Monday, December 21, 2009

Province pledges $600M tunnel funding

Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario provincial government announced on Friday that the province will give Ottawa its one-third share of the first phase of the city's ambitious transit plan.

The first phase of the plan is now estimated to cost $2.1B (higher than earlier estimates of $1.8B), and includes light-rail transit from Tunney's Pasture to Blair with a tunnel below the downtown core. With its pledge of $600M, the province tripled their previous funding promise to the city and ensured Ottawa now has two-thirds of their funding in place. There are suggestions that the announcement puts pressure on the Federal government to pledge their share of the price tag (although I'm not sure the Feds are the type to be pressured into anything, and certainly not pressured by a Provincial Liberal government).

From the Ottawa Citizen:
“In Ottawa we’ve talked a lot about moving forward with rapid transit. Today, together, we take a giant step towards making our shared vision a reality,” [Ontario Premier and Ottawa South MPP Dalton] McGuinty said. “We are making the biggest transit investment in Ottawa’s history … This commitment is all the more significant given the challenging economic times we all find ourselves in.”

And from Mayor Larry O'Brien's blog:

This significant funding announcement illustrates the Ontario Government’s clear confidence in the City of Ottawa’s transit future. As your Mayor, I am pleased that the Province is on board with, and committed to, the transit plan that we currently have on the table - a transit solution that will change the pace and efficiency with which you, the residents, move around our great City.

Premier McGuinty also expressed strong confidence in City Council’s ability to make the necessary decisions to move this critical project forward, and to eventually implement our plan for light rail and rapid transit across Ottawa.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transit strike: One year ago today

It was one year ago today that the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279 went on strike after talks broke off with the City of Ottawa during contract negotiations.

The Ottawa Citizen took a look back on the events leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the strike.

Thank goodness we don't have to live through it again this winter.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winter strike cost OC Transpo $5.9M

According to the City of Ottawa's Auditor General Lalonde, the winter 2008-09 transit strike ended up costing the city about $5.9M in direct costs. While the city saved $21.5M in expenses over the course of the 53-day transit strike, they lost $27.4M in revenue, resulting in a net loss to the city.
According to the Ottawa Citizen:

The audit report found that wage and fuel savings were more than offset by lost pass and ticket revenue. City council gave transit riders generous deals to entice them back to transit after the 58-day stoppage of service.

But the city also had increased costs, such as $558,000 for increased snow removal, $362,000 for increased security and $400,000 to compensate colleges and universities to operate shuttle services.
The $5.9M estimate, however, doesn't likely come close to measuring the cost incurred by average citizens and businesses whose income was negatively impacted by the 58 days of no service.

For more reading:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two minutes late is right on time

Earlier this week, the Ottawa Citizen published an article about OC Transpo's new efforts to get buses arriving at their stops with more reliability. The story was deceptively headlined "Too punctual, OC Transpo drivers told to show up late", although punctuality wasn't the issue; the crux of the policies, according to OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier, is that it's better for a bus to be a couple of minutes late than a couple of minutes early. As Mercier said, from that Citizen article:

“We’re in a major campaign to break the psychology of trying to be always on the zero mark because it’s impossible to be on the zero mark all the time.

“We’d rather them run two minutes late.”
From a rider's perspective, it's definitely better for the bus to be late--at least if it's not too late--than early. There's nothing more frustrating than arriving at your bus stop right on time (or even a minute or two early) only to find that you've missed your route because it was by early. Public transit is one of the few services where being early isn't a good thing, and it's better to be (slightly) late if you can't be on time.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A new organizational structure for OC Transpo

In the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend, columnist Randall Denley penned an opinion piece opining the politicians responsible for managing our city's transit authority. In short:
"In the perfect world, the bus company called OC Transpo would be run by a board of directors consisting of people who know something about transit and something about business. Instead, we have city councillors whose business experience is negligible to non-existent and who think their job is to be hands-on managers of the bus company, even though they're not qualified for the job."
Denley went on to describe why, exactly, he feels that "These people simply can't run a bus company": Councillors aren't qualified transit planners; they fail to see the big picture, because they have short mandates; they base decisions on political considerations, such as the routes that run in their wards, rather than efficiency and economy; they sometimes (perhaps often) disregard the input of their staff. Although not all councillors are guilty of these weaknesses, some can be, and that inhibits the decisions made for OC Transpo.

Denley's recommendation is certainly interesting, and timely, but he's not the first to make the suggestion. In Moving Ottawa: The Mayor's Task Force on Transportation, which was commissioned by Larry O'Brien after the cancellation of the city's north-south light rail project and delivered on June 1, 2007, one of the chief recommendations of the task force was "to set up an arm’s-length operating company, in most cases reporting to an independent board of directors appointed by the City Council." The argument presented is convincing:
"Public transportation in cities is one of the major challenges of urban life and as such deserves a dedicated entity within the City government—as opposed to a division of a City department that is dependent on many other departments to achieve performance. OC Transpo is currently a department of City government reporting to Council via the City Manager. This arrangement is not optimal. OC Transpo staff and management complain that bureaucratic obstacles, caused by the fragmentation of management and operational functions, reduce their ability to serve the interest of citizens. An independent governance model incorporating OC Transpo would help ameliorate current problems associated with cumbersome decision-making, cost control, supply of services, union relations and operational decisions relating to route planning."
Most important, however, was that the task force declared re-organizing the management structure of OC Transpo as one of the most important recommendations, suggesting it be complete within 6-12 months. Although that may have been an ambitious timeline, it has been over two years and four months since the report was delivered, and there has been no indication of political will or urgency to institute what the mayor's task force--which Mayor O'Brien has been vocally proud of--recommended with such urgency.

On this website, I've asked before whether or not city council is micro-managing public transit in the city. It looks like some, at least Denley and the Mayor's task force, are concluding that it is, and that something has to be done to get public transit run more efficiently and effectively in Ottawa.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Toronto looking to raise fares, too

Similar to OC Transpo's proposed fare hikes for the upcoming year, the Toronto Transit Commission is looking at raising fares across the board for Toronto transit users, according to the Globe and Mail.

The specifics of Toronto's fare hike will come later (Ottawa's is an average of 7.5 percent), but a couple of numbers mentioned are $126 for a regular adult monthly pass (compared to the proposed $91.50 for OC Transpo) and $3 for a cash fare (compared to the $3.25 cash fare for OC Transpo). If someone's willing to pre-purchase tickets in Ottawa, it would cost $2.50, meaning that OC Transpo compares favourably in both regards to the TTC (although comparing the service provided for either utilities might be a different story).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Council to vote on proposed fare hike

According to a report in the Ottawa Sun, OC Transpo management is recommending a series of fare hikes in order to try and balance the amount the transit utility collects from fares with the amount it receives from the city's tax base. According to the report, the average fare hike will be 7.5 percent, but isn't evenly distributed across the different fare and pass types, with the percentage raise in brackets (numbers from the Sun):
  • Regular Adult Pass: $91.50 (8.0%)
  • Express Adult Pass: $114.00 (7.5%)
  • Rural Adult Pass: $141.75 (7.6%)
  • Regular Student Pass: $73.25 (12.3%)
  • Express Student Pass: $85.50 (11.8%)
  • Regular Student Semester Pass: $250.00 (3.3%)
  • Express Student Semester Pass: $290.00 (2.3%)
  • Rural Student Pass: $110.75 (7.5%)
  • Senior Pass: $36.00 (13.4%)
  • Day Pass: $7.50 (7.1%)
  • Cash Adult: $3.25 (8.3%)
  • Cash Express Route: $4.25 (6.3%)
  • Cash Rural Express: $5.25 (5.0%)
  • Cash Child (6-11 yrs.): $1.60 (6.7%)
  • Ticket Adult: $2.50 (8.7%)
  • Ticket Express Route: $3.75 (8.7%)
  • Ticket Rural Express: $5.00 (8.7%)
  • Ticket Child (6-11 yrs): $1.25 (8.7%)
  • Regular Student Annual Pass: $650.00 (3.8%)
  • Express Student Annual Pass: $762.00 (3.8%)
  • Senior Annual Pass: $395.00 (3.7%)
  • Adult Regular Annual Pass: $930.00 (3.9%)
  • Adult Express Annual Pass: $1,164.00 (4.0%)
  • Adult Regular Ecopass: $80.52 (8.0%)
  • Adult Express Ecopass: $100.32 (7.5%)
  • Rural Ecopass: $124.74 (7.6%)
  • Senior Ecopass: $31.68 (13.4%)
  • Community Pass: $32.00 (5.3%)
  • O-Train fare: $2.75 (10.0%)
Ottawa's bus fares were comparable to other major cities in Canada recently, but these consistent hikes will certainly affect that. On July 1, 2009, most fares went up fairly significantly; this proposed fare hike for July 1, 2010 compounds that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SmartBus a no-go with council

Even though city staff recommended Ottawa go forward with the installation of SmartBus technology on OC Transpo buses, and paying the $17M tab that goes with it, a potential lawsuit put the decision on hold--and possibly off the table.

From 580 CFRA:
A contract to install an automated next-stop announcement system on OC Transpo buses has been parked.

City Council voted 11-10 against a $17 million contact with US-based Clever Devices to install the system on all OC Transpo buses.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

West Side Action takes an in-depth look at the downtown tunnel

West Side Action, a great local blog focusing on the west side of Ottawa's downtown, has been taking a very thorough examination into the impact the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) will have on residents in the area bounded by downtown's western edge, Bayview, the Ottawa River, and Dow's Lake.

Rather than attempt to paraphrase Eric Darwin's terrific in-depth look--which includes everything from discussions of the effects boring tailings might have on the neighbourhood to the "hidden subsidies" to single-occupancy cars built in to Ottawa's transit tab--so take some time to look at the chapters he's published so far:
The series seems to be ongoing, and I'm not sure how long Eric will keep it going. Either way, it makes for some interesting reading while we watch the bureaucratic processes about actualizing the transit plan work their way through.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Transit plan first phase price tag climbs to $2.1B

Tentatively predicted to run the City of Ottawa $1.8B, it turns out the more realistic cost estimate for the first phase of Ottawa's ambitious transit plan is around $2.1B, according to
Light rail between Blair Road and Tunney's Pasture, including a three-kilometre downtown tunnel, will cost $2.1 billion, city staff estimated Friday. That's $400 million more than their December 2008 estimate and $300 million more than the estimate in the city's recent funding request to the federal and provincial governments.
In initial discussions of potential direction for Ottawa's transit plan, the above-mentioned first phase of the was estimated to cost $1.4B. In recent weeks, reports indicated it would climb due to unforeseen design changes and land procurement costs. After a more thorough examination, which included consultations with "experienced firms involved in transportation and tunnelling projects" and a review, according to the above-linked CBC story, seems likely to be the best estimate, which City officials will present when appealing to federal and provincial governments for funding.

Although federal officials have been rather quiet in awaiting an official request with hard numbers, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister and Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson has for weeks been announcing his concern with the affordability of Ottawa's transit plan. This past weekend, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen, Watson re-iterated his concerns:
"I'm becoming increasingly worried about the city's capacity to bring this project to a conclusion," said Watson, the MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean. "We're very, very concerned. I have to simply question the affordability of this plan."


"They've designed the plan without an upper-limit budget. The price just keeps going up," said Watson. "We cannot simply send a blank cheque to the City of Ottawa."
Although Watson is concerned with the city's ability to pay for its third of the transit plan, the recently-unveiled $24.7B provincial deficit in Ontario, which will undoubtedly affect the province's ability to offer cash to municipalities. The deficit is the largest the province has ever carried, according to the Ottawa Citizen. The City is looking for at least one-third of the capital cost of the project from each of the provincial and federal governments, meaning $700M from each level over the course of the first phase.

Funding partners--including, albeit on a smaller scale, citizens of Ottawa--are all likely mindful of the (mostly negative) perceptions of staff and decision makers in this city, which combine to make what Steve Collins refers to as a "trust deficit" in the Ottawa Metro. That scepticism certainly shines through in Watson's comments. It remains to be seen what federal ministers, particularly Ottawa West-Nepean MP and Infrastructure Minister John Baird, have to say about the recently-announced cost increase.

City staff are convinced that Ottawa can foot their portion of the transit plan.

The cost for the full four-stage transit plan is now an estimated $6.6B, up from the initially-predicted roughly $5B price tag.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Staff recommends light-rail, council to vote Nov. 18

Looks like the staff-favoured option for Ottawa's transit plan is light rail powered by overhead electricity lines, rather than heavy rail. Council will vote on whether or not they agree with staff assessments on November 18, 2009.

From the Ottawa Citizen:
Council and its planners have for years wanted to use light-rail technology and this is to be confirmed Wednesday, a senior city official said. Light rail with overhead wires means Ottawa would not have to ensure that the whole system is grade-separated.

Therefore, future extensions of the rail corridor into outlying communities would allow the rail cars to run at road level, if necessary.

The technology choice, to be confirmed by councillors Nov. 18, sets the stage for more detailed planning and negotiations for the transit project, which sees: a downtown tunnel; the bus transitway converted to rail from Blair Station to Tunney’s Pasture; rail extended eventually to Baseline Station, as well as to the south; and expansions of the bus system in suburban areas.
The wheels are in motion, apparently.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stop-calling gets worse as SmartBus upgrade put on hold

The compliance rate for OC Transpo drivers calling out stops on buses hit its lowest point of the year in September, dropping to 78 per cent according to The City of Ottawa was fined $5000 in July for failing to achieve 100 per cent compliance with stop announcements, and has yet to address the problem.

Attempts to address the problem, however, have recently hit a snag. While the City decided they were willing to pay nearly $12M to Clever Devices to install SmartBus technology across the OC Transpo fleet, Bell Canada has threatened legal action stemming from the City's bidding process, according to Metro Ottawa. While the city put out a call for bids on a system to call out stops, Clever Devices' bid included a number of other technological upgrades which were not included in the "scope of request" for the bidding process.

Who knows what'll happen. Another setback for the necessary upgrade to the bus fleet, risking another fine from the Canadian Transit Authority, and--more importantly--continued accessibility barriers for transit users.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Legislating courtesy, the Toronto way

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the policy of New York City Transit to fine those who didn't give up their seat to disabled passengers. Turns out it's not just New York, but Toronto's recently given transit special constables the same powers.

From the Globe & Mail:
The new fine for impoliteness is just one of a number of bylaw changes that went into effect Monday, with riders who prop their feet up on a seat, or those who lay down on a row of seats, now facing potential fines.

The new bylaw concerning priority seating doesn't mean that it's an offence to sit in the area of a bus or subway that's reserved for the disabled; rather, fines can only be issued if a rider acts “in contravention of instructions” from a special constable to remove themselves.
Nothing like this in Ottawa, at least not to my knowledge. But should Ottawa have by-laws like this?

EDIT: Turns out Ottawa's got courtesy by-laws, as well. From the OC Transpo website (H/T to 'anonymous' in the comments):


18. (1) A person with a disability, an expectant mother, a person with a visible need for priority seating, a person with a child in a carriage or stroller, a person with a Priority Seating Card or a person with an Assistant Card is entitled to priority seating on a front bench seat but is not guaranteed a seat.

(2) No person, who is not described in subsection (1), shall fail to surrender a front bench seat to a person entitled to priority seating.


35. (1) Any person who contravenes any provision of this by-law is guilty of an offence and on conviction is liable to a fine pursuant to the Provincial Offences Act.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Construction begins on southwest Transitway extension

Photo courtesy office of Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Steve Desroches

Construction began on the southwest Transitway extension through Barrhaven on Friday, September 18, 2009. The route will move buses from the existing Fallowfield Park and Ride, following along the VIA train tracks until just before Greenbank Avenue, when it turns south towards the Strandherd Park and Ride, goes underneath Strandherd Avenue and through the Barrhaven Marketplace (along an existing pedestrian pathway) towards new residential development in Chapman Mills neighbourhood (see map below).

Google Map overlaid with new Southwest Transitway Extension route

The extension is intended to move commuters more quickly from the Fallowfield station into southern residential developments. One undesirable by-product of that is the new route will take many routes, such as the 95, further from residential developments along Fallowfield and Greenbank, but it does run through future developments between Longfields Drive, Greenbank Road, and the train tracks.

The construction is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2011. Undoubtedly, the most interesting component will be when the route tunneling underneath Strandherd Avenue. It will certainly be complicated, considering Strandherd at that point is four automobile lanes wide.

For more information on the Southwest Transitway Extension, check out the city's official public consultation page.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Federal arbitrator sides with city in strike settlement

The outcome of arbitration which was used to settle the underlying issues of Ottawa's 52-day winter 2009 transit strike was released today, and reports indicate that the arbitrator sided with the City of Ottawa in the dispute.

The decision, which covers the three-year contract ending in March 2011, includes the following:
  • City gains control of scheduling
  • A raise of 8.25 per cent (3.25, 2.5, and 2.5 in the three years)
  • No one-time signing bonus
  • No new with sick/special leave
  • No contracting-out changes
One of the City's contract offers just before both sides agreed to arbitration was 7.25 per cent over three years, an increased number of sick days, a one-time bonus, and scheduling responsibilities handed over to the City--an offer which was soundly rejected in a federally-forced vote. The union was reportedly looking to retain control of scheduling, and gain a raise of 9.25 per cent over three years.

The issue of scheduling was the most contentious item in the strike, with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 not willing to negotiate on it, and the City unwilling to negotiate without it on the table. OC Transpo management suggested that their reason for wanting to wrest control of scheduling was to take advantage of 'operational efficiencies' they felt they could gain.

Another of the key issues from the ATU's side was the contracting out of services. Particularly with regards to mechanics and the servicing of OC Transpo equipment, the union wanted some certainty that they had job security. This settlement fails to ease that concern, and OC Transpo management had suggested that contracting out some services may offer more operational efficiencies.

It is now up to OC Transpo management to demonstrate that those operational efficiencies are, in fact, significant enough to have justified the 52-day strike.

This arbitration settlement adds a level of intrigue to the ATU's recent vote against giving up their right to strike in favour of sending all future negotiations to arbitration. Although the common perception of arbitration is that they favour unions, this settlement demonstrates that they do not, necessarily.

Mainstream coverage of the outcome:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Barrhaven Bullet a silver bullet?

When it rains, it pours. Just as it appeared the City of Ottawa was poised to move forward with an ambitious long-term transit plan to build a light-rail train infrastructure through the city, everything now seems to be falling apart. Significant cost overruns before the project's plans are finalized, new implementation scenarios, and entirely new technological hardware entering the dialogue.

Another new option came out this week, an 11-year-old proposal which would involve running heavy-rail commuter trains along the existing rail corridor from Barrhaven in Ottawa's southern suburbs into downtown (EDIT: what is now Train station, southeast of the downtown core). The idea was brought into discussion by Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder, and (as one might expect) supported by Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Steve Desroches. The Ottawa Sun article in which the idea was raised didn't counsel any other city politicians (for instance, any councillor whose constituency wouldn't directly benefit from the train).

From the Sun:

With the possibility of an electric heavy rail transit option for commuters, Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder says it’s time to renew an 11-year-old rail transit plan proposed by UniRail Canada Inc. to run a heavy rail commuter line from Barrhaven to downtown using existing rail lines.


The 1998 report, which was tabled before the Ottawa-Carleton regional government, suggested it would require a small capital investment and could get rolling right away. The average speed between the proposed 10 transit stations along the route — including ones at Billings Bridge, the Merivale and Colonnade business parks and the Walkley transit station — would be 50 km/h, it would generate almost 4,000 rides per day and take less than 20 minutes to get from Barrhaven to the VIA station.

“The CN Barrhaven-Ottawa station corridor when compared with other options indicates a greater potential to attract new ridership to the rail transit service as well as establishing integration with existing transitway corridors and services,” says the report.

If the City can come up with some reasonable agreement with VIA Rail, it seems like the cheapest, quickest, and easiest way to get commuters from Barrhaven into the core, and requires little in the way of capital expenditure--basically just the purchase of the vehicles, and establishing the proposed ten stations along the route--and whatever costs are demanded by VIA, the hiring of qualified drivers, and likely other expenditures. In all likelihood, less expensive up-front than building the infrastructure required for light-rail from scratch, but that's a purely fiscal comparison.

But don't let the name fool you: This is no Bullet Train. It may be nicknamed such, but the Shinkansen (the original bullet train) in Japan travels at speeds of up to 300 km/h normally, while this proposed train from Barrhaven would likely run at 50 km/h. Still, even at those speeds, it would take around 20 minutes to get from one end to the other.

We'll see what happens.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Heavy-rail: Cheaper, faster, more capacity; better?

As reported in the Ottawa Sun, City of Ottawa councillors may soon face another decision for the new transit plan: That between a light-rail or heavy-rail train. It's a choice that seems to come out of left field, after months and years of discussion surrounding light-rail as the next step in Ottawa transit.

From the Sun:
"For years city staff and councillors have been discussing a light rail transit (LRT) network, but in November councillors will be presented with a detailed plan that will offer them a choice between building a heavy rail transit (HRT) system or an LRT network.


"[Transit committee chairman and Bay Ward Councillor Alex] Cullen said HRT has benefits: It’s cheaper than LRT, has faster acceleration and can carry more passengers."

As the Sun story goes on to say, there are several councillors--River Ward Councillor Maria McRae and Kitchissippi Ward Councillor Christine Leadman chief among them--who are none too happy about this development. It must certainly come as a shock to citizens, many of whom have been hearing about light-rail for years and are now faced with another possible 180-degree turn in the city's transit plan.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

NCC needs justification to concede Greenbelt land for transit plan

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the National Capital Commission (NCC) is going to have to be convinced by the City of Ottawa that there's good reason to give up land in the Greenbelt for the city's transit plan--and that planners can't assume anything.

The NCC’s executive director of planning, François Lapointe, has written to the city official overseeing the $5-billion transit plan, saying that the NCC is not prepared to hand over a slice of the Greenbelt for the west transitway extension between Bayshore Station and Moodie Drive.


“It should not be assumed that NCC property is available for new projects, but rather a thorough justification must be presented to demonstrate that all other options are not feasible. Cost alone may not be a sufficient reason to justify the use of NCC property over other potential options,” wrote Lapointe. He encouraged the city to “revisit” the selection of the preferred corridor.
As interesting as this development is with regards to the particular portion within the Greenbelt along the Queensway, it's hugely important with the city looking to build light-rail service along the Ottawa River Parkway into downtown. The NCC, according to this statement, will be insistent that all alternatives be examined--alternatives which include Carling Avenue, Byron Avenue, or any other possible corridor. These are fairly strict guidelines, and the fact that the NCC is insisting that all other options can't simply be proven less desirable, but must be proven "not feasible", it makes the onus on the city significant.

Monday, September 28, 2009

OC Transpo union votes against arbitration

In an historic vote on Friday, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 voted in favour of maintaining their right to strike and against agreeing to send all future unresolved contract negotiations directly to third-party arbitration. Almost two-thirds of union members (62.3 per cent) who voted opted to maintain the current arrangement.

It's unclear what the immediate fallout of the vote will be. The recent 52-day winter transit strike has gone to arbitration, with the settlement expected soon, so there shouldn't be another transit strike until that contract (however long it turns out to be) expires. At that point, there will obviously be negotiations, with the possibility of a resolution or an agreement to go to arbitration before a strike would occur. That's all speculation at this point, though.

In the long-term, the decision could negatively impact the city's standing with labour unions, as reported last month. In the Ottawa Sun, though, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier took an optimistic outlook, stating that "This is a vote of confidence in our ability to move forward together." Innes Ward councillor Rainer Bloess, though, told 580 CFRA that he was "disappointed" with the no-vote, believing that it "could have given reassurance to the residents of Ottawa."

For mainstream media coverage of the vote:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

LRT cost estimate "had no basis in reality", continues to climb

After news of a $100M cost increase to the first phase of Ottawa's light rail plan came out last week, yet another unforeseen expenditure has been unearthed by the Ottawa Sun, this time $200M in order to purchase property for the east-west leg of the city's light-rail extension.

The Sun released the reaction of a number of interested parties, including Deputy City Manager Nancy Schepers, who suggested that a deviation of up to 25 per cent of the estimated cost--which in this case could be a difference of $450M--should be expected as typical. River Councillor Maria McRae called the new information "alarming and shocking," and posed the question of whether or not this transit plan--replete with rapidly increasing costs--remains affordable. Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans said that the original estimate "had no basis in reality" and questioned whether or not this type of inaccuracy will negatively impact the city's ability to secure funding from the federal and provincial governments.

Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson questioned the city's transit plan over a month ago, and suggested his concerns that the plan wasn't affordable, and he predicted that costs could escalate quickly. Turns out that was a prescient concern.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Promoting public transit through... Air Miles?

The City of Ottawa has announced a new partnership, offering an interesting new promotion for transit users (or at least those who happen to be Air Miles cardholders):
AIR MILES Collectors can now redeem 650 reward miles to obtain a Regular Adult Monthly Pass by visiting AIR MILES at and logging on to the My Planet Rewards page. Along with more than 100 other environmentally responsible products available through the AIR MILES My Planet program, the selection of an OC Transpo pass gives Ottawa’s AIR MILES Collectors the opportunity to take public transit, leave their cars at home, and make a personal commitment to reducing their own carbon footprint.
As I said before, an interesting promotion, and definitely a reflection of "'out of the box' thinking"--as Bay Ward Councillor and Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen called it. OC Transpo's not the first public transit utility to offer the promotion, though; Edmonton also offers an adult bus pass for 650 Air Miles, and the Toronto Transit Commission offers one for 850 Air Miles.

Although it's targeted at new users, it's as valuable to frequent existing riders, as well. Any readers considering taking advantage of the offer?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rising transit plan costs concern province, citizens

According to a report in the Ottawa Sun, the first phase of Ottawa's light rail plan is already running about $100M over the budgeted cost. The phase, initially pegged at between $1.7M and $1.8M of the plan's total roughly $5B price tag, hasn't broken ground yet, and includes the city's proposed downtown tunnel. Contributing to the cost overruns, according to the report, are design changes to a maintenance yard and some light-rail platforms.
The Sun has learned several significant design changes to the $1.8-billion project have sent costs soaring. City staff have underestimated the pricetag for the east-west LRT maintenance yard that’s expected to be located in the St. Laurent area, a senior staffer told the Sun.

Bay Coun. Alex Cullen, who is also chairman of the city’s transit committee, confirmed last night there are several unexpected design changes, including to the maintenance yard.

“There have been scope changes that shows us adding on to the cost,” said Cullen
It seems unlikely that many people expected the project to finish on budget, chief among the sceptics being Ottawa West-Nepean MPP and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Jim Watson, who voiced his concern a month ago. Watson came out again today, again in the Ottawa Sun, calling into question the City's credibility:
Watson’s major concern is that the financial commitment expected from the province has jumped from $200 million to $600 million, and the final number could be even higher.

“We (the provincial government) have serious financial limitations. They have to make sure the project is affordable.”

“We can’t be funding one-third of a question mark,” he said, adding the city’s numbers have to be “firm, defensible and credible.”
The $200M figure cited by Watson was that initially pledged for the now-cancelled North-South light-rail extension, which was scrapped in 2006 when city council decided to move in another direction (literally and figuratively). It's somewhat deceptive to use it as the starting point, but his message is quite clear: The city needs to figure out what it's doing, and what it's asking for, before the Province of Ontario is going to offer any significant funding above and beyond what's already been promised.

Innes Ward Councillor Rainer Bloess suggested that city staff will have to find an efficiency elsewhere in the plan in order to offset the increase.

Transit projects of this magnitude have a tendency to go over budget due to unseen or overlooked expenses, and the City of Ottawa has had problems with similar budgeting before--including, most recently, the $5.6M budgeted to outfit the OC Transpo fleet with technology to call out stops, which has now more than doubled to $12M.

Still, it's got to be concerning for funding partners and particularly citizens of Ottawa that these issues are coming up already, before the work has even commenced.

It poses a couple of pertinent questions: Were you expecting to see news like this? If so, were you expecting to see them so soon? Is it likely staff will be able to find some other area to cut from in order to restore the previously-estimated cost?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can we get cars to pay for buses? Should we?

In one instalment of Public Transit in Ottawa's ongoing "Funding Ottawa's Transit Plan" series, the possibility of having non-users, specifically personal automobile drivers, pay a levy which would fund transit plans. It's a possibility at least as interesting as it would be divisive, but there's no doubt it would help offset the investment in public transit, and encourage more people to get onto the bus or train.

Just a few weeks ago, British Columbia transit company TransLink's commissioner Martin Crilly. In his first review in the position, Crilly suggested three possibilities, including raising vehicle registration fees, charging road tolls, and increasing insurance as possible ways to, ahem, drive people out of their cars and onto public transit, according to The Globe & Mail.

The measure is one of several possibilities transit utilities are going to have to look into to keep up with operating costs--to say nothing of capital and expansion costs. According to that Globe story, increases in operating costs are outpacing inflation, fuelled by improving--and expensive--new technologies, such as the $12M SmartBus technology which the City of Ottawa's Transit Committee recently approved for installation on the OC Transpo fleet.

Traditional measures for dealing with increasing costs, such as raising fares, are not working for transit utilities, so this isn't likely the last we've heard of such measures. It seems probable that these discussions will gain steam in cities all over the world, and Ottawa will be no exception.

Friday, September 18, 2009

North-south line may be resurrected to woo provincial funding

The light-rail project connecting downtown Ottawa to the southern reaches of the city, approved by council in July 2006 and then cancelled by council in December 2006, may be revived--at least in part--to make the project attractive for provincial funding.

From the Ottawa Citizen:
Ottawa may have ditched its first north-south light-rail plan, but it could soon be building the project regardless, if the Ontario government decides to fund it.

Briefing notes on the city’s pitch to two key provincial ministers show that Ottawa is offering two options for the funding of its new transit plan in the first phase.

One option is a package that includes building the light-rail tunnel downtown and building the rail line from Blair Station in the east to Tunney’s Pasture west of downtown, as well as expanded bus transit corridors. This would cost $1.7 billion.
Just last week, City Council voted in favour of a $36.7M settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the initial cancellation of the north-south rail project. Had the project not been cancelled, preliminary timelines estimated it would be finished or at least finishing in autumn 2009--or around this time.

Even if the province decides to fund the first-phase option including the north-south line, Ottawa's downtown transit tunnel would still be the first undertaking.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the news: $36.7M to get nothing, and more Ottawa transit headlines

Quite a few transit-related news items this week, beginning with one of the most controversial transit-planning related issues of the day: Ottawa's cancelled north-south transit line, and the $36.7M settlement it may require stemming from lawsuits around its cancellation.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted Mayor Larry O'Brien about the lawsuit, which he says is a necessary cost for the City to "move away from the old, tragically flawed LRT plan and move on to something the citizens of Ottawa would really embrace". Recently some politicians, including Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi in an interview with Public Transit in Ottawa as well as Capital Ward councillor Clive Doucet, have questioned whether the cancellation of the north-south line, which would be finishing at around this time, was the right decision. The project was to cost an estimated $600M (EDIT: and the actual contract for which was $778M), two-thirds of which was already pledged by federal and provincial governments, and $54M has already been spent on preparing for the transit plan--money which will now be written off by the City, the Citizen says.


With reports that only 80 per cent of transit stops are being called out by OC Transpo operators, and the Canadian Transportation Agency demanding that number be 100 per cent, the City is still looking into an automated system to ensure compliance with the regulatory body's order. Council had previously approved a $6.7M expenditure on the technology, but 580 CFRA is now reporting that the system will cost the City almost twice as much; $12M to install on the entire OC Transpo fleet.

The $12M bid, from Clever Devices, would also include "bus time arrival information and vehicular system condition monitoring", and would be presented visually as well as aurally in English in French.

According to, the city might take a step further with the retrofit, bumping up the cost to $17M but including further increases in bus-tracking and efficiency, as well as a move to ease the installation of a wireless SmartCard system.


OC Transpo is making moves to help prevent 'free rides' on buses, including a Communication Plan to inform people of the fees that come with detected non-paying riders, according to 580 CFRA. The transit utility may also implement measures including no back-door boarding, but they're saying the real solution will be implementing a SmartCard system through the entire fleet.


Finally, the City is looking into a number of measures to lower the 'carbon footprint' of the public transit system, accoring to an official press release. The measures include looking into the following actions:

  • Examining the cost of bio-diesel as an alternative fuel
  • Providing annual greenhouse gas emission reports for buses and trains
  • Completing the implementation plan for 177 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which will be used on low-speed transit routes with frequent stops
  • Converting the fleet to more environmentally friendly No.2 diesel fuel
  • Preparing to use urea as an exhaust after-treatment agent in buses with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2010 certified engines
  • Completing a study on tire pressure monitoring and tracking
  • Finalizing the testing and evaluation of its three double-decker buses

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The City of Ottawa: A green destination

Sometimes when you live in the city of Ottawa, you forget just how nice this city can be. Sometimes all it takes is an outsider's perspective, though, and you're quickly reminded that this city has a lot of great attractions to offer--for vacationers or staycationers.

The Mother Nature Network recognized that fact, and recently proclaimed Ottawa as a green destination for travellers. They commended, among other things, Ottawa's alternative transit options--whether they be public transit, skating, walking, or biking. Here's what they had to say, but check out the article for ideas of things you may be taking for granted:

Ottawa has an expansive public transportation system. Buses and rail lines make it easy to get around year-round. A regional rail network connects Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Because these cities have good public transit networks, it's possible to tour urban Quebec and Ontario without having to once step into a car.

Ottawa's compact size and user-friendly layout make it an ideal city to explore on foot. Many of the city's attractions are in the vicinity of the Parliament buildings. Ottawa Walking Tours offers guided two-hour sightseeing strolls in downtown Ottawa.

Bicycles are another form of convenient, low-impact transport in Ottawa. There are nearly 100 miles of bike paths throughout the city, and many roadways are bike-friendly. Even pedaling through the downtown area is relatively safe and straightforward.
They really make our city look like a heck of a place. Although it's easy to get frustrated with some of the decision-making processes in our city, it's still a nice place to be. Any tourists out there who'd like to comment on the city of Ottawa? Any residents feel differently than the Mother Nature Network?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

OC Transpo age cap dies, Twitter is witness

After the pedestrian and transit advisory committee recommended to the City's transit committee that the age cap on student bus passes be revoked, the transit committee unanimously endorsed the idea.

Today, Council as a whole voted on the issue. It had to be reconsidered for debate, since it had already been passed several months ago at the the same table.

Councillors unanimously voted to reconsider and then quickly voted to endorse the transit committee proposal to drop the age limit.

So, no more age limit. live-tweeted the event, and you can check out @nonstopnicktv to get the full scoop.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What if the ATU votes against binding arbitration?

In a little under a month, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 union will vote on whether or not to accept binding arbitration in all future contract negotiations, thereby relinquishing their right to strike in exchange for a third-party to dictate terms for the new deal signed.

The vote is part of the resolution to the Union's 52-day strike in the winter of 2008-09, but, according to reports on 580 CFRA, it's far from a certainty that the operators and mechanics in the union will approve the arrangement:
The drivers, mechanics and dispatchers will vote on the agreement on September 24th. Although the deal ended last winter's lengthy and bitter strike, it also gave up the union’s powerful right to strike, in favour of sending outstanding disagreements to binding arbitration.


One driver source says a big reason for opposition to the deal is that it would look good on Mayor Larry O'Brien -- who was villainized by the union, and actually was on leave when the deal was struck.
Putting aside the fact that voting down an agreement that many see as favourable to unions and which will ensure no stoppage in the union member's work (and keeps their paycheques coming) in order to spite a mayor whose four-year mandate will be over shortly might seem impulsive, what could a no-vote mean to the City of Ottawa and its residents?

First of all, it won't mean an immediate transit strike. Both sides of the recent dispute have both agreed to arbitration to settle this current contract negotiation.

But, according to that same report on CFRA's website, it could be a blow to the city's reputation when negotiating with other unions in the city. Ottawa has had issues negotiating with unions in the past, the winter strike being the most recent example, and such a vote wouldn't set a very positive precedent for future negotiations.

Finally, it would mean residents could be faced with another transit strike whenever this current agreement--whose results are anticipated by the end of September--comes to an end. The most recent transit strike was hard for many citizens and businesses, and left both sides with egg on their face. Although ridership has rebounded strongly since the strike came to an end, another transit strike so closely following this past one would run the risk of damaging OC Transpo's ridership numbers irreperably--a scary prospect with a $5B transit system upgrade coming soon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ottawa Citizen gives two cents on transit issues of the day

The Ottawa Citizen has published an editorial on public transit in our city for each of the past two days, each of which speaks to a pressing issue in the public transit debate today.

On Wednesday, the Citizen spoke of a rise in complaints received by OC Transpo--including, of course, some stemming from their inability to ensure bus drivers are calling out stops regularly. According to the story, OC Transpo has had a 24 per cent increase in complaints over the last three years, and the Citizen's editorial board had some choice words for OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier:

It isn't Alain Mercier's job to justify the high number of complaints that come in to OC Transpo. It's his job to reduce that number.


The 24-per-cent increase in complaints over three years is partly due to an increase in ridership. But ridership only increased by about 13 per cent in that period. Clearly, there's something else going on.

Mercier, the general manager of OC Transpo, points out that the service is also getting more compliments than it used to. That's nice, but it can't compensate for the rise in complaints. If your bus is late, or zooms right past you, or narrowly misses hitting a cyclist, or runs a red light, it doesn't really matter that on another bus somewhere in Ottawa, a driver gave someone a friendly smile. We shouldn't be aiming for a compliments-to-complaints ratio that evens out. We should be aiming for a baseline, a bare minimum, of reliable, safe, friendly service.
Then, on Thursday, the Citizen responded with kudos to Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson for his concerns over funding the city's ambitious and expensive light-rail transit plan:

Watson, a former mayor, says there were public concerns about costs in the first cancelled light-rail plan, which weighed in at $884 million. He's right.

To be more specific, city staff had estimated that the north-south plan would cost somewhere in the range of $600 million. However when the competitive bidding process took place, it became apparent that the staff estimates were about $200 million too low. That spooked the public, and politicians capitalized on the escalating costs -- not the least of whom were Mayor Larry O'Brien and Transport Minister John Baird, the top local federal minister.

Oddly, the new rail plan with a shiny tunnel and much more majestic ambitions costs about $5 billion and yet Ottawans don't seem to mind much at all. But Watson does, and good on him. Remember that the city was stretched to cover the costs of the original plan at about one-fifth the price. Remember, too, that $10 million of civic expenses translates into roughly a one-year, one-per-cent increase in your property taxes. One wonders how much of that $5 billion will land on your tax bill. Watson is concerned about that and is sitting down with city politicians and staff to crunch costs and feasibility with his people in Toronto. What he has found is that this plan costs a lot of money -- so much so that he is worried about its feasibility. So he should be.
Both editorials present a good case, and are good reads, to boot. Feel free to comment on either of them, and the issues presented within, in the comments.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Riders return faster than expected

OC Transpo ridership has rebounded quickly and strongly after the city's 52-day winter transit strike, according to Bay Ward Councillor and Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen.

From 580 CFRA:

Statistics released this week show ridership returned to near normal levels in March as service resumed following the strike by drivers, dispatchers and mechanics.

Councillor Alex Cullen tells CFRA News conventional wisdom was that after a strike residents would have developed other habits, and it would have taken a while for ridership to return to pre-strike levels.

This is good news for Ottawa, particularly as City Council begins to push hard for federal and provincial funding for their $5B light-rail transit plan. High levels of relatively consistent ridership, as demonstrated by this quick return to the buses, is necessary to justify the need for a light-rail system which only becomes economical if ridership stays high.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Province wants answers before funding Ottawa light-rail

Ottawa West-Nepean MPP and Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson expressed concerns with the City's current light-rail transit plan, suggesting that he's not convinced the estimated $4-5B price tag would not escalate quickly, according to the Ottawa Citizen:

Watson, speaking to reporters Monday after addressing the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual convention in Ottawa, said provincial government staff are continuing to scrutinize the proposed plan, which includes a tunnel downtown for a light-rail service.

He said he is concerned about the affordability of the plan because the city's original project for north-south rail -- scrapped by the current council -- was a $1-billion project while the current, more extensive plan is close to $5 billion.

"That obviously concerns me as a keeper of tax dollars," said Watson, the Liberal MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean.
It's no secret that members from every level of government--municipal, provincial, and federal--are concerned that a project of this magnitude runs the risk of overshooting its budget. It seems unlikely that staff can offer certain assurances, but they'll have to come close if this thing's ever going to get started.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on OC Transpo calling out stops

A couple of weeks after OC Transpo was fined $5000 for failing to call out major and requested stops on buses, 580 CFRA announced that, for the month of July, OC Transpo drivers called out 81 per cent of stops. Although 81 per cent seems like a respectable number, it's far off the 100 per cent demanded by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), and amounts to one out of every five stops missed.

Earlier this week, OC Transpo Manager of Performance and Quality Vincent Patterson told 580 CFRA that--although the call-out rate could and should be higher than 81 per cent--drivers may not hit every stop announcement due to the distractions that come with operating a bus. For that reason, it's unlikely that drivers could ever reach a perfect 100 per cent call-out rate.

Meanwhile, Ottawa still has $7M budgeted for an automated system to call out stops, but has yet to award the contract. OC Transpo has already violated the CTA's deadline for having 100 per cent efficiency, and it is unclear how often the transit authority may fine Ottawa's transit utility.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TransitOttawa on CBC Radio's All In A Day today

Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa Peter Raaymakers will be on CBC Radio One Ottawa's All In A Day program on Monday, August 10, 2009 at around 3:40 p.m. Discussion will focus on the recently-announced Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, a community-reviewed journal about the City of Ottawa's public transit infrastructure.

All In A Day is, according to CBC, Ottawa's top afternoon drive program. Hosted by Adrian Harewood, it runs from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday on CBC Radio One Ottawa, 91.5 on the FM dial.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Call for submissions: Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa

The Public Transit in Ottawa Portal (PTOP) is pleased to invite submissions for its community-reviewed publication, the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa (JPTO), whose first issue is scheduled to be published later in 2009. Authors of original applied original research interested in submitting articles to be considered for publication in JPTO should contact Peter Raaymakers, Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa, at for more detailed information.

JPTO is intended to address topics of relevance to public transit in and around the City of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and the National Capital Region (including related municipalities and the City of Gatineau). Articles should be written in a scholarly tone for an audience looking to gather more information on public transit issues in Ottawa in order to encourage deliberation for the betterment of the city's public transit discourse. The JPTO will be available for download through PTOP's website,, and may also have a printed distribution should resources be available.

Submission requirements:
  • Deadline to declare interest in submitting an article (including brief abstract) will be Monday, August 17, 2009. Declaration of interest must be e-mailed to and CCed to
  • Articles must be in Microsoft Word (.DOC) or Adobe Portable Document (.PDF) format.
  • There are three types of articles: Short-form articles (400-500 words), medium-length articles (800-1200 words), and long-form articles (1500-2000 words). Please be clear on which style you envision your article.
  • Co-authored manuscripts and/or those drawing on cross-disciplinary perspectives and research traditions are welcomed and encouraged.
  • Articles may be written in English or French.
  • PTOP will reserve the right to edit articles submitted to JPTO for grammar, style, tone, and length, and to print them in electronic or physical format without paying royalties to original author(s), who shall retain copyright over their own articles.

Manuscripts will be accepted for consideration with the understanding that they are original material and are not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Manuscripts will initially be reviewed by JPTO's editorial staff and, if situations should require, may be sent out for further review. If you would like to be considered as a reviewer for JPTO, please contact

The PTOP is a not-for-profit organization seeking to inform, engage, and involve the citizens of Ottawa in the decision-making process surrounding public transit and its related issues. For more information about PTOP, JPTO, or questions about offering financial support for the publication, please contact Peter Raaymakers, Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa and Managing Editor of the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, at

Friday, July 31, 2009

Good news story for new light rail in Seattle

Maybe Ottawa will have as positive an experience in launching light-rail as Seattle has apparently had in the first week since opening its Central Link line (from Seattle Post-Intelligencer's transportation blog):
Sound Transit's Central Link Light rail averaged an estimated 12,000 riders boardings each weekday during it's first week of service, Sound Transit reported Thursday.

Another 16,900 boardings were recorded on the light rail last Saturday. About 15,100 were counted on the light rail Sunday, the agency reported.

The 14-mile line between Westlake Center and Tukwila opened on July 18.
It won't be for, what, over a decade, but here's to hoping.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

OC Transpo fined for not calling out stops

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), an independent administrative tribunal tasked with ensuring federal transit regulations are met, has fined OC Transpo $5,000 for failing to call out stops along bus routes. The CTA told OC Transpo in November 2007 that failure to call out stops was "an undue obstacle to transportation for persons with a disability", and the utility has, to date, failed to address their responsibility satisfactorily. In March 2009, a second CTA decision gave OC Transpo 20 days to fix the issue, but their failure to do so resulted in the above-mentioned fine.

The failure is, quite frankly, inexcusable on the part of OC Transpo. The agency was given over 18 months before a fien was handed down, and although general manager Alain Mercier was using the OC Transpo's 80.7 per cent efficiency--as opposed to a mandated 100 per cent efficiency--to apply for an extension (according to Metro), any less than 100 per cent isn't good enough. The undue obstacle is not just there for the visually impaired, but also for those who may not know exactly where their going or tourists looking to get around the city. Calling out stops isn't just simple courtesy, as Metro editorialized on Monday, but it's also good business.

OC Transpo is reportedly pursuing an automated system to call out stops, but it hasn't been implemented yet. Hopefully it will be soon, for transit users as well as taxpayers.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Age cap on student bus passes should be revoked, says advisory committee to council

For several days, a growing group of university and college students in the city have made a lot of noise about an age limit that the city imposed on student bus passes in order to save money.

Last night, student leaders from the University of Ottawa presented their case to the city's pedestrian and transit advisory committee. They represented seven student unions in the Ottawa area representing just about every post-secondary student in town.

After a few minutes of presentations and procedural discussion, the committee unanimously supported the students' case and recommended in a motion that the City reverse its decision.

Student Federation of the University of Ottawa president Seamus Wolfe co-presented with Graduate Students' Association external commissioner Gaétan-Philippe Beaulière, and I had the chance to speak with Wolfe today on CHUO FM's Around the Block. Below is the interview in its entirety.

The students found support for their cause at the University of Ottawa's highest levels. Below is a letter sent by university president Allan Rock to Ottawa acting mayor Doug Thompson.

uOttawa Letter to Acting Mayor Doug Thompson_age Limit for Student Bus Passes

Monday, July 13, 2009

More from students on the OC Transpo age limit

There are over 1,100 members of the Facebook group opposing OC Transpo's policy that limits student bus passes to riders who are 27 years old and younger.
emailed one member of that group, Virginie Corneau St-Hilaire. She is a fifth-year communications student and coordinator of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa's Centre for Students with Disabilities.

She had this to say about the policy:
OC Transpo's definition of "student" is very cut and dry; it doesn't take into account people who take a break after high school to work and make money to pay for their studies, those who take more than 4 years to complete their Undergrad, or those who decide to pursue Graduate studies. Students with disabilities are also considered full time with a reduced course load, but would be affected by this because they obviously would not finish their studies in the prescribed 4 years, especially at 3 or 4 classes per semester, as I have seen from the users of the Centre for Students with Disabilities. There are many circumstances that come into play in defining how long someone will be in school, and when they will start and end their studies, and I find that OC Transpo's definition of what a student is fails to take into account all those people, perhaps on purpose to pad their bottom line.
St-Hilaire also noted that she would participate in a protest about this issue:
I'm not the type to protest just about anything, but the accessibility of post-secondary studies is something that's important to me, since I've encountered some financial obstacles myself.

Grassroots campaign pops up in opposition to age limits for student bus passes

Five days ago, Carleton student Will Samuel was "cursing and swearing" at OC Transpo's policy that prohibits students over 27 years old from acquiring student bus passes. And he wasn't going to let Ottawa's public transit provider get away with it without a fight.

Indeed, the 32-year-old Samuel created a Facebook group five days ago that protests the decision. It took just a matter of hours to attract hundreds of followers and has since surpassed 1,000 members. The group is something of a focal point for like-minded students from various Ottawa campuses.

The policy passed city council as part of a much larger motion during budget deliberations last December, but it has just now mobilized a growing number of students.

Ottawa's Metro has taken the lead on mainstream coverage, running two stories in the past four days. The paper quotes student union presidents at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. They both oppose the policy and have promised to mobilize their student bodies.

Carleton University Students' Association Erik Halliwell is the only student leader so far to get in touch with Samuel, but others -- including Student Federation of the University of Ottawa vice-president university affairs Ted Horton -- are members of the group.

Samuel told that he was shocked by the waves made by his initiative, which he expected to top out at about 100. But he had words of warning for council.

"The city is grossly underestimating the ability of students to band together," he said.

The city's pedestrian and transit advisory committee will speak about the issue at its meeting this Thursday. The citizen-led body could pass a motion advising council to repeal the policy, though councillors are in no way bound to honour it.

Committee vice-chair Shawn Menard, who is currently the president of the Centretown Citizens' Community Association, is also a past-president of CUSA. He didn't express an opinion about the discussion in the story, but he did acknowledge the opposition.

"It is becoming an issue, and legitimately so," he said.

Samuel hopes that the discussion at the advisory committee sticks to the age-limit discussion. He is worried that it could be at least partially swallowed up by the debate about a Universal Bus Pass for students, another transit issue that many students have pushed quite strongly over the last couple of years.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Political ads can run on public transit, says Supreme Court

Ottawa has had our fair share of transit-related advertising issues in the last short while; from the controversial Atheist Bus Campaign to Virgin Radio's 'Gods of Rock' advertisements, it's been a somewhat touchy subject. And it's come up again, although this time it's a Supreme Court decision on moves to block political advertising from two British Columbia transit utilities.

Long story short, the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (TransLink) and British Columbia Transit (BC Transit) rejected a couple of ads based on concerns to offend riders who, according to the agencies, are "captive" to the messages presented in advertisements.

From The Globe and Mail:
An intervenor in the case – the B.C. Civil Liberties Association –
argued that political advertising lies at the heart of the Charter section that
protects freedom of expression.

“In a world where advertising is ubiquitous and appears in public spaces of every description ranging from billboards on private buildings to web pages of private search engines, every citizen has learned to distinguish between the message and the owner of the location where the message is delivered,” the BCCLA argued.

Surprisingly for a city as political as Ottawa, I don't personally recall much in the way of political advertising on OC Transpo buses. Do any readers remember specific instances of political advertisements in general, particularly those that were controversial?

What are your thoughts on the positions of the B.C. transit agencies, and the decision handed down by the Canadian Supreme Court?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Age limits now in place for student bus passes

As of July 1, 2009, students purchasing a bus pass for OC Transpo services must be under the age of 27 in order to qualify for a discounted pass. This means that all students over the age of 27, whether full- or part-time, will have to purchase a full-price adult pass.

As reported on 580 CFRA:

"City Council recently approved an age limit on monthly student bus passes."

"Carleton University Student Association President Erik Halliwell tells CFRA News they think a student is a student, and it shouldn't matter what age a student is."

"The association plans to make a presentation to the Pedestrian and Transit Advisory Committee next week to try and get OC Transpo to reverse the policy."

But Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen says Councillors were swayed by financial incentives, especially when informed other municipalities have an age limit for student passes.

The move does put Ottawa in line with other Canadian cities: Toronto student passes are available to those aged 19 or younger, and in Montréal "students" are defined as under 25. However, cities like Vancouver and Calgary, which have implemented U-Passes for all post-secondary students, do not have an age limit by design: All students, regardless of age or transit usage, pay into the program. The U-Pass has been a hot topic in Ottawa transit, and has been discussed many times on this very website in the past.

The whole discussion brings about a few questions:
  1. Should there be an age limit on student bus passes?
  2. Should the City avoid the age limit problem by implementing a U-Pass?

Feel free to discuss in the comments, and contact your councillor with your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What if the Feds fail to invest in Ottawa's transit plan?

Despite assurances from city councillors that federal and provincial funding pledges are sure to come, the fact that neither higher level of government has guaranteed to fund a third of Ottawa's $4B transit plan inevitably raises some red flags for Ottawa's citizens.When the City of Toronto failed to receive federal funding for a public transit project in that city, they decided the city would pay the extra amount. The City of Ottawa, already stretched to the budgetary limits, wouldn't likely be able to do that--so where are we today?

The City of Toronto had co-ordinated a $1.2B purchase of streetcars from Bombardier, and had budgeted one third of the ($400M) from the city to be matched by each of the federal and provincial governments. Although Queen's Park was quick to offer their financial support, the federal government were not so quick to match because, according to Infrastructure Minister John Baird, the deal didn't qualify under the government's infrastructure program. So Toronto,. facing a June 27 deadline to secure funding, doubled the city's contributions to pay for a full two-thirds of the streetcar deal.

The City of Ottawa's transit plan is even more long-term than Toronto's, which was rejected by the feds because it wouldn't create jobs within two years--and Ottawa's transit plan may not even break ground within that time frame. The $200M both the federal and provincial governments have pledged and re-pledged to Ottawa transit (leftover from the cancelled north-south rail line) won't go far when measured against the city's projected $4B price tag, which many critics are saying will inevitably climb as previously unknown costs surface.

When should citizens in Ottawa become truly concerned about securing funding partners? Are you concerned at the moment?

What recourse would the city, already so heavily invested in this significant transit plan, have should either level of government fail to invest the requested one-third?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Western light-rail study to include Carling

First, Carling Avenue wasn't an option for Ottawa's western light-rail corridor. Then Councillors Clive Doucet and Christine Leadman suggested it proceed as the option for that corridor. Then that idea was kiboshed by council. Then it was suggested that Carling may be a secondary corridor. Now, according to the Ottawa Citizen, the city staff's study into that western leg of the rail line will include Carling, as well as the Ottawa River Parkway and Byron Avenue--despite the fact that, almost a full year ago, Councillor Alex Cullen was already saying it was "too late" to make such a change.

From the Citizen:

City transit planning officials had originally planned to look only at the Ottawa River Parkway and a nearby former tramway corridor running along Byron Avenue as possible western rapid-transit link to the planned light rail system from Bayview to Baseline Station.

Carling Avenue was going to be looked at separately as a residential light-rail route.

However, after concern was raised on council and in the public over running trains along the parkway (concerns include the effect on nearby residents and whether the federal government will permit trains on the land it owns), the area to be studied was expanded to determine whether the Carling route could serve.

Don't let anyone tell you that your e-mail to and discussions with your councillor were for nothing.

The debate about whether to choose Carling over the Parkway has been one of the most heated aspects of the current transit plan discussions, second perhaps to Ottawa's downtown tunnel. Several months ago, we published an article regarding the merits of running light-rail along Carling Avenue, but the Ottawa River Parkway has merits of its own--most notably the cost. Should the city obtain permission from the National Capital Commission to run rail along the Parkway (far from a sure thing, at this point), that line would cost an estimated one-third of what rail along Carling Avenue would cost (EDIT: Referring to the initial construction costs, that is, not the associated operating costs of any finished rail line).

Which is your preferred option, Carling Avenue or the Ottawa River Parkway? Why?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mandating civility: Give up your seat, or else

An interesting article came up on the New York Post's City Room blog, about the city's law regarding offering your seat to disabled passengers. The article reported on the (perceived or real) diminishing levels of civility on public transit, and how an "abled" individual (however you'd like to define it) may be levelled with a $50 fine if they refuse to give up their seat.

From the article:

There was a time — who knows if it really existed — when such civility was assumed. However, the new posters on subways and buses give riders an extra prod: “It’s not only polite, it’s the law.”

“It’s the first time we’ve really stressed this,” said Paul J. Fleuranges, vice president for corporate communications at New York City Transit, the largest arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Those who decline to give up a seat on request face up to a $50 fine, he said. (The new campaign also warns that “not all disabilities
are visible.”)
OC Transpo in Ottawa does have a 'priority seating' section, but I don't believe there are any mandated give-up-your-seat regulations within out city's transit utility.

Do any readers think our city needs to consider such a measure? Are there horror stories out there about your experienced difficulty in finding a seat while in need? Feel free to post your thoughts and feelings in the comments.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How much can bus operators reasonably be expected to do?

A 29-year-old man was stabbed on an OC Transpo bus this past Friday, June 12, after a confrontation over bus seats escalated into criminal actions. The victim, who was left with a partially-collapsed lung, was sitting in the back end of an articulated bus when the conflict came up. In an Ottawa Citizen article published today, the victim's father suggested that the bus operator failed to recognize the gravity of the situation, and had the opportunity to prevent the stabbing. But realistically, how many tasks can we expect our bus operators to manage simultaneously?

Here's a run-down of the situation from the Citizen article, as well as the comments from the victim's father:
[Dan] McGlynn, wearing a large cast on his leg, said he had been sitting in the side-facing seats at the back of the bus, and had put his crutches over a forward-facing seat beside him because they kept falling down. The bus, McGlynn said, was “not full, but it definitely wasn’t empty.”

McGlynn, a construction worker, said an argument started after a female boarded the bus around Montreal Road and Carson’s Road and asked him to move his crutches, which were occupying both seats.

McGlynn said he moved the crutches over, clearing one seat, where the female’s friend sat, but she wanted both seats cleared.

The pair argued, McGlynn said. He said he told the female he couldn’t move the crutches further before she kicked his injured ankle.

They argued more and the female kicked his ankle twice more, he said.

McGlynn said he warned the female he would have to defend himself before she pulled out a knife and threatened to stab and kill him.

McGlynn said he remembered trying to grab the knife before feeling as though he had been punched in the ribs. He said he fell back in the seat and saw her coming at him again before he pushed her back with his foot.

Another man grabbed the female from behind, McGlynn said. By that time, the bus had stopped at Blair and Montreal Roads. The doors were open and the female fled, McGlynn said.


“This went from verbal to physical to near-death,” John McGlynn said, praising the work of emergency crews and hospital staff.

“Could this have been avoided? Not to place blame, but had the bus driver recognized this immediately — he’s human like anybody else — but if he’d stopped this bus, it could have. Would it? I don’t know, but it could have,” he said.

“We need to look at prevention.”
Definitely an unfortunate incident, and it would certainly be nice if there were enough eyes on a bus to nip incidents such as this in the bud. But it's worth thinking about exactly what we already ask of our operators, and whether or not it's reasonable or even feasible for them to monitor potentially violent confrontations and get involved in some way.

In this particular instance, the driver was operating on a 60-foot-long vehicle with a point of articulation between himself and the actual incident, with dozens of people riding it, through rush-hour traffic, while making scheduled stops and monitoring those who get on or off the bus through three doors to ensure proper fares are paid.

The length of time it took for this incident to escalate is not printed, so it's hard to know what time window the driver had since the voices were raised until the stabbing occured. But whether it was several minutes or a half an hour, few rational people would assume that a yelling match over a seat on the bus would escalate into a stabbing, so I can't personally fault the driver for not assuming the worst would happen. And even if the driver were to have stopped the bus, OC Transpo policy is--understandably--for the operator to stay seated and call for police response.

Ottawa's bus operators have been through some rough patches of late. But before we fault the operators for what may seem like preventable incidents, we need to consider exactly what we're expecting these individuals to handle.