Friday, April 25, 2008

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.

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