimization" in 2011. A 7.3 rating for planning, is in fact, the highest in any one year going back to 2008.

This year, OC Transpo has included more questions about safety, which they keep saying is their number one priority. The statistics on customer feelings towards safety are not based on the sample, but on a subset of it. Only those who gave OC Transpo a favourable rating on safety were counted: "We report on the percentage of survey respondents who give a rating of 6 or higher" (on slides 35, 40, 44). So, anyone reporting a "5" or less are inexplicably excluded. It means, for example, the proportion of female customers who feel safe waiting for a bus late at night is probably not 49% as stated. It's very likely to be much lower when the less satisfied respondents are included. Percentages in the high 90's are probably far away from the true values too.

A whole survey section is dedicated to safety and security and somehow, meaningful statistics are hidden from public viewing.