Wednesday, April 30, 2008

High praise for Ottawa transit

A story recently published in the Montreal Gazette had some very kind words to say about Ottawa's transit system, calling it "a model of efficiency":

Ottawa has no métro or light-rail system, yet 20 per cent of its commuters use public transit, a figure roughly equal to that of Montreal and Toronto, cities endowed with efficient métro lines, transport experts say.

What Ottawa does have is a world-renowned bus rapid-transit system that whisks passengers on segregated, reserved lanes past traffic jams.

Although it's a little overzealous--I wouldn't really call the bumpy ride down Ottawa's pothole-ridden streets very "whisk-like"--it is true that Ottawa does have one of Canada's best transit systems. And certainly, the short-term economic savings that a bus system has (the story says it's $3M/km to build, compared to $147M/km for a metro line to Laval), the long-term figures are often said to be in favour of rail.

I've also made the point before that Ottawa's system benefits greatly from a relatively predictable workforce. Having thousands of Government of Canada workers commuting on very stable timelines, five days a weeks, most weeks in a given year, allows for routes to be planned with relative predictability.

Although Ottawa's system is alright, it's got plenty of room to improve. And don't be deceived; it's far from the "model of efficiency" this Gazette column makes it out to be.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part four: More business partnerships

Another possible avenue for transit fundraising, as published in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend, would be an increased number of advertising or sponsorship partnerships with business leaders for bus stations. While there are already advertising posters on buses (and some buses that are advertisements outright) and in shelters, this option could see shelters or stations re-named after the sponsor/advertiser:

Mr. Curran, the man in charge of developing money-making initiatives for OC Transpo, has had naming rights on his idea list for some time now. But it hasn't gone anywhere because "so far, no one has approached us about it."

He's hoping that will change now that the issue has been raised in Toronto as a viable way to generate money for Canada's largest transit system.


In Ottawa, advertising revenue brings OC Transpo "$3 million-plus" a year, Mr. Curran said, and he'd like to add to that.

"Transit companies across Canada have to look at innovative ways of raising money," Mr. Curran said, adding that naming rights has an "interesting appeal" for many companies.

He pointed out that St. Laurent Shopping Centre, by virtue of its location on St.
Laurent Boulevard, has a transit station bearing its name.

"So there is some naming taking place naturally," he said. "It's a great idea."

Naturally, there isn't a consensus on this. Transit commission vice-chairman Joe Mihevc, for one, referred to the idea as further "corporatization" of Ottawa's public spaces, and Ward 17 councillor Clive Doucet stated that the idea "[i]t won't defray capital costs and Ottawa will lose the face of its city."

One interesting middle-round proposal is that of partnerships and sponsorships rather than traditional advertising, as suggested by University of Ottawa professor Michael Mulvey (who, ironically, teaches in the Telfer School of Management, so-named through a $25M sponsorship deal with the chairman of the mining company Goldcorp Inc.).

"With just a name, the potential impact is marginal," he said. "A company might be building awareness, but they've missed an opportunity to make their brand come alive."

As an example of what could be done, Mr. Mulvey said a landscaping company could sponsor a bus shelter and plant flowers around it. Or a company whose name appears on a transit station could sponsor inside space featuring work by area artists. And a big health company could team up with a non-profit organization such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, with public-service messages appearing in transit shelters along with the sponsoring company's name.

With a sponsorship, it seems advertising--in terms of positive public relations--would be more effective. If I saw some local company sponspored public art, gardens, or service messages would look make them a lot more freindly in my book than simply plastering their logo everywhere. Maybe Bridgehead should sponsor a free coffee bar in one...

Just another option to think about.

ADDENDUM: Today (Monday) the Citizen also published an editorial on the subject of station-naming, suggesting perhaps some of the station names be named after historical figures instead of street names.
Ottawa is alive with history. Could we not name one of the downtown Transitway stops D'Arcy McGee, where one of the few political assassinations in Canadian history occurred? Should we not have a Victoria station after the queen who designated Ottawa the capital of Canada and made the whole city possible? Can't we come up with better station names than Blair, South Keys or Heron?

Sounds nice, but there is something to be said about clarity. If I'm heading to Bank Street, it makes sense that I want to disembark at Bank Station; looking for Darcy McGee Station so I can walk down Bank is a little more complicated than it has to be.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mixed views in latest consultations

The Ottawa Citizen is reporting "a lukewarm reception" during the most recent round of public consultations on the City of Ottawa's new transit plans. Proponents of the plan were excited at the speed of the light-rail system, while opponents thought that adding a transfer into the commute was counter-productive. A couple of opinions, from the story:

Andrew Easton said the underground tunnel is too expensive and the downtown core can't handle the pressure.

"It's garbage," he said of Option 4, adding he'd like to see O-train service from Eagleson Station to Trim Station.

But others, including Anthony Finch, were fans of the plan.

"I believe it's going to a lot faster going east and west," said Mr. Finch, who has lived in Ottawa for 28 years.

Earlier consultations had mixed results, too. (Stop the presses, this just in: you can't please everyone.) In the first round of consultations, the first three sessions were relatively positive, while the fourth--in Barrhaven--wasn't as positive.

Most concerning was the low showing at the sessions. If you're intereste, there are still four left, and you can see the time, date, and venue of each here.

As gas prices go up, so does ridership

Everyone is reporting that gas prices are going to continue to rise. It was bound to happen; we've been lucky to have cheap oil keeping gas prices lower than the cost of bottled water for... well, forever. Projections are flying, however, that gas will be as much as $1.40 a litre in Ontario this summer, and possibly as high as $2.25 a litre by 2025, as reported in the Toronto Star.

In the United States, public transit is already at a 50-year high in ridership, largely due to increasing gas prices. In Florida (on land and even on the water), Arkansas, North Carolina, San Francisco, and just about anywhere else you look transit use is on the rise, and new users are attributing their use to to higher gas prices. It's beginning in Canada, too, with Vancouver already feeling the pinch of having the country's highest gas prices. If trends carry over to Ottawa, how prepared is out transit system to handle a 10-20% ridership increase?

The short answer, realistically, is that it's not prepared. Many buses at peak periods are already at or near capacity, even with standing room. And it's not as though we can simply add 10-20% more buses. Increasing the number of buses has been the traditional way for Ottawa to cover ridership increases, but there's only so much room on the road. Anyone who's tried to catch a bus at the peak periods knows that in the downtown core, there can be 10 or more buses lined up down Albert or Slater, and it's often worse at the Mackenzie King Bridge station.

The little room for growth under our current bus-based infrastructure is why the newest transit plans are looking at light rail, with its ability to move more people in less time, with lower maintenance costs, and greater predictability in scheduling. Isn't it a little late at this point, though? Best-case scenarios peg the completion of the new system in decades rather than years or months, not really helping the current situation. Also, with the City of Ottawa unable to pay for necessary snow removal, where is the $4B to complete this project going to come from?

Federal and provincial funding is not going to get any easier. With rumblings of a provincial economic slowdown in Ontario (see the Star article in the first paragraph), and this article exploring a national economic stall, where is funding for Ottawa's transit projects--especially a decade-long project expected to cost $4B--to come from?

It's got to come from somewhere, because the system currently isn't working, and certainly won't work if there's more people jumping on. Even if it's going to take 20 years, my 20-year-in-the-future self will be thanking people with the foresight to get a functional system in place.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

World's best transit systems

Environmental Graffiti, self-proclaimed as "the most trafficked environmental blog in the UK and the third largest worldwide", published an article today surveying "The 5 Best Mass Transit Systems in the World". No Canadian cities made the list, which was as follows:
  1. Hong Kong
  2. New York
  3. London
  4. Paris
  5. Chicago

Regarding Hong Kong, blogger Ben wrote:

For sheer volume, Hong Kong is the most effective system in the world: 90% of all traveling is done by mass transit. The 7 million daily riders have access to something known as an “octopus card” which is accepted as currency not just to move them around the city, but also at parking meters, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants. Looking towards the future, shouldn’t all cities be copying this system?

In comparison to Hong Kong's 90%, I believe somewhere around 22% of Ottawa commuters use public transit. I can barely even imagine living in this city without a vehicle, as more than half the households in New York travel without owning a car. And the Octopus Card? Sure would make things easier for Ottawans; maybe this city should try its hand at something like an "Ottawa Card" or something (preferably a more creative name).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fifth transit option, with more to come

According to the Ottawa Citizen, Kanata North Councillor Marianne Wilkinson has suggested a fifth transit option, on top of the four previously offered by transit officials. As per the story in the Citizen, this fifth option is being dubbed 'the Wilkinson Option', and is as follows:

The Wilkinson option would see the existing north-south diesel O-Train kept in service and extended farther south to Leitrim, rather than entirely rebuilding the north-south rail corridor with an electrified light-rail system. Ms. Wilkinson said that at $40 million, such a project would be more cost effective and would get service to more southern commuters quicker, because the city would not have to do a costly environmental assessment study.

The plan preferred by the city's planners is option four, which would bring electric rail service farther south, to Bowesville Road, replacing the O-Train, and running east and west. Ms. Wilkinson argued against electric north-south rail service in the last election campaign and she said Monday that there won't be enough riders from the south to make the service cost-effective.

There is mixed reviews on the option. Although it is cost effective, that Citizen story cited Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Steve Desroches wondered whether or not the O-Train has the capacity to properly serve the needs of the communities in the south of the city, and also questioned how cost-effective it will be to have three different technologies (light rail, diesel train, and bus) along the mass transit system.

Still, you've got to applaud Wilkinson for looking at ways to improve the transit plans to be most efficient and effective for their purposes.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another round of public consultations

Beginning this evening, another round of public consultations will be beginning all over the city. Here are the times, dates, and venues, as reported in the Ottawa Sun:

Today: Bob MacQuarrie Orleans Recreational Centre, 1490 Youville Dr., 7-9 p.m.
Thursday: OC Transpo, Commissioners boardroom, 1500 St. Laurent Blvd., 7-9 p.m.
April 28: Jim Durrell Recreation Centre, 1265 Walkley Rd., 7-9 p.m.
April 29: Lansdowne Park, Coliseum Building, 1015 Bank St., 7-9 p.m.
April 30: Nepean Sportsplex, Salons A and B, 1701 Woodroffe Ave. 7-9 p.m.
May 6: Holy Trinity School, 180 Katimavik Rd., Kanata, 7-9 p.m.
Whether or not you're in favour of the new transit plans, it's probably a good idea to show up to one of these consultations, or at least email or call 3-1-1. If you're in favour, there's more of a case for city planners when they're looking for federal or provincial funding. And, if you don't like the plans, at least you'll be able to offer your input on how to improve them.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Transit that could have been

An interesting blog forum, io9, posted a cool story on "The Public Transit Projects that Should Have Been", looking at mostly American cities and their plans for electric trams, monorails, or suspended gondolas to serve as mass transit forms.

One funny note reminded me of an Ottawa experiment in mass transportation:
In some cases, city planners actually ripped out existing transit systems like Los Angeles' once-enormous cable car network. What would these cities and others look like if their public transit systems had continued to thrive and we lived in a world without cars?
Much the way Los Angeles apparently tore up cable-car lines, Ottawa did the same thing in the 1950s, as chronicled in Donald Findlay Lewis' contribution to the book Construire une capitale - Ottawa - Making a Capital, which was entitled "A Capital Crime? The Long Death of Ottawa's Electric Railway". Findlay's paper begins with a cautionary note for planners looking to address the city's current transit needs:
"As Ottawa ponders light rail, it is important to know more about the electric railway whose memory is so empowering to rail's friends, as well as to the foes of motor expressways and bus transitways. We must ask ourselves if Ottawans did indeed love the electric railway. And if we conclude they did, then we must conclude as well that it suffered an untimely demise, that it was in fact the victim of a "capital crime"? While these two questions might seem to demand either a definitive yes or no, the answer here is more contingent, more time-bound. Here it will be argued that Ottawans did--as is now recalled--once love their electic railway. Indeed, it was a source of immense civic pride. Nevertheless, they celebrated its demise as fervently as they hailed its birth. In 1959, they wished it good riddance" (p. 349).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Addressing Toronto's transit crisis

Great story in the Toronto Star today about the challenges facing transit in Toronto, and I'm sure that Ottawa could learn a lot from what Toronto does or is doing, even if Ottawa will be replicating it on a smaller scale.

The Goal:
"... a transit network so good people will be able to live without depending on a car and not feel deprived."

The Problem:

"Over the next 25 years, the Greater Golden Horseshoe region is expected to grow by 3.7 million people, to 11.5 million. How can it accommodate the transportation needs of that many people?

"The roads we have today will largely be the roads we'll have in 2031. We must learn to use the same space to move more people."

The Methodology:

"Transit can carry volumes of people that roads simply can't match. For example, the TTC carries about 1.5 million riders per day, more than the populations of Calgary or Ottawa. GO Transit carries about 205,000, taking the same number of cars off the road as the Gardiner Expressway carries daily."

The Challenge:
"To be successful, the regional plan must do three things: address congestion, improve the environment and generate new revenue sources to build a network capable of serving a future regional population of more than 11 million people. "

The Funding Options:

"No one likes to pay more taxes or fees, but combinations of several of these sources could generate an extra $2 billion per year. The extensive list of options that could be considered includes:

"Regional road pricing on the GTHA network of 400-series highways and municipal expressways.

"Local road pricing and parking space pricing similar to what the Netherlands is doing.

"A regional gas tax of up to 12.5 cents per litre, the amount now collected by the Regional Transit Authority (Translink) for Metro Vancouver.

"A regional sales tax of 1 per cent or less, similar to those already in place in Metro Minneapolis and proposed in Los Angeles County and Tampa Bay.

"A regional vehicle registration levy similar to the one passed in Toronto and used in most large U.S. cities.

"A regional climate-change mitigation or emissions tax, levied against less fuel-efficient vehicles, or even a regional income tax, like that in place for decades in many large U.S. cities."

There are many ways Ottawa can use this information, and adapt it to our needs. If Ottawa's system could make it possible for commuters to be completely independent of cars... I can only imagine how respected the city would be on the world's stage.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Idealistic goals, realistic means

The Ottawa Citizen printed a story today about Kitchisippi councillor Christine Leadman, notably that she has a feeling that transit plans currently under review by the city are lacking in depth:

Ms. Leadman says the mayor's task force report contains options, like extending the current O-Train south, that are "much cheaper and could be done much quicker" than what staff are recommending.

She was careful to say she is not "against" the plan staff are recommending, but that she thinks they haven't considered enough factors and choices.

"We're being focused and narrowed to one option, and I don't think we've looked at enough options," she said.

Obviously, it is important that planners consider all possible options before committing to any transit plan. That is why the north-south plan of 2006 fell through; not enough thought was put into it, and it was found to have flaws after it was approved by council. Now it's costing us $177M or something similar.

When it comes to transit planning, however, the "cheaper and quicker options are often not the best. While listening to a radio interview on CBC with Samantha Power, author of Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, she spoke of leadership and the ability of leaders to use realistic means to achieve idealistic goals.

A public transit infrastructure that connects all of Ottawa, including suburban areas, quickly and easily, is an idealistic goal.

The transit plan options currently under review are realistic means. Perhaps options three and four are the most idealistic of the options, but--with a little help through provincial and federal funding--they remain realistic.

If city council wants to show leadership in the issues that matter most to Ottawa, they'll look primarily at idealistic goals, and consider realistic means to get there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part three: Gas taxes

New York's idea of charging cars to enter a certain district of the city, which I wrote about earlier this month, came up again in the media, this time in a story about ideas for public-transit funding in Montreal. A story in the Montreal Gazette explores the recent proposal to put a toll on all bridges entering Montreal Island, but the auther of the column--Henry Aubin--argues that it's not appropriate in Montreal's context.
Yes, I know, tolls work very well in London, lessening congestion in the financial district while raising plenty of money. And, yes, tolls might soon achieve similar success in Manhattan, where the city council is asking the state legislature to approve a fee of $8 on cars entering a zone below 60th St.

But all cities are not the same. London and New York are world centres for finance, business and entertainment. Many people need access to those centres - for networking, for status, for stylish living. And those kinds of people won't feel the pinch.

Montreal isn't like that. Businesses and entertainment venues are already moving off the island in pursuit of the population, which grew three times as fast in off-island suburbs as on the island between 2001 and 2006. Tolls would only accelerate this trend. Tremblay's would only harm Montreal Island's already precarious finances.

Instead, Aubin argues that a gas tax would be more appropriate as a charge that reflects the stated goals of funding public transportation and reducing greenhouse gases.

A tax on all motorists - regardless of where they drive - would be environmentally fitting. Cars contribute to climate change wherever they are, not just in the Montreal region.

The amount of the tax would automatically reflect each vehicle's fuel inefficiency. An SUV requires more gas than a Prius, for example.

No new bureaucracy would be necessary, unlike with tolls. Existing revenue personnel could handle an add-on tax.

I'm not sure how popular a new tax would be ho matter how or why it's put in place. Aubin, however, brings up the "unabashed" carbon tax in British Columbia as an instance where the tax works well, and that could be a positive model for Ontario to look into.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Some good news, some bad news about Ottawa's commute

Statistics Canada numbers showed that Ottawa's daily commute is the sixth-longest (distance-wise) in the country, and is increasing, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen:

The data released yesterday show Ottawa commuters travel on average 8.1 kilometres to work, the sixth-longest journey in the country. That distance is up slightly from the last census, when the average travel was 7.9 kilometres.

The list is topped by bedroom communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), including Oshawa, whose residents travel an average 11 kilometres to work, Toronto itself (9.4), Barrie (9.0) and Hamilton (8.3). Calgary (8.2) is fifth on the list followed by Montreal (8.1) and Ottawa-Gatineau (8.1).

In good news, though, the time is one of the best:

However, while Ottawans' commute may be long, the city's travel time is not. According to a statistics Canada report from 2006, the region's 66-minute average round-trip daily commute was the second shortest of major Canadian cities behind Edmonton (62 minutes).

In contrast, commuting distances in Toronto and Montreal have barely increased, but a separate Statistics Canada study showed that, over the past decade or so, it has been taking commuters a lot longer to get to and from work in those cities: 22.6 per cent more time in Montreal and 16.2 per cent more time in Toronto.

Really offers a lot of credit the city's transit planners, but there are probably a number of extenuating circumstances that help out Ottawa's numbers. With relatively low ridership numbers, those who'd have to take longer commutes are choosing not to take public transit, meaning that the longer numbers don't drag the average into negative territory. Also, with so many federal government commuters heading to consistent and predictable destinations, express buses are able to schedule their bus routes with ease.

The city is in pretty good shape, but it can still be better. Which is why the transit plans are looking into faster ways of getting more people into the city's core.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ottawa residents like transit option four

According to the Ottawa Citizen, residents of the city are, in general, in favour of the fourth option brought forward to City Council for Ottawa's transit improvements.

Transit planners said in a report that "thousands" of people provided their comments on the future of transit in Ottawa in meetings, online, in street interviews and in other ways.

The results, they say, show "broad support for Option 4." That option includes a downtown tunnel and light-rail system running east and west to the edges of the Greenbelt and south past the airport. Under the option, which would cost about $4 billion and be built as funds become available, improved suburban bus transitways would feed into the rail lines.

The fourth option is, by far, the most comprehensive of them--and its estimated cost of $3.82B reflects that (although it is not the most expensive, Option Two is projected at $3.87B). The plan would include both a North-South and an East-West rail line, as well as an underground tunnel downtown. The illustration below, taken from the presentation given to the City Council, shows the plans (click on the picture to enlarge).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Getting rural constituents more pissed off

According to a story by Joe Banks in the Ottawa Citizen, city council had plans in place to begin charging residents of rural areas, who have traditionally been exempt from transit levies by virtue of being outside of the Urban Transit Area, some sort of transit levy. This was based on the questionable research done that said 22 per cent of users of suburban Park'N'Rides were from rural areas.

Aside from the questionable data, the process of putting this recommendation on the table was not at all transparent. Banks goes over the many issues with the proposal, and in the process recommends that if some rural residents are indeed using the Park'N'Ride services paid for by urban and suburban residents, perhaps a user-based fee would be more reasonable than charging everyone in the area for a service that, by all accounts, is used by a minimal minority.

Property taxes are already substantially lower in those peripheral towns. Cost-free park and rides make it more viable for people to live outside Ottawa and commute in to it. Every morning, on my drive on Highway 416, I see a growing number of cars heading north from Kemptville, Spencerville, Prescott, for whom the commute remains viable, without having to contribute a dime to the system through their tax bill. We'll see how staff, if they continue to insist on a plan to hose rural Ottawans for a service they say that one in five of us use, intends to ding those people for taking up space paid for entirely by Ottawa taxpayers.

User pay would do it.

In the meantime, in what is becoming a familiar pattern, rural residents are again forced into telling the city what they don't want, the flip-side of those groups and people who have become accustomed to announcing what they do.

Maybe some day those wants and needs will find common ground and with it, a vision that appeals to everybody. Until then, logic should prevail.
There is no good reason to charge all rural residents a transit levy. They already pay a premium fare for express rural service that is unpredictable and often unreliable. There would naturally be some who use Park'N'Ride lots in suburban areas, so a user-based system might be good. But it could also be a slippery slope; what if those in urban and suburban areas decide that they don't use transit services, so why shouldn't there be a user-pays system in place in the centre, too?

And if a levy were put in place, how much would it be? If service for rural residents is, say, one-tenth as good as that in urban areas, and one-quarter that of suburbs, they should realistically be expected to pay no more than a fraction of the normal fees.

Another difficult issue to address when plans are put forward. Banks' column is a good read, whether or not you agree with his proposal of a rural transit levy, I recommend interested readers check it out.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part two: Charge non-users

Despite the fact that their transit infrastructure is head and shoulders above that in Ottawa, there are those in New York City who refuse to give up their ride. An article in the New York Times a couple days ago looked at that fact, why it is so, and ways to get people out of their cars and onto buses or subways.

“New York is a transit-rich and transit-oriented place,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant who is now a deputy commissioner for planning and sustainability at the city’s Department of Transportation.

Notwithstanding the fact that 1.74 million cars are registered in the city, most New Yorkers travel by public transportation. But for that committed knot of drivers, even enhanced services may not lure them onto fancy new buses, given that, according to Mr. Schaller, 80 percent of the people who drive into Manhattan during the workday already have access to mass transit that would take no more than 15 minutes longer.

“Most people who are driving will continue to drive,” he said, adding that the reasons are generally convenience and speed, or having waited for a bus in the rain one too many times.

Indeed, a poll conducted last year for the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group that has helped devise and promote the fee proposal, known as congestion pricing, found that most of those who drive do so by choice, not by necessity. As a result, congestion-pricing proponents concluded that the only way to reduce an estimated 810,000 daily vehicle trips into and below Midtown was to charge a fee.

The proposal, whose future is still in question as it approaches the end of a politically tortuous path through the City Council and the State Legislature, would charge most drivers $8 to enter a zone below 60th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Whether drivers would face a charge to move across town on 60th Street has not yet been determined.

Wow. Now that's a radical proposal. Imagine a charge for commuters driving into, for instance, the area from Bay Street to King Edward Avenue, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, with the funds generated going to transit plans? In Ottawa today, it's not an option because the service simply isn't there; if a plan goes through to connect the whole city with light-rail hubs, would charging those who refuse to ride transit for polluting the city's core be a feasible solution--or part of a solution--to the problems of financing the project?

And would it even be ethical? Citizens of the area already pay for the roads, so is little to justify forcing people to pay to use them, too; or is it? Similar to cell phones or televisions, you've got to buy the unit and then pay for the service, too. Charging those who continue to drive despite advantageous alternatives also takes indeterminable costs, such as those to the environment, and factors them into the financing equation, similar to using some of the taxes on gasoline to fund public transit projects.

It's a difficult idea to think about, but usually the best ideas are difficult to understand at first. Another thing to think about, anyway.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Transportation finance crisis in U.S.

The U.S. News & World Report took a look at the big problems facing mass transit systems south of the border, being referred to by some as a "transportation finance crisis". With gas prices rising here as well as in the U.S., Canadian systems--including that in Ottawa--may face similar ridership explosions when the Canadian dollar cools. Here's a bit of the story:

With gas at $4 per gallon and highway congestion soaring, ridership on the nation's subways and buses has jumped dramatically. Between 1995 and 2006, use of public transportation increased by 30 percent, a rate far outstripping both population growth and increased highway usage. Last year, that meant Americans took some 10.3 billion trips on mass transit. And therein lies the problem. "There's a transportation finance crisis writ large across the country," says Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's metropolitan policy program.

Because mass transit systems are so expensive to operate, they rely heavily on subsidies from federal, state, and local coffers. But the flow of money has not kept pace with the ridership growth. And when demand is coupled with capital costs or deferred maintenance and bonds coming due, many transit systems now find themselves in a financial bind that promises to only get worse.


Substantially increasing the fares isn't a practical option in most cases, though record hikes have recently been levied in Washington, D.C., and New York, while the price of a rail ticket in San Francisco has jumped 26 percent in the past five years. A survey in 2001 found that 43 percent of the country's transit riders live in households where the annual income is less than $20,000, and nearly the same percentage of riders come from households without cars. "The hard part of transit funding is finding that sweet spot where you're not punishing the people who need it most, but you're getting enough out of riders to make the whole package work," says Bob Dunphy, senior resident fellow for transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute.