Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ottawa: A city without direction

The Ottawa Citizen printed a great story about the fact that Ottawa, Ontario's second-largest city, got to share $400M in provincial infrastructure planning while Toronto received the lion's share, raking in $497M for their public transit projects. More interesting, however, was the story's exploration of the underlying problems--the fact that Ottawa has failed to establish a long-term transit plan, and that councillors are unable to have reasonable discussion at establishing priorities. Here's a bit of the story:

Ottawa missed out on the big transit money in the provincial budget because the city did not have a credible plan to spend big transit money once it scrubbed a plan built on a new north-south light-rail service. which had seen almost all approvals given. The current council reversed a decision to proceed with the project, leaving the city without a public transit plan -- and a lawsuit pending from the contractors who thought they had a deal to build the commuter-rail line.


Echoing the senior provincial minister for Ottawa, Jim Watson, Mr. [Peter] Hume [city councillor in the Alta-Vista ward] says Ottawa has reduced its credibility by sending mixed messages to the provincial government: saying it urgently needs infrastructure money, then using the funds to cut down a tax increase; approving the transit plan, then undoing the approval.


But in recent years, deep regional divisions have diminished the city's political voice. Mr. Hume says that in other Ontario municipalities such as York, Durham and Mississauga, there is "massive unanimity" on projects where financial help is needed from the provincial and federal governments.

By contrast, Ottawa has developed a political culture of dissension, where it's hard for others to know what the city's real priorities are and the city is still trying to figure out how to spend the $200 million in transit funding the provincial government has promised.


Mr. Watson says Ottawa cannot expect to get provincial money for specific capital projects until it presents a new public transit plan that delivers higher transit ridership.

"Do it right. Make sure there's good community support," says Mr. Watson, noting that the provincial government doesn't want to see a repeat of the reversed city council decision on light rail.

This may still be the after-effects of city amalgamation, and councillors seem to have failed to recognize the greater vision of the Greater Ottawa Area and the National Capital Region. Recent plans seem to offer some hope for a long-term plan being established, and it's imperative a plan--preferably one that works for all constituents, even if it's very long-term--in order to prove to provincial and federal governments that the money they give Ottawa will go to good use.

On thing's for sure: It's not a good thing that provincial bailouts for transit go to balancing the books instead of the transit projects they were earmarked for. That doesn't send the right messages to Queen's Park at all.

Ottawa transit fares to rise in 2008

According to the recently-approved 2008 Ottawa city budget (see a brief synopsis here, or the entire 837-page document here), councillors are planning to implement a 7.5 per cent increase on transit fares.

The Transit Fares and Fare Policies fact sheet from the budget (which you can read here) outlines a number of reasons for the increase:
Transit costs are continuing to increase at a rate greater than inflation for a number of reasons, including:
  • rapidly rising fuel costs
  • increasing volume of fuel required for the fleet
  • increases in bus parts costs
  • increasing maintenance complexity of the modern low-floor fleet with air conditioning
  • the addition of a high proportion of relatively costly long-distance suburban commuter trips
Yes, fuel costs are rising, so there's nothing to argue against that--it's completely understandable. With a larger fleet though, naturally comes more income from fares, so the second bullet is a moot point. Bus-part costs and maintenance increases may be rising due to inflation, although I seriously doubt they've risen by 7.5 per cent or anywhere near that margin. With regards to the last point, I'm not sure I buy that. Long-distance express trips come infrequently, and already include a premium in the fare. Rural express routes hardly ever run, and have an even more significant premium. Suburban trips such as the 95, 96, and 97 are the routes which form the backbone of the transit system, and have done so for years.

That last bullet also makes me wonder why the budget decided on the following measures to further offset the increasing transit costs:
In addition to the fare increase, consider additional options, including:
  • reducing the Ecopass discount from 15 per cent to 12 per cent
  • increasing the Annual Adult Pass discount from 10 per cent to 12 per cent, to bring the discount to the same level of the Ecopass
  • reducing the Annual Student Pass discount from 20 per cent to 15 per cent
I don't understand why adult commuters, forming what I presume to be the bulk of riders taking long-distance suburban trips, are having their pass costs brought down while students, most of whom would hardly be able to afford the cost of a pass as it is, are now paying 5 per cent more to ride the bus. And let's get rid of the Ecopass if it's just an adult pass with a different name.

The Transit fact sheet makes sure to end with this, and that's where I'd like to end this post, too. Make sure your councillor knows whether or not you agree with the measures in the budget:
Be informed. Have your say.

It’s your city, your budget. Stay informed and have your say in the budget process by participating in one of the upcoming ward consultations, scheduled from November 15 to November 30.

Residents and businesses will also have an opportunity to make a presentation to all of Council through the Committee of the Whole process being held at City Hall from December 3 to 6, 2007.

For more information, visit, call the City at 3-1-1 (TTY: 613-580-2401), or e-mail

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part one: The Greenbelt

Very interesting exploration today in the Ottawa Business Journal about the future of the City of Ottawa, and the constant debate between municipal and federal interests. The article focuses on the NCC, and public consultations to review the Greenbelt Master Plan. The most interesting part of the story, however, explored the possibility of selling some of the Greenbelt's acreage:
Some well-known developers had recently mused about selling parts of the undeveloped urban territory. Bill Teron, who helped build Kanata, suggested publicly late last year that selling some 6,000 acres (or $3-billion worth) of Greenbelt land would help prevent suburban sprawl around Ottawa, and that the profits earned in selling some of the land could be used to fund an improved and expanded rapid public transit system.
Obviously these facts have to be swallowed with a grain of salt. Both the Ottawa Business Journal and Teron are representatives of business interests, who obviously stand to benefit greatly from the development of the Greenbelt. If citizens benefit as well, however, would it be such a bad thing for a few business leaders to get a little more money?

The possibility of selling some 6,000 acres--roughly 12 per cent of the whole Greenbelt--still seems intriguing, however, and is an opportunity which should be explored. An influx of $3B would greatly offset the costs of the city's newest transit plans (which run at between $3.16B and $3.87B depending on which of the four is chosen). There's also the fact that both Mario Tremblay, a spokesman for the NCC, and John Baird, Ontario's regional federal minister, told the Ottawa Business Journal that there's no rhyme or reason to rumours of a Greenbelt sale (not just a minor detail). Plus it's federal land, and transit is a municipal project.

Personally, I think the Greenbelt has largely failed at it's stated goal of curbing urban sprawl and forming a barricade to protect rural areas. In my opinion, the suburbs have simply been pushed farther from the core and lengthening the commute, and rural areas--which Kanata, Stittsville, and Barrhaven used to be--are being gobbled up for new developments. That doesn't mean I think it should be dismantled, only that maybe a little change in it's direction isn't such a bad idea.

The money developers stand to make on such a project should be significant enough for them to make many concessions. Such as abiding to stringent stipulations about environmental sustainability in construction and urban planning of whatever urban or retail centres might be built up. A small village planned with modern concerns in mind could have a higher population density than many of Ottawa's suburbs do now, an extremely valuable possibility with the city's population continuing to grow. Plus, if land is sold along corridors which the city's transit plans already go through, then it's growth in an area already serviced with public-transit infrastructure; which is incredibly advantageous considering all the talk of how difficult it is to have transit trying to catch up in rapidly-growing urban areas like Kanata, Orleans, and Barrhaven.

Money's something that comes along relatively easily, though (knock on wood); green space isn't nearly as easy to come by. The decision to raffle part of the Greenbelt, even only 12 per cent, is not a decision that anyone can take lightly; after all, it gets pretty difficult to reclaim developed land if we decide that we want the Greenbelt back, and it takes a little while to grow back the plants and welcome back the birds, reptiles, and small mammals that call it their home. Giving up any amount of it is something that must be heavily debated by all stakeholders, and any development in the Greenbelt should come with stipulations of environmental care and sustainability.

With that, I encourage everyone to have your take when the NCC review comes knocking. Re-framing the master plan has great opportunities for the city and it's future, but they could come at a great cost.

Ontario gives $27M to Ottawa for transit

An article on today told of $27M alotted in the 2008 Ontario provincial budget to public transit project in the Ottawa area, and mayor Larry O'Brien is said to be pleased with that amount:

The 2008 provincial budget, released by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan Tuesday afternoon, included $8.2 million for social housing and $27 million for public transit in Ottawa, both previously announced.


O'Brien said the budget is "not the big bang that we had last year, but all in all I'm pretty satisfied with how they treated Ottawa."

I checked out the budget (which is available here) and all I could find was lip service to Queen's Park's "commitment" to public transit in Ottawa, on page 36, near the top:
"In addition, the Province remains committed to transit improvements in the City of Ottawa in cooperation with municipal and federal partners. The Province will review the recently released vision for public transit in Ottawa and assess next steps with the City and federal government. The government remains committed to investing $200 million in transit in Ottawa."
(page 36, "2008 Ontario Budget: Growing a Stronger Ontario")
Which, even if it is lip service, says that (hopefully) we Ottawans can count on the province when the city council finally decides on which direction we're going in terms of transit.

I've got queries out to the information line about where that $27M is promised, as well as some to councillors regarding where that money's going to go. I'll provide updates when they become available.

What is the weight of public consultation?

Great column in the Ottawa Business Journal about City Council's waffling on the city's recent transit plans, especially the inclusion of a tunnel underground. It raises some very pressing questions about why council isn't eager to move forward in the face of what seems to be the support of the majority of Ottawa's citizens:

Train or not, the overwhelming demand is that service be improved to get downtown faster. Various city bureaucrats and councillors have latched on to this idea and are now favouring quick and dirty ways to improve transit service from points east, west and south. This, they say, should come before a long and costly dig to bury transit downtown. We need solutions now that will ease the commuter flow from the 'burbs, they say, emphasizing there are a number of smaller projects that can be initiated in the short term.

These are all valid suggestions. But what happens when all that commuter flow converges on the downtown core? The faster the flow of people and traffic into the downtown, the more severe the logjam that will result – unless there's a bigger and better pipe to handle the pressure. The downtown core is the keystone of any long-term and comprehensive plan that best serves the entire region. It's the opinion of this naïve journalist that building a downtown tunnel first is the way to go and the rest of the system will follow more smoothly as a result.

But this isn't about the viewpoints of one journalist. It's about what the community as a whole wants and we have been led to believe that a downtown tunnel was top of mind for residents of Ottawa during the city's public consultations. Why else is a tunnel a key part of all the proposals on the table? Even an informal poll on last week demonstrated a severe bias in favour of a downtown tunnel as the first step. What message does it send if a group of councillors decide to ignore the weight of public opinion in favour of their own personal preferences, or to cater to their individual ward constituents? Or are these men and women ready to stand up and admit public consultation is nothing more than a hollow exercise in PR to be ignored when they don't agree with the results?

I couldn't agree more. Especially with the mentality that we have to address the inadequacies downtown before we rush to get people there, and with the questions about council dragging their feet to finally do something that's long overdue--update Ottawa's transit infrastructure.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Progressive transit through urban planning

A story on Copenhagen was published in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday, examining the measures taken in that Danish city to lessen reliance on single-car commuting (including promotion of bicycles, a new metro system, and progressive urban planning) and whether or not Ottawa would be able to follow in Copenhagen's footsteps. Danish urban plannign specialist Jan Gehl is consulted by author Maria Cook in the story, and he says the city needs some form of rapid public transit system:

Mr. Gehl says Ottawa's plans for light rail are essential to feeding the city's success.

"A good public realm and good public transport system are brother and sister. If you want people to use public space you have to make sure they can get to it in style, safety and comfort."

Every city faces the problem of how to finance large infrastructure. Copenhagen has built metro lines to areas it wants developed, then sold adjacent city-owned land at the increased value brought to it by transit proximity.

Wow, there's an idea! In a city where 'urban planning' amounts to a greenbelt which has pushed urban sprawl further from the city's core, the idea of actually using profit-making tactics to offset the cost of transit projects by unloading some costs onto business interests--which are then able to profit themselves--seems absolutely divine.

The municipal imbalance

Urban Affairs Columnist Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star wrote an interesting story last week about the infrastructural plight of ever-growing cities in an increasibly urbanizing world. While Hume focuses on the larger cities of the developing world, he makes sure to note that Canadian cities are suffering, too:

Yet around the globe the story is the same: Cities deliver 80 per cent of the services people expect in their daily lives on 25 per cent of tax revenues. As a result, public infrastructure is crumbling at every turn.

Canada's no exception; the latest estimate of the infrastructure deficit in Ontario alone stands at $143 billion. While Toronto frantically tries to avoid bankruptcy, Ottawa has just come through a series of budget surpluses that peaked last year at $13 billion. This national/local imbalance reveals much about where the planet is headed in the decades ahead.

With such expectations on the clear majority of service provision with a tremendously unbalanced taxation ability, is it any wonder that cities--Ottawa included--are falling behind in maintaining transit infrastructure? And is it responsible for federal governments to continually hoard billions in surpluses while cities struggle to minimize deficits, at the expense of municipal services? Probably not, but there is little sign of change.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Guest column: Rural transit

The following open letter to Mayor Larry O'Brien was printed in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday. Guest columnist Nicola Gall has given permission to reprint the letter--in its original form--for the benefit of those of you who missed the letters section yesterday:
Hello Mayor O'Brien,

My name is Nicola Gall and I am a student (and transit user) living in Richmond. I wrote the following letter to the Ottawa Citizen today:

"Re: After Kanata trip, mayor boards 'cattle car' to Orléans

I think it's great that Mayor Larry O'Brien took time out of his busy schedule to connect with real transit users in Kanata, Orleans, and Barrhaven, three of the fastest-growing areas in Ottawa, about the City's future transit plans.

I would like to take the opportunity to invite Mayor O'Brien to take a trip out to Richmond and experience our OC bus service next!

I'm warning him now, though, that he'll have to be out waiting for the bus by at least 7:30 AM, when the last of four buses leaves Richmond. We'll stand, unsheltered, in the snow/rain/hail, balancing on a snowbank that used to be a sidewalk, and wait 10-20 minutes for the bus, if it comes at all. Mayor O'Brien will have to pay the $5 fare for the rural express bus, then sit back and relax while the bus attempts to navigate the barely plowed one-car-wide streets of Richmond. Making our way downtown, we'll have to stop at each station after Lincoln Fields to let people on, whether or not they flag down our (supposedly) express bus. We'll arrive to work 20-40 minutes late.

I am in no way suggesting that the mayor considering building light rail out to Richmond (at least, not yet) but I would certainly appreciate his help in getting OC Transpo to provide us with consistent, reliable bus service in the meantime!

I hope to see you soon, Larry!"

I would like to take the time to congratulate you for being so hands-on as to ride the bus with real transit users and listen to their complaints and suggestions. The invitation to ride the bus from Richmond is a real one! I have experienced many, MANY problems with the OC service to Richmond and my numerous complaints and suggestions have accomplished nothing! Buses are consistently late and far too expensive with respect to value for our money. I sincerely hope you will consider my invitation!

I have e-mailed OC Transpo on several occasions and have never seen any results. I'm hoping that you may be able to help me improve the service, simply by agreeing to ride the bus!

Thank you
Ahhh, the rural experience. The mayor's office has contacted Ms. Gall, I will keep you posted on whether or not Mayor O'Brien decides to experience the adventure of bussing from Richmond when information becomes available.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Light-rail an improvement, but still has problems

Columnist Suzanne Korf of the Montreal Gazette wrote an interesting column yesterday about Montreal's rail-based public transit system, made a number of complaints similar to those which Ottawa public transit-users make even with a bus-based system, and about how she eventually succumbed to the allure of her own vehicle:

As I drove in from Pointe Claire on Highway 20, I encountered traffic (which was expected), but I was sitting down comfortably. I rarely get a seat on the train or the métro.

I was warm. On the train, my feet are usually cold from waiting outside for the trains, which are chronically late and not well heated.

And I could listen to my favourite radio station and catch up on the news. It is hard to read the paper on the train or the métro when you are crammed between a knapsack and a briefcase.

I looked at all the other people who take their cars to work and thought about how, next winter, I will probably reluctantly join the ranks of the car commuters. While I know that accidents, bad weather, rain and even sunshine slows down traffic, at least I know that I will get there eventually and I won't have to walk up an icy street that hasn't been cleared to get to work because the métro is on the fritz again.


If the transportation system was reliable, if the trains ran more frequently, if there was sufficient room for people to sit down, if they were heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer, if there were more parking spaces at the train stations, more people would leave their cars at home.

In other words, build it and they will come.

With Ottawa's transit plans apparently using rail-based systems like that in Montreal as a guideline, it will only make sense to hear the complaints of Montreal commuters, and proactively address them. What this means is making sure to allow for accomodate for increasing volume, making sure adequate trains allow for a comfortable ride without excessive crowding, industry-leading technology to make sure that heating works, and general maintenance so the system doesn't become dilapidated--a common complaint about the Toronto Transit Commission's rail-based infrastructure.

Or maybe limiting our options to light-rail is shortsighted. There are a lot of transit technologies, and it's not a simple either/or choice between bus or rail. Automatic people-movers, like the Innova by Bombardier, are another option. Or a MagLev system, like ones in China, Japan, and the UK. Or monorails, or trams, or cable cars. Any number of options. If done properly, the system can add to Ottawa's position as a global leader in progressive planning.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New transit plans and old transit lawsuits

The Ottawa Business Journal took an interesting look at the City of Ottawa's four new transit plans, and the relationship between them and the potential lawsuit which Siemens filed against the city after the original north-south transit plan was voted down by council when Larry O'Brien became mayor. A little excerpt from the story:

There are a bunch of issues associated with procurement and litigation. Let's deal with the city's perspective. First of all, we are dealing with a transportation plan with an estimated cost of somewhere between $3.2 billion and $3.8 billion. As if that is not enough, we are looking at the lawsuit. What do you do? Do you sole-source the contract to Siemens to avoid the lawsuit? Are you allowed to sole-source if this is a much bigger contract than the original plan? Do you settle the lawsuit prior to the launching of the procurement effort and if you do, what does that do to Siemens and its interest in the project?


And of course, what about Siemens? What is its next step? Does it drop the lawsuit in order to go after the much larger contract with the city? Does it settle with the city for a much lower sum so that it can position itself for a run to the bigger prize? Or is Siemens at the point where it really doesn't want to have anything to do with the City of Ottawa?

Now, I will offer the same qualification as the author of the original story (Jeff Polowin): I am no lawyer. I do think, however, that the potential lawsuit has to enter into the equation when soliciting bids for the construction of whatever plan is chosen.

This should not involve a sole-source contract, but you've got to consider the possibility of Siemens dropping their lawsuit when examining competing bids. If they and another firm offer bids that are essentially the same bottom number, but the offer from Siemens offers the proviso of dropping their $277M lawsuit, Siemens' bid should win. The lawsuit serves as a credit, and it may seem to be unfair to competing firms, but it is a direct result of the "very long and expensive procurement battle to construct the ill-fated north-south light rail transit line" (in the words of Polowin) that Siemens engaged in years ago.

That's just my two cents, however; I encourage anyone who agrees or disagrees to comment on the thread.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Everyone needs light rail, but where do we start?

Breaking news in the Ottawa Citizen today: Kanata commuters think Kanata needs light rail. In his first trip in a series of three from the city's largest suburban hubs, mayor Larry O'Brien asked people from Kanata what they thought about the recent transit plans as launched by the city. Today he went from Mackenzie-King to Orleans, and tomorrow he'll take the ride from Fallowfield to downtown.

Want to take a guess what the second and third rides will show? I bet Barrhaven commuters will think Barrhaven needs light rail, and Orleans commuters will think Orleans needs light rail. And, in the long run, all are true. But just because everyone thinks they need light rail right now doesn't mean the city doesn't have to make priorities, and follow those.

An excerpt from the story:
Most commuters were pleasantly surprised to see the mayor, who posed for pictures and joked with riders. They also filled his ears with complaints about current transit challenges, including overcrowding, reliability, and difficulties getting home in the winter.

Stittsville-Kanata West Councillor Shad Qadri, who rode the bus with Mr. O'Brien, said he "wouldn't mind seeing LRT come out as far as Eagleson."

"That would serve all of that west-end area very, very well," said Mr. Qadri, adding that light rail could go as far east as the edge of Orléans.


Mr. Qadri said he was leaning toward Option 3, which keeps the O-Train and uses the tunnel for light rail, which would increase the potential for an LRT expansion.

The bottom line is that, realistically, all three areas should be connected to the transit infrastructure without having to make transfers, or having to drive to a park'n'ride, or spend three times as long on a bus as the drive would take. Extending light rail would solve these problems, but it can't all be done at once, can it?

Making room for transit projects

Inevitably, large transit projects that move people in and out of the city require land. Some of that land is occupied, and that makes things difficult; forcing people out of their homes, even if you give them appropriate market value, is a difficult task. A current rail project in Hampton Roads, Virginia is undertaking just such a venture, and it's not easy for anyone involved. From the Virginian-Pilot:

Transit officials will tear down the Hall home and 16 other privately owned homes and businesses for the 7.4-mile, $232.1 million rail line. It's a small number for such a large public transit project, said Michael Townes, Hampton Roads Transit president and CEO who also serves as chairman of the American Public Transit Association.

But it's not small to Barbara Hall, who was married in the front yard of her in-laws' former house, where she now lives; who buried three beloved pets in the yard; and who imprinted her grandchildren's hands in the cement driveway.

"It's very heartbreaking," Hall said.

Hall pointed out two stately pecan trees that flank the front walk. They were saplings when she got married beside them.

"It's not just about money," she said. "I'm talking about emotional ties. There's quite a history here."

As Ottawa moves towards more complex transit plans, including (hopefully) the eventual rail service connecting Kanata, Orleans, and Barrhaven, these problems will come about. Maybe some time after 2031 (that seems so long away... ). It's unfortunate, but Ottawa has been through it before, with construction of the Transitway and of the 417 in its day. In the long run, it will serve the city better, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant for the people who are forced to sell their homes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Public transit use in the U.S. highest in 50 years

There was an interesting piece written on public transit use in the United States on Salon last week, writing after it became known that public transit use in the US is at its highest level in 50 years (largely thanks to rising gas prices and a struggling economy, according to some).

Most interesting was the examination of why, despite the fact that the population is now double what it was in 1957, public transit use had been so low since then:

But I was most struck by the news that fifty years ago American reliance on public transportation was so high. The U.S. population has almost doubled since then, from around 172 million to today's 302 million. So on a public-transport-ride per capita basis, the U.S. is still nowhere near the heights reached in the 1950s.

So what happened? Here's one clue. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Federal Highway Aid Act, which authorized the creation of the United States Interstate Highway System.

Isn't that a lovely synchronicity? The Interstate system is born, and almost immediately, public transportation in the United States embarks on a long decline.

Although rising gas prices have been somewhat offset by the growing Canadian dollar, the continued rise should inevitably encourage people onto public transit. Which means that OC Transpo needs to improve service in order to greet new commuters with open arms--or open doors.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Transit plans take some criticism

Ottawa Citizen columnist Ken Gray tore into the City's recent transit plans on Friday, calling them "lousy", ineffective, and overpriced. While I disagree with a lot of his points, he does make one good argument, with regards to the possibility of the NCC putting the kibosh on transit plans by refusing to allow light rail along the Parkway:
In addition, the final two plans put rail along the Transitway line from Dominion station to Lincoln Fields. That was a Transitway route of convenience using the Ottawa River Parkway. It was cheap. But no people live along it. There are no stops or residences. If the city were in the poultry business, it could pick up the flocks of Canada geese along the Ottawa River, but even that is seasonal given the migratory habits of the birds. The National Capital Commission would do us all a favour by not allowing the parkway to be used by light rail.
Because no one lives along the Parkway, it would be more effective to re-route the transitway along some more populated stretch. Below is a very roughly interpreted (and maybe impossible) potential alternative to the Parkway route by running the light-rail somewhere parallel to Island Park and right onto the Queensway at Carling. It could also make future extension to Kanata along the Queensway easier. Whether or not it is realistic to get the line onto the Queensway that quickly, it is a potential alternative that offers service to more residential areas and is therefore an idea to consider.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Unrest in the 'burbs

Barrhaveners are still pissed off. They don't think any of the four transit plans serve their area well enough. The Ottawa Citizen had a story about it today:

Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder said she's "not surprised people in Barrhaven are pissed."

"I think the plan is good overall for the city, but in my area, it's like were moving decades backwards," she said. "People in my ward are being short changed. Many who have taken the bus for 17, 20 years aren't doing it any more because its not reliable, and the buses are full. You can't service this area anymore with buses."

Ms. Harder lobbied hard to get a rail extension to Barrhaven under the old plan, and she said she is working with OC Transpo officials on some new initiatives for transit in the area. She declined, however, to provide details.West Barrhaven Community Association president James Gilliland said there are cost effective alternatives to bring light rail to the the suburb, and it's puzzling why city staff haven't proposed doing so because if they did, people would get out of their cars and on to trains in droves.

He said Mr. O'Brien, himself, put it best last year when he said the new system needs to be faster, more reliable, and more convenient. Mr. Gilliland said the city's current plans accomplish none of these for Barrhaven.


Mr. O'Brien said the concerns being voiced by Barrhaven residents are a good example of why the public consultation process is valuable. However, he said, every resident would probably like a light-rail stop on their streets, but financial realities are what they are.

"If we had the money, we would gladly put light rail everywhere right now, but we don't," he said.

I've got to agree to O'Brien on this one. Yeah, it would be really nice to get rail to everyone right away, but it's not realistic. The amount of light-rail transit that is in the plans will certainly help get commuters from Barrhaven downtown faster, and that speed will help ease the congestion within the buses. I can't blame Barrhaveners for trying to get whatever they can, but realisitically I think that we've all got to be a little patient if we have any hope of making this city's transit system work.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Michel Bellemare's thoughts on transit

This one's not an exclusive, but Michel Bellemare, City Councillor for Ward 11 (Beacon Hill-Cyrville) wrote a very interesting guest column for the Ottawa Citizen last week. In the column, Councillor Bellemare wrote about the need for a long-term plan to improve transit--what he calls a "transit Renaissance"--and, more importantly, the need to have a long-term, multi-generational vision to ensure that Ottawa's transit needs will eventually be met. Here are a few excerpts from the story:

People should expect light rail to meet actual and future needs, serve as many areas as possible, increase ridership, and generally improve our current transportation system.

The good news is much of Ottawa's rapid transit system is already built. It's called the Transitway, and its original builders made preparations for a future conversion to light-rail.

Real rapid transit requires giving buses or trains the exclusive right to travel within a dedicated corridor. It's the only way to eliminate conflicts with other vehicles and maintain a reasonable speed between stops. You can see that downtown is where the Transitway slows to a crawl. Let's fix that problem with a tunnel - from around Lees transit station to Bayview.

Today's residents of cities such as Montreal, Toronto, New York, Paris and London owe a debt of gratitude to their ancestors for having had the foresight, decades ago, to invest in underground rapid transit. In Ottawa, a downtown tunnel would enhance our city's wonderful yet unfinished cathedral called the Transitway.


Of the various options to consider in the coming weeks, the best possible plan will nclude east-west light-rail from Blair to Baseline stations through a downtown tunnel. Further light-rail conversion and extension of the Transitway going east, west and south must follow, perhaps preceded by new bus rapid transit corridors.

With an upgraded rapid transit network, the stage will be set for more efficient and reliable public transit in Ottawa. The future of transit is shorter and more frequent local bus routes carrying people from their neighbourhood to the nearest Transitway station, for a fast and comfortable ride to their ultimate destination.


With its fair share of funding from provincial and federal governments, a 20-year, three- to four-billion-dollar rapid transit action plan for Canada's capital is both feasible and overdue.

It's time for a transit Renaissance in Ottawa.

The column was intelligent an well-written, and I recommend those interested follow the link above to read it in its entirety.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Business support for tunnel plans: Part three

Great story in the Ottawa Business Journal about how businesses in downtown are reacting to the city's four proposed transit plans. At least when it comes to the businesses that the OBJ is interviewing, the response is largely positive, and the reasons presented are pretty interesting:
  • People aren't as hostile towards a transfer from bus to train as planners traditionally thought.
  • The short-term costs, especially of Option Three, are not as obstructive when examined in the long-run of multi-generational use.
  • Underground retail development will be a boon to Ottawa's economy.
  • The rumoured $1B cost for the tunnel is inflated, according to a representative of the advocacy group Transit 2000. According to him, the cost would be closer to $400-500M.
  • Larger sidewalks and bike lanes.
  • A potential for another open market area similar to the ByWard Market, possibly on Albert or Slater.
  • Reinvigorated street-level restaurants and shops with less traffic at street level.

There was also an interesting point about using Municipal Bonds to help finance the project, which is an interesting proposition:

Mr. [Gerry] LePage [of the Downtown Coalition] suggested an independent, "blue ribbon" financial committee be set up to find revenue streams, one that could tap into "world class financiers."

"It should (also) look into municipal bonds," he added. "We can raise hundreds of millions that way."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Exclusive: Peggy Feltmate's views on the transit plans

In the first of what will hopefully be a series of comments on the recent public transit proposals put forward to Ottawa City Council, is happy to offer the views of Kanata South Councillor Peggy Feltmate. What follows is published with the permission of Feltmate's office:
This plan provides faster service to the main destinations that Kanata transit users are going to so it is definitely a step forward. Service frequency would be as good as it is today or better. Of the various options, the two that would have a rail only tunnel make the most sense.

A bus tunnel would be close to capacity from the day it was completed so additional, and probably very expensive infrastructure, would be required to accommodate growth. While the construction costs for the rail tunnel options are more expensive, the savings in the operating costs will rapid make up for the higher construction costs. Based on what I saw in Edmonton, the speed of light rail in a tunnel will more than offset the time it takes to transfer from bus to train.

One of the complaints about the plan is that light rail will not go all the way to Kanata. The cost of building a light rail route all the way from Kanata to Orleans as the first stage means that having Kanata served by the first phase of a plan for light rail will not happen - unless the federal and provincial governments significantly increase transit funding so that it matches what we see with many projects in the United States and Europe.

The other concern is cost. There is no getting around the fact that the total cost of all four options is very high and the city will not be able to afford it without help from the federal and provincial governments. What we need to remember is that there are no effective options for improving our transportation system that are not costly.

Where we most need increase capacity is in the core. The experience of other cities has shown there are no cheap and easy ways to do that.

We would save some money by running light rail along the street in the downtown and I suggested that it be studied as an option in case a tunnel was seen as prohibitively expensive. However, for light rail along the street to be reasonable fast and reliable, a street would have to be set aside entirely for light rail. Doing that would result in considerable opposition from many downtown businesses and was why a majority of councillors opposed my proposal.

Because buses take up even more space, dealing with the congestion problem for buses on Albert and Slater would require more lanes to be reserved for transit than would be needed for light rail. Based on the discussions about running light rail along the street, there would be opposition.

There is not the space in the downtown to increase road capacity. Even if it were possible, when roads are widened or new roads are built, the increase in traffic usually means any benefit will be wiped out after a maximum of five years. In contrast the capacity of a light rail tunnel will mean it will be enough to handle the expected growth in traffic for some time.
It is good that Feltmate sees that it is necessary to increase capacity in the core of the city, and that doing so is a necessary first step towards an eventual plan that would see transit running from Kanata to Orleans as well as one from Barrhaven right to downtown.

I disagree with the idea that running light-rail above ground is a suitable cost-savings measure, and am glad to see other councillors would agree. Running a study would be an unnecessary cost when you look at the counter-points that Feltmate raised in the above argument.

Thanks to Feltmate for the input. If you would like to contact her directly, her e-mail address is and her website is

Downtown tunnel gets more business support

The city's four transit plans--all of which include a tunnel downtown for transit--have received yet another seal of approval from Ottawa businesses, this time from three Business Improvement Initiatives (BIAs). The Bank Street Promenade BIA, ByWard Market BIA, and Downtown Rideau BIA have all expressed support for the underground tunnel plans. A story in the Ottawa Business Journal wrote about the BIAs and their support:
"What's important to the BIAs is that a tunnel will move most of the traffic caused by public transit traffic out of sight."

Can we afford not to move to light rail?

An interesting story in the Daily Commercial News and Construction Record (a publication on the Canadian construction industry) took an interesting approach to transit development: How much will it cost us not to upgrade our infrastructure?

Looking into public policy work by some leading thinkers, Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institute, the story brings up some interesting points.

Looking at road, rail and air networks, they [Katz and Puentes] have concluded that their clogged state is threatening America’s economic health. And they have also concluded that the remedy is not a whole lot of relatively small infrastructure projects, but “big, well-targeted investments that improve transportation within and around” a few key cities.

Large, strategic investments have worked before, they write. Money spent to develop the railway system in the 19th century and huge expenditures to develop the highway system in the last century worked, they claim. They cite a recent study showing that “public investment in transportation in the 1970s generated a return approaching 20 per cent, mostly in the form of higher productivity.”

While an almost $4B expenditure on updating the transit infrastructure in Ottawa seems like a large expenditure, the long-term savings should offset the short-term costs. The costs currently being accrued to maintain the overwhelmed bus-only system are building up, and moving to light-rail could bring down a lot of the maintenance costs. Read a teaser for the book, 'Taking the High Road', published by Brookings here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008 down when we need it most

Want to find out whether or not you can catch your bus tomorrow morning? Too bad. Anyone looking to get onto the OC Transpo's official website the afternoon/evening of Sunday, Feb. 9 is going to be a little disappointed. The site is down.

With the uncertainty surrounding the O-Train--which was out of service for much of Sunday--and whether or not people are going to be able to catch their buses on time to get to work Monday morning, people need to check the website. Increased traffic is probably why it crashed, but it's days like this when people most need to be able to check the site.

The site came back up at roughly 9:15 pm, with the only information about service disruptions being the following disclaimer:
All OC Transpo bus routes are experiencing major delays.
Transitway and major bus routes are operating on a 30 minute frequency.
Local bus routes are operating on a 60 minute frequency.
O-Train service is cancelled until further notice, due to storm conditions.
Para Transpo service is cancelled with only emergency service available. Reservations for Monday will proceed as normal.
So basically nothing. No information on possibly affected routes, no update on the rumoured closure of the Fallowfield Park'n'Ride (as reported on 580 CFRA), no updates on O-Train service.

I will do my best to offer more information and updates as they become available. It doesn't seem much information is being made available, however, which might be one reason why 70 per cent of Ottawa commuters still drive to work. Hopefully anyone looking for information on how to get downtown finds it on time.

Bus in the snow

I learned four things about Ottawa's transit system while trying to get downtown from Kanata this morning (after 50 cm of snow over the last 24 hours):
  1. Local routes don't work: Local routes need to be re-planned. There has to be a reasonable way for people to get from their houses to main stations, and it can't be one bus every 30-60 minutes.
  2. 560-1000 needs to be accurate: If I dial the 560-1000 information number to find out when the next bus will arrive, the time I'm given needs to be accurate. If not, the service is actually a disservice, because it wastes my time. If the number tells me a bus will arrive in 32 minutes, it should arrive in that time; if that run is cancelled and the next bus will in reality arrive in 62 minutes, tell me that so I can go to Tim Horton's and sit down with a coffee while I wait.
  3. Light-rail transit downtown needs to be in a tunnel: The O-Train service was suspended today, for several hours during the day. Because of the snow. The effects of this were likely not as bad as they could have been because it's Sunday, but trains can't be late if they're getting people to work. By tunneling underground, we get around the insane snow problem.
  4. The Transitway is awesome: After my 96 lost control of its steering, I was able to jump onto the next bus--which happened to be a 97--and it brought me along the same route into downtown, which was great.
I also learned that snowpants are a good idea, and that wool socks are heaven-sent. But those aren't really transit-related, so...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Barrhaven consultation not so good

The Ottawa Citizen wrote a story about the four transit plans today, which suggested that the fourth public consultation on the plans wasn't as positive as the first three. Citizens in Barrhaven were disappointed that they didn't have rail service in any of the plans, and who can blame them after the light-rail plans that were originally in place had tracks right from their suburb?
"I don't see anything in this for Barrhaven, and this is where the people are," said Scott Robinson, 43, who lives in Barrhaven. "I take the bus, and it already doesn't have the capacity to deal with the demand even now.


People at a downtown public consultation felt the plan was good, mainly because the tunnel and light rail would take transit off congested downtown streets. People in Kanata and Orléans felt the city was finally moving in the right direction, but it should look at extending rail lines into the suburbs quickly.

Barrhaven resident Greg Frankson, 33, said it was "asinine" to think his area could be served with buses for the next 20 years. He said it's time for the city to switch completely to rail because it will be cheaper in the long run and will be able to accommodate more people.

I would agree with Frankson, that the suburbs will need to move beyond bus service quickly, but changing the transit infrastructure completely from buses to rail requires intermediate steps. There's no point in bringing people to the centre of the city via rail if they'll have to transfer to buses when they arrive; there has to be a system downtown first. It's extremely unpleasant for those of us in the suburbs, but it's true.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tunnel in Vancouver moving along

Vancouver is currently undertaking a tunnelling project running from Vancouver's waterfront towards the airport. The process and equipment is probably a lot like the potential tunnel in Ottawa's core, with one big difference: Ottawa has the support of the big businesses in the core. As a story in the Globe and Mail, some Vancouver businesses are upset with the process:
"The Premier said the project was on budget and “ahead of schedule, so every time you're ahead of schedule you're in better shape for the long term.”

"But the project also has caused considerable controversy for the section that runs underground along Cambie Street, east of the downtown, because it has disrupted many businesses."

Maybe it's still the honeymoon phase of the planning, and the Downtown Coalition could certainly change it's tune when the actual digging is underway, but for now they seem happy. That Coalition is also composed of large businesses, so remains unknown what small business owners think about the tunnel.

Speaking of commuters in Vancouver, Clive Doucet wrote longingly about the transit infratructure in Vancouver in a special column for the Citizen in February (titled "What we're missing out on"), and about how it has meant good things for the reduction of car use.

"The statistics confirm what your eyes see on Vancouver's friendly, lively streets. Car ownership hasn't increased in 12 years in spite of the city's population growing by 40,000 and those who own cars are driving 30 per cent fewer kilometres. At the same time, pedestrian trips have doubled, and transit use has tripled.


"There's no transit ideology here. It's what works best - do it. And Vancouverites do."

Is the recent willingness of council to pay a premium for proactive long-term solutions to Ottawa's transit problems the start of a new 'transit ideology' of simply doing what works for the city?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ottawa's four downtown network alternatives

The following are the city-presented .PDF files with maps as well as pros and cons of all four of the transit alternatives. Linked from the Ottawa Business Journal:
  1. Bus-based Tunnel (and O-Train)
  2. Bus-Light Rail Tunnel (and N-S LRT)
  3. Light-Rail Tunnel (and O-Train; E-W LRT)
  4. Light-Rail Tunnel (and E-W; N-S LRT)
Based on a preliminary examination, my preference would be Option Four. Although the construction period would give us a lot of headaches during construction, I think giving priority to light-rail as much as possible--from Baseline to Blair, from Bayview through the airport to Bowesville, and the rail-only tunnel--are the best options for Ottawa's long-term transit needs.

The costs, however, are nothing to scoff at. It's the second-most expensive option (Option One is cheapest at $3.16B, then Option Three at $3.37B, then Four at $3.82M, then Two at $3.87), but it also has the lowest operating costs once constructed and the lowest long-term environmental costs.

EDIT: Option Four is also the most in line with the report from the Task Force on Transportation, keeping in mind the following statement:
Canada’s capital city deserves a transit system that is enjoyable to ride, accessible, efficient, environmentally sound and developed in accordance with the principles of smart growth. Ottawa’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system has served the city well, but demand from current and anticipated growth requires more focus on light rail solutions.

Downtown businesses support a tunnel

A story in the Ottawa Citizen today explained the support that downtown businesses--or at least the Downtown Coalition of landholders--support the idea of using a tunnel for transit downtown. They cite some pretty good reasons:

After years of fighting the city's plans to bring a light-rail transit service downtown at street level, the city's downtown business leaders are finally on-side, cheering the city in its bid to build a transit system underground.

Hume Rogers, of the Downtown Coalition, says that with a tunnel taking light-rail commuter trains under the city's busiest streets, there will be thousands of riders who will be a ready market for underground shops and services. In Montreal and Toronto, subways led to new business districts underground and pedestrian pathways that allow people to stay out of the weather as they go from building to building.

Of the four options city staff have put forward for a long-term transit plan, the coalition favours Nos. 3 and 4, which include the greatest expansion of rail.
Another interesting point by Rogers is his idea that, paraphrased in the story, "the city has agreed that the downtown must be fixed for transit before the city can move out to properly serve the suburbs." An interesting point; should you get people downtown before working on transportation there, or make downtown better and then focus on helping those in the suburbs? I'd be inclined to agree with Rogers, that it's better to start in the centre and move out.

Transit fatigue?

The Ottawa Sun had an interesting article today about mass frustration on the part of Ottawans with the inability for City Council to actually get something done about improving transit in the city. Dubbing the phenomenon 'transit fatigue', Sun author Susan Sherring discussed the history of Ottawa's transit stagnation:

What is really amazing is not that less than three dozen Joe Citizens showed up on Monday, but that anyone would still believe after years of failure that their input actually means anything.

The debate over the future of the city's transit system -- light rail, buses, tunnel or no tunnel -- has been going on since the days when Andy Haydon ruled the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton with an iron fist.

Yet now, several decades later, there's still no overall picture. No tunnel, no light rail but the O-Train, no system meeting the demands of the national capital's transit riders.

Sherring's story ends on a rather cynical note, stating that "If they're lucky, council will get the shovel in the ground before the next election. History suggests once a new council or new mayor take over the reins of power, all deals are off."

Hopefully this is not the case, and people are still willing and eager to involve themselves in the public consultations the city will undertake. The faster voices are heard, the faster a decision can be made, and the faster something can be started.

Ottawa left out; what's Baird doing about it?

The Ottawa Hill Times gave the perspective of a few of Ottawa's MPs, who criticized John Baird for failing to get Ottawa any of the Federal money allocated to transit projects in major cities.

Paul Dewar, the NDP MP for Ottawa Centre, said he's not sure what Mr. Baird has accomplished for Ottawa, citing last week's federal budget, which pledged unspecified millions of dollars to create a rail line from Toronto to Peterborough, the riding of Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro.

"There's nothing for [Ottawa] transit, interestingly enough, whereas there's money for Vancouver and Peterborough," Mr. Dewar said. "With all do respect for the people of Peterborough, I think Ottawa needs more transit money than Peterborough does."


For the time being, Mr. Dewar said all regional MPs should be focused on getting a transit plan for the city. "As federal MPs in this region, we have to get the resources for a transit plan. I'm going to be working with any local MP and councillor and MPP to get that done. That's really what people want to get on with," he said. "I really don't ant to spend any more time on finger pointing, and I'm not going to be putting out ads."

Mr. [David] McGuinty said that as a result of the latest light rail proposal to emerge from city hall, combining bus routes, light rail, and a downtown subway and estimated to cost as much as $3.6-billion, Mr. Baird is going to have to start fighting for more federal money for Ottawa.

"Is Mr. Baird going to kill the $3.3-billion project and call it a $3.3-billion boondoggle?" Mr. McGuinty said.

Personal agendas aside, there are some valid concerns raised by both Dewar and McGuinty.

Ottawa left out of Federal equation

The Federal budget earmarked $500M for transit infrastructure project in Canada's major cities. Once again, as per a Reuters Canada story, Ottawa isn't in there:
The C$500 million infrastructure commitment will go towards specific projects in Canada's major cities. It is earmarked for the Evergreen Light Rapid Transit System in Vancouver, the re-establishment of a rail link between Toronto and Peterborough, as well as new equipment and upgrades to rapid transit routes in Montreal.

How about a little something our way? Or maybe dipping a few million into that multi-billion dollar surplus isn't a bad idea for long-term infrastructure investment and environmental protection.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ottawa: Going underground, part two

The four options for underground expansion of the citywide transit plan, paraphrased from the Ottawa Citizen, consist of:
  1. Build a tunnel, and run buses through it. Quickest, and the $3.16B initial cost estimate is the lowest of the four, but this option has the highest operating costs and most pollution.
  2. Build a tunnel for buses and trains to share. Convert O-Train into twin-track system from the U of O to Bowesville Road in the south end, with a stop at the airport. Estimated cost of $3.87B. Bus service in the 'burbs would be improved.
  3. Build a tunnel, use light-rail in the tunnel, and leave the O-Train as-is. East-west transitway is turned into rail service. Cost: $3.37B.
  4. Build a tunnel for light-rail, convert transitway to two-track electric-rail system from Blair to Booth. Make O-Train twin-track and extend it to Bowesville with that stop at the airport. Cost estimated to be $3.82B.
I can't seem to find the original plans, only the digest-version in the Citizen. Randall Denley, City columnist for the Citizen, seems to think that citizens haven't been given enough information about the long-term costs of any of the plans.
"[City staff's] presentation was remarkably lacking in the underlying facts that would allow the public to make a rational choice.


"This plan tells us nothing about the comparative operating costs of the four proposals, other than to assert that rail will be cheaper."
Perhaps the financial costs associated with the proposals need to be explored further. With the system so far behind the needs of the users, however, there is a sense of urgency in finding some solution to Ottawa's transit problems.

Ottawa: Going underground?

Is a tunnel the answer to Ottawa's public transit problems? Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien believes so, and he said as much to the media yesterday. As per the Ottawa Citizen:

The City of Ottawa's planning staff unveiled four options for a new city-wide transit plan for the city Monday, each costing at least $3 billion. The options include going with a big expansion of the bus-transitway system or spending heavily to get Ottawans onto light-rail commuter trains.

But all the options include a tunnel, or subway, under downtown - a huge engineering project intended to lead to construction of shops and service businesses underground. The city says it must go underground because downtown is near its capacity for dealing with transit. Without a subway, a surface transit system would need a bus to arrive every 10 seconds at downtown stops by 2031, according to the city.

Building a subway "takes away the bottleneck" that is choking the city-wide transit system, Mr. O'Brien said in an interview. He said the north-south light-rail plan of his predecessor, Bob Chiarelli, would not have worked because the vehicles would have been stuck in road traffic with other vehicles. Mr. O'Brien said voters "intuitively know" that the city needs to go underground to improve transit service.


The subway would likely run from LeBreton Flats, near Bronson Avenue in the west, to the University of Ottawa in the east, with several stations along the way to serve the city's most densely populated blocks. Buses would no longer congest Albert and Slater streets.

It is true that a proactive solution to downtown commuting might be cost-effective in the long run. And it's also true that an underground system will solve a lot of problems with regards to the weather. And it's definitely true that Albert and Slater are tremendously congested. And development of underground shops and services should help develop Ottawa businesses.

I would tend to agree with Alta Vista Ward Counciller Peter Hume, who suggests that it might be the only realistic solution to downtown Ottawa's growing transit needs.

Transit system doesn't serve Ottawa's needs

A lot of people say that Ottawa has a pretty good public transit system. And, when you've arrived into the downtown corridor, that is often the case. The problem with the infrastructure--as has been the case for some time--is getting into Ottawa's heart.

And that might be an explanation as to why Ottawa commuters are largely declining to use services provided by OC Transpo. According to an article by the Canadian Press:

On the outskirts of major cities such as Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver the process of transferring from a local bus to the main subway system adds to a commute that some say would take a fraction of the time in a car.

"Every time you add a transfer piece to a trip you're tacking on anywhere from five to 15 minutes," said Lorenzo Mele, chairman of the Association for Commuter Transportation of Canada. "That's when our systems fall apart."

"There's no point in trying to convince somebody to turn a 30-minute car ride to work into an hour and a half journey across the transit system," he said.

That same argument can be made in Ottawa, where recent attempts to get people into the centre of the city--in Kanata at Eagleson and Terry Fox, in Barrhaven at Strandherd and Fallowfield, in South Keys at Greenboro, and all other Park'n'Rides in Ottawa--shift the onus of getting into the main transit system onto the commuter commuter.

As for the Ottawa transit situation, it's not pretty. An article on gives the numbers:
About 70 per cent of the 560,000 commuters in the Ottawa-Gatineau region still travel to work in personal vehicles, according to a new report by Statistics Canada.

That means not even one person in five in the region uses public transit, the report says.

Those statistics are largely reflective of the city's failure to properly assess and address the needs of people in Ottawa.