Thursday, September 30, 2010

'Next Stop' system means no more fines

By this point, most OC Transpo riders have probably had the chance to hear the Next Stop Announcement System on many of their buses--according to 580 CFRA, half of the fleet had the system installed as of this Monday. And although there have been some issues with the service--stops for wrong routes called out, or multiple stops called out at once--at least we can look forward to one thing (aside from knowing where the bus is, obviously): No more fines from the Canadian Transportation Authority.

The CTA had fined the City of Ottawa $5,000 in July 2009 and then another $12,500 in March 2010 for failing to call out the stops, determined by the tribunal to pose an undue obstacle to the visually impaired, among others. And although OC Transpo tried to have drivers call out stops, if just wasn't reliable enough: Some drivers were great about it, some less than enthusiastic, some refused to do it, and some were just too darn pre-occupied with driving a huge vehicle filled with people to worry about it. But now it's on.

My favourite stop so far? Alta Vista, because when translated into French it, for some reason, becomes Aulta Veesta.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

LegoC Transpo, Lego-Train

Just a funny awesome transit-related news item from late last week: A Lego Public Transport Station. And they've got it right: Multi-modal system, complete with streetcars, buses, bike racks, parking, and... well, a street sweeper, for some reason. I'll be honest, I want one, although $139.99 is a little out of my price range.

(via The City Fix)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2010 Election: Doucet on ParaTranspo

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Many users of ParaTranspo would suggest there are a lot of areas that it can improve, and Clive Doucet sees that there are problems with it, too. But instead of further investments into trying to make ParaTranspo more efficient, Doucet thinks that the increasing accessibility of OC Transpo's regular fleet--including wheelchair-accessible buses, priority seating, audio and visual stop-calling, and other measures--will allow ParaTranspo to narrow its focus.
Well, ParaTranspo is its own world. The problem with Para, I guess, is money. I think we’re slowly moving away from that as we get our system to be more accessible to the handicapped. Hopefully Para won’t be so necessary as we roll out; our buses will soon be 100% disable-friendly, and the same thing with our rail system. I’m hoping that Para will actually diminish in size, as we grow our capacity in other ways.

Public initiatives: Keep the TTC public

My attention was brought to some very well-done videos yesterday (thanks, commenter John G) about privatization of public transit utilities--and the risk that such an action could present. The videos, created by, present a two-part argument against privatization in general, and against privatization of the Toronto Transit Commission in particular.

To be fair, privatization isn't quite as completely negative as the videos say. For instance, partial privatization--in the form of contracting out services--has worked for Toronto and York, according to an article in the Toronto Star. But putting aside to the standard arguments in favour of privatization--namely, that private owners are more innovative and less bureaucratic, and thus (the reasoning goes) more able to generate cost savings--consider this quote, also presented in the above Star article, from Marie Chapple of the Phoenix Public Transit Department:
“As we reduce service, we will reduce employees. Through the private contractor, it’s easier to expand and reduce staff,” she said.
Emphasis mine. In Ottawa, many of the arguments for privatization of OC Transpo seem to go back to the labour costs for bus operators. And basically, the idea is that the city--for political as well as ethical reasons--isn't as keen on holding a hard-line or hiring 'scabs' to bring down labour costs as a private owner might be.

But is this a good thing? It's certainly idealistic, but it would be a lot better for all involved to reach a mutually acceptable salary structure, instead of contracting out services--which, it could be argued, essentially contracts out the unpalatable responsibility of cutting costs by firing people.

Monday, September 27, 2010

2010 Election: Maguire on walking and cycling

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

In discussing forms of 'active transportation', at least in terms of walking and cycling, mayoral candidate Mike Maguire would be more than happy to encourage people to use these types of transportation. But he does caution that, in his mind, there has to be a limit to what is offered to cyclists in order to ensure building cycling infrastructure doesn't do undue damage to business interests.
There has been an enormous focus on things like bike lanes downtown. I read this material, I think it was the Somerset BIA who just had a question from council about putting in a substantial bike-lane system, and their comment resonated with me—unfortunately it doesn’t resonate with council—their comment was, “You’re going to kill our businesses. We need areas to park; if the cars don’t come here, nobody buys our stuff.” There’s a limit to the generosity available out of any given body of people, and at the municipal level, we’re way past the limit of our generosity.
Maguire has mentioned that should his commuter-rail transit alternative move forward, it would result in fewer cars and less congestion in the city's core--which would then create more space and more safety for cyclists at street level.

Recap of the mayoral debate on the environment

The first ever Ottawa mayoral debate on the environment took place at Saint Paul University on Sunday night, and there was no shortage of... excitement for those in attendance.

Fireworks started right off the bat, when candidate Jane Scharf questioned the fairness of the questions participants were to be asked, and withdrew from the debate. This opened up a spot for candidate Andy Haydon (who hadn't responded in time to be an official member of the debate), but he declined the opportunity--but still joined into the debate, informally and periodically. Candidate Joseph Furtenbacher was also in attendance, but because he hadn't responded in time to become an official candidate (he said he wasn't invited, possibly because he joined the race late) [Ed. note: Mr. Furtenbacher contacted be to explain that he wasn't invited to the debate because invitations were sent out prior to his registration as an official mayoral candidate], he wasn't invited to participate, and simply sat in the seat vacated by Scharf--without participating.

And all that excitement was before the debate had even officially started.

Over the course of the debate, a large number of environmental issues came up, from protecting aquifers and sensitive ecological areas to water management to 'smart growth' and urban planning. Although no question was directly asked about public transit, it did come up periodically, and there was a significant discussion about cycling in Ottawa.

As for public transit, candidates spoke up about their plans. Incumbent Larry O'Brien spoke about his support for the current plan, as did Jim Watson; Mike Maguire and Clive Doucet each briefly mentioned their alternative transit plans; Andy Haydon very briefly mentioned his support for expanding Ottawa's BRT system, and called Ottawa's transit system Canada's best (citing ridership per capita to support his claim); and Robin Lawrance one again expressed his concerns for public safety with regard to the plan to build a tunnel. The only other speaker given an opportunity were César Bello--who didn't discuss transit plans, but did say he'd ensure no more transit strikes--and Charlie Taylor, who didn't speak much to public transit in general (but has in the past expressed grudging support for the city's current transit plan).

As I write this post, hours after the debate, I'm still not sure what to think about what I just witnessed. There were some good points made, but they were rare gems hidden in the personal attacks and ideological statements and slogans that dominated the debate. And, as was pointed out by Taylor, the whole thing was dominated with 'greenwashing', and many of the candidates were definitely speaking to the audience in front of them.

Still, the debate can be seen as nothing but a positive thing for this city. There were a couple hundred people in attendance (it was standing-room only by the time it started), and most of the audience were very interested in what was said. In terms of getting the environment on the radar for the mayoral race, as well, the event was a huge success.

Good news for those of you who missed the debate, but want to watch it: It will be on Rogers 22 in Ottawa this Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 8:30 p.m. Tune in, if you can; you won't be sorry.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reminder: Mayoral debate on the environment TONIGHT

Just a reminder that tonight (Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010) at 6:30 p.m. at Laframboise Dining Hall in Saint Paul University (233 Mann), the Mayoral Debate on the Environment will be taking place. Candidates who have confirmed their attendance include Jim Watson, Larry O’Brien, Clive Doucet, Mike Maguire, Cesar Bello, Jane Scharf, Charlie Taylor, and Robin Lawrance, so make sure you don't miss this opportunity to hear where these candidates stand on public transit, and other environmental issues.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Haydon drops the gloves

Before spending Millions of your dollars on a needless venture I would like to provide Mr. Watson with the opportunity of defending his position on this very important, and expensive venture.

I am willing to make myself available, any time, any place of Mr. Watson's choosing.
That's what mayoral candidate Andy Haydon challenged Jim Watson with in a blog post lat last week. Haydon, as has been much publicized, is very much in favour of bus rapid transit (BRT), and very much against light-rail transit (LRT), while Watson, after initially expressing skepticism about Ottawa's LRT plan, has recently come out in favour of it. Not sure if Watson will take Haydon up on his challenge, but tomorrow's environmental debate of mayoral candidates (which is co-sponsoring, and takes place at 6:30 at St. Paul's University's Laframboise Dining Hall at 233 Mann) offers them a perfect opportunity.

Friday, September 24, 2010

2010 Election: Liscumb's transit alternative

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Although he's one of many mayoral hopefuls with new ideas on transit for Ottawa, Fraser Liscumb's transit is very different from anything else proposed. Very, very different; in fact, it's not even an existing technology, as he envisions it: Electric-magnetic field (EMF) rail.

In Liscumb's mind, Ottawa needs to embrace the cutting edge of transportation technology, instead of following the lead and investing into older technologies, like LRT.
The bottom line is we’ve got to come in to the 21st century, and you can’t come in to the 21st century with a stop-and-go train. I can’t even take the stop-and-go.
So his idea is to look to the future, and build EMF rail--a system similar to Maglev Transport, but different. The system runs on a track, about 35 feet above the road surface, and has a fleet of smaller, family-sized cars with a capacity of 4-6 people. And although the technology doesn't exist yet, Liscumb thinks that he can develop it, making use of the collective abilities of Ottawa's inventors, engineers, and research and development companies to make it a reality in the near future.
I would say EMF, we could have it to the market in about five years. Think about it: Everything is modular. We’ve got the companies, they’re going to be partners, we’re not going to buying them, or paying them to do any of it. We’re going to create a team effort, and they’re going to be part of it, and if they don’t want it then that will be their decision. I will offer it. If they do not take it, I’ve got contacts across this world, including in China, that will more than jump up and down and say that they’re coming in.
And although the cost is an unknown right now, Liscumb is sure he can make EMF rail cost less than Ottawa's current LRT plan.
I understand the issues. I’m not going to make any promises, because things move too fast, and there are too many players in it, but I will find a way. But if I do put the EMF rail in, only one thing I can guarantee: If it goes in, and they want it there, it will bring down the costs.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The economics of BRT and LRT

The graph pictured above? Originally from a City of Hamilton briefing report, but recently cited in a column by David Reevely on how effective light-rail transit can be, when compared to bus rapid transit. The conclusion? When done well, LRT is almost always more efficient that BRT.

But that's the caveat: When done well. Is Ottawa's LRT plan set up to maximize the efficiencies that LRT can provide, as the systems above--notably San Diego and Houston--seem to be? I've never ridden any of those systems so it's difficult to speak from personal experience, but there does seem to be similarities. Houston has 12.1 km of light-rail, which includes a line through downtown and extending south--compare with Ottawa's proposed system: 12.5 km of light-rail, including a line through downtown and moving east and west of there.

But they aren't the same systems, and Houston can't be seen as an exact model for Ottawa. Better is to look through all the systems above, see what has been done right and what has been done wrong, and take the lessons learned to set Ottawa's system up with the best chance to succeed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

2010 Election: Maguire on the hub-and-spoke system

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Mayoral candidate Mike Maguire has had a number of ideas to reorganize OC Transpo, and this idea is no difference: Maguire calls for less rural service, and a true hub-and-spoke system for the organization.
We serve kind of a modified hub-and-spoke system right now. One of the things that we introduced ourselves, as a municipality, that probably hasn’t served us all that well, was to insert almost a competing bus service: We operate an express route, as well as normal, standard pick-up routes. Again, I’m quoting from my colleagues who are transit experts, they tell me that operating a parallel express and normal-run services is not only expensive, it’s not very efficient. Bottom line, for us, I think you need to look at, starting at the very minimum, the outlying extremities of Ottawa. Bus service through Manotick, for instance, through Richmond, parts of Goulbourn, Munster-Hamlet; having OC Transpo do that route is a terrible idea, because OC Transpo has to do—I hesitate to say they get to do—OC places a surcharge on every property within the catchment area when they do rural pickup.
What Maguire is proposing is an elimination of express routes, which would be unnecessary if his GO Ottawa commuter rail proposal was supported, anyway. The commuter rail system may seem like a "competing" service to OC Transpo in the same way express buses are, but Maguire would still have suburbs served by routes like the 95, 96, and 97.
I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t run. Right now, the people who are taking the 95 or the 96 in Barrhaven are doing so because it meets their needs, and I presume they’ll continue to do so. We want to get the guys in their cars off the road, the guys who say, “I can’t spend 40 minutes on a bus, make three transfers, and end up 12 miles from here.” That’s the kind of person we want to entice.

What makes a transit plan affordable?

The Ottawa Citizen's Leonard Stern penned a great editorial this past weekend about Ottawa's current transit plan, and the many different opinions on whether or not it's affordable. In it, Stern talks about how subjective the term is, and how loosely it can be defined. But instead of trying to summarize what he says, I'll just offer an excerpt of the column--it's recommended reading.
There are people who earn $75,000 per year and can "afford" a Mercedes, just as there are people who make twice that and would say they can't "afford" one. A family with a certain household income will buy a $500,000 home, while another family in an identical financial situation will determine that it can afford only a $300,000 home.

Affordability is more a matter of personality than mathematics. After all, we're all working from the same numbers. The light-rail plan, with tunnel, is estimated at $2.1 billion, to be completed in 2019. It is the first phase of a 20-year public transit plan that will eventually cost at least $6.6 billion.

Friday, September 17, 2010

2010 Election: Doucet on cycling

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

As a part of his transportation plan, mayoral candidate Clive Doucet is calling for pretty heavy investments into promoting cycling as an actual alternative transportation method for residents of the City of Ottawa. His platform includes filling "gaps" in Ottawa's current cycling infrastructure and offering facilities at transit nodes with the stated goal of increasing the modal share devoted to cycling in Ottawa from two to five per cent.
We want to make Ottawa the best cycling city in Canada; better than Montreal, better than Vancouver. Can we do it? Of course we can. We are already the best recreational bicycling city in Canada, and our challenge is to become the best in Canada for cyclists who need to get to work, to shop, to get to daycares. It is the daily, weekday travel by cyclists that must be improved.
During his press conference, Doucet invited sustainable transportation consultant Joel Mulligan to speak on behalf of cycle-heavy cities. Whether or not what Mulligan talked about was directly part of Doucet's plans, he did describe the best way to get people in Ottawa interested in cycling, and to build it into civic culture: Pilot projects.
The best way to introduce the people of Ottawa to a world-class cycling infrastructure and cycling-oriented lifestyles like we see in many of these world-class cities is to show the people of Ottawa examples. To use modest, small-scale pilot projects that are really well done, to capitalize on expertise from leading cities is one of the best ways of doing it. This way, people can see examples, try them out, and they can discuss them. [...] Such a concept is relative to all councillors in all wards, and a bicycle pilot project initiative in each ward, led by the mayor, and working with each councillor and with citizens in each ward, would be a positive way of sharing these ideas with all the citizens in the City of Ottawa.

Bus ride reading: Ottawa's Streetcars

On the recommendation of a commenter on this website, I went to the Ottawa library to pick up Ottawa's Streetcars: An Illustrated History of Electric Railway Transit in Canada's Capital City, by Bill McKeown (Railfare - DC Books, 2006). I was not disappointed.

In all, 256 pages with over 300 photos, a good number of them full-colour, and a rich written history of our city's long-lived yet quickly-discarded system of streetcars. McKeown assembled the authoritative history of Ottawa's streetcar system in this volume, and the output of his 50 years of research seems like it would take someone attempting a similar undertaking today much, much longer.

As tempting as it would be to simply flip through the book for the pictures, doing so would leave you missing the rich stories McKeown tells in the work. Like the legend of the reason why the Ottawa Transit Commission stopped running any routes with the number seven in them: Because a child was struck and killed in a collision with the number seven train. And McKeown's exhaustive appendices offer more than enough information for the most ambitious and information-hungry transit enthusiast.

Although the large hardcover work is more suited to coffee-table reading that bus ride reading, it's definitely worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of public transit in Ottawa.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

2010 Election: Lawrance on OC Transpo and ParaTranspo

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Mayoral candidate Robin Lawrence isn't happy with OC Transpo and ParaTranspo. In our interview, he discussed not only his concerns with the way some staff are treated, but he also cited concerns he has with the way certain staff treat riders and users of the system.
I’m tired of seeing OC Transpo workers and others getting dumped upon. And ParaTranspo, it’s the same thing.
Mr. Lawrance doesn't have a plan or platform available to improve the workplace for employees or the service for users, but he has routinely pledged to do his "best for all the citizens in the City of Ottawa". And while he's not optimistic about his chances in the election, he is hopeful that his campaign will help increase awareness of issues, both in the public and among city politicians.
I might lose, but I’ll tell you what: Before I lose, I’m going to open people’s ears up in this city. And I’m going to wake that city council up. Enough is enough.

Watson, O'Brien, and Haydon have different ideas for OC Transpo transit commission

At his transit platform presentation on Wednesday, mayoral candidate Jim Watson announced his support for establishing a transit commission, becoming the third candidate to make such a promise heading into the October 25 election.

Watson's website said he would be looking to:
Seek Council approval to create a transit commission that would be made up of a majority of councillorʼs and a minority of citizens with experience in the fields of transit, management, finance etc, including users of transit.
The commission as proposed by Watson would, as stated above, include mostly city councillors, but also members of the public at large. This is a slightly different format than that posed by other candidates who've promised commissions, including Larry O'Brien and Andy Haydon.

While O'Brien hasn't specified the structure of his proposed commission, his pledges to "detach the day-to-day management of OC Transpo from the day-to-day politics of City Hall" and "put the management of this asset in the hands of professionals" leads one to conclude that neither councillors nor members of the public would help form his commission, instead putting it in the hands of transportation experts.

Candidate Andy Haydon has taken a third approach, choosing to identify a group of six or eight councillors along with the mayor to form the transit commission. His commission would have total authority over OC Transpo including "route designation, purchasing and fare structures", according to Haydon's website.

Although it doesn't recommend a specific structure, the 2007 Mayor's Task Force on Transportation Moving Ottawa report did recommend "separating OC Transpo from the City bureaucracy and setting up an arm's-length operating entity with an appointed board fully accountable to City Council." And, in fact, they recommended it be done within 12 months of the June 2007 submission of their report. The three proposed formats for this election appear to meet those criteria, but differ in their

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

2010 Election: Doucet's transit alternative

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

My discussion with mayoral candidate Clive Doucet was a little different than that with other candidates I've interviewed so far: Rather than a one-on-one interview, Doucet held a press conference on transit issues on September 8, which I attended (I was able to ask him a few questions one-to-one, afterwards). The presser dealt with a few transit issues, but the biggest Doucet wanted to discuss was his alternative transit plan, which basically boils down to this: Surface light-rail along Carling in the west, Laurier in the centre, extending the O-Train to the airport and Riverside South in the south, and somewhere to Orleans--all alongside the existing bus-rapid transit system.
At the heart of the election, the defining decision for the citizens of Ottawa will be how we decide to invest in light-rail. Ottawa faces a critical east-west traffic problem, especially on our Queensway, the 417. Building a downtown tunnel will not solve this. We can spend $3B for a 3.4km tunnel in our downtown and it will never do anything to fix our east-west traffic jams. It won’t do it because the tunnel will add no new capacity for east-west commuters. All the tunnel [will do] is replacing an existing service on the surface with enormous bus-rail transfer stations at each end of the tunnel. There is a concern that this tunnel will even make it longer across the downtown.

There’s only one way to increase capacity on our east-west corridor and reduce pressure on the 417: A parallel rail service to the busway and the 417. With LRT running on Carling Avenue in the west and Orleans in the East, people will have a real travel choice between buses, trains, and cars. This is what we must do: LRT in four years from Kanata to Orleans, from Riverside South to Centretown, and the airport. Can it be done? Of course it can.
Doucet said that because the city owns rights-of-way on Carling Avenue, Laurier Avenue, and the other routes he's planning to implement surface rail, the cost would be about "around $2B". The western portion of his plan is very similar to that he presented in November 2008, with his Light Rail Now! alternative promoting rail on Carling. After the presser, Doucet dismissed concerns about the numerous intersections an at-grade train would have to pass on Carling, saying that Morrison Renfrew--a transportation consultant he's cited often in the past--found that there would only need to be two grade-separated crossings along the line (the rest would be, presumably, timed traffic standards).

A few concerns with Doucet's plan have been raised since its launch, most notably by West Side Action's Eric Darwin. It's unclear, for instance, how a light-rail spur will connect from the O-Train station at Bayview to the Laurier rail line without impinging on the BRT service that is to remain in complement to it.

Still, Doucet's main argument is a valid one: If the expense of a tunnel is avoided, the city will have more money to spend extending service further out. It boils down to whether or not you feel surface rail is sufficient. Doucet, obviously, feels it is, and he's given himself an ambitious timeline to implement his plan:
As mayor, I will chair the transit committee, and we will have the contracts in place within six months, and construction underway shortly thereafter.

A historical look at OC Transpo ridership: Redux

Earlier in September, I posted a basic informational graph on OC Transpo ridership, since its first days in 1972. Just the simple facts: How ridership has dipped and risen over the last four decades.

Seizing on that information, frequent commenter on the site took the data a step further, comparing it to Ottawa's population--and graciously sending me the outcome. A note about the data: These graphs are from 1976, the earliest date census metropolitan area (CMA) was available, and they also only use population information for the Ontario portion of Ottawa (so Hull/Gatineau is not included in the population, although there may be riders from Hull/Gatineau affecting the OC Transpo ridership numbers).

First up is a comparative graph, showing the erratic and unpredictable trend in OC Transpo ridership (the blue line) compared to the relatively steady--and in fact steepening--population trend (the red line). The final significant dip in ridership is partially, if not entirely, due to the 2008-09 winter transit strike, but one fact is evident: The modal share devoted to public transit took a huge hit through most of the 1990s, and was slowly recovering--until the strike.

The trend of declining modal share is demonstrated, in some way, by the graphic below. Although this isn't quite modal share--it's the number of trips taken on OC Transpo per capita. Which shows what was described above: The 1990s were devastating for public transit use in Ottawa, and despite some improvements in the first have of the 2000s, public transit use per capita has drastically fallen off since its peaks in the first half of the 1980s.

Thanks once again to WJM for the great work on these infographics. News reports have been positive in terms of ridership so far in 2010, but we won't know until the entire year's numbers are out whether the strike was a blip on the radar, or part of a greater decline.

UPDATE: Some astute comments on this post. Whether it be by some coincidence or not, OC Transpo ridership per capita's precipitous decline began in earnest around 1983, the same year the Transitway began operation. While it seems counter-intuitive, commenter David summed up reasonable conclusions to draw on the graph as such:
What these graphs show beyond any doubt is that the Transitway has NOT led to an increase in ridership in Ottawa, much as certain BRT devotees (e.g. Andy Haydon) like to think otherwise.
While the fact that ridership, when overall population is taken into effect, went down with the beginning of the Transitway is an undeniable conclusion, it certainly doesn't mean that the Transitway has made public transit less attractive to commuters and riders (although construction of the Transitway, and the delays and confusion that goes therewith, might have done so). It does, however, mean that the Transitway hasn't made public transit any more attractive to commuters potential riders, as evidence by the fact that they haven't flooded OC Transpo--and in fact the opposite, as commuters have in fact fled from it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can we afford the downtown tunnel?

abandoned subway in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Questioning Ottawa's ability to fund our current $2.1B light-rail transit plan, and particularly the $735M, 12.5 km tunnel portion of it, is nothing new. Although the financing of it has been priced out by city planners, critics--perhaps with good reason--question those plans, and particularly question the accuracy of the city's cost estimates.

One of those critics is recently-announced mayoral candidate (and former regional chair) Andy Haydon. Virtually since the plan was first accepted by council, Haydon has criticized the idea--a bus-rapid transit man, Haydon thinks the city would be better served continuing to improve our BRT system, instead of pursuing LRT.

Haydon recently made his thoughts quite clear in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen:
"Is it affordable? No. What will happen is they'll get halfway through it and they'll run out of money," says Haydon, who makes no secret of his preference for bus transit.
So we've got a few different viewpoints on the issue.

But what if Haydon is right? What if the city begins the project, starting with the tunnel (which is the projected start-point) and then, due to rising costs or falling revenue sources, can no longer fund the project?

Well, we wouldn't be the first city to run into this problem. We might end up with a system like the Cincinnati Subway, a line built at the beginning of the 20th century in the American city that whose tunnel was finished, but the money ran out before any rail was put down, or any riders actually used it. The tunnels look eerily abandoned, but are still maintained today and used for water lines in the city. Similar ghost-tunnels can be found all over: The New York Subway has some abandoned stations, and apparently Calgary even has some abandoned (or at least unused) tunnels for their C-Train line.

And unfinished tunnel projects go back through human history, even to ancient Egypt. A tunnel in the tomb of pharaoh Seti I runs 174m before construction abruptly ended when, according to National Geographic, the pharaoh died.

Obviously, the hope is that if Ottawa moves forward with a tunnel, it won't turn into a 'tunnel to nowhere' or to a modern brother to the Cincinnati Subway. Planners, councillors, and city staff mostly seem confident it won't, so we'll see, I suppose.

Friday, September 10, 2010

2010 Election: Maguire on privatization

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Many different ideas have come up to fix the perceived service problems at OC Transpo over the course of this municipal election, from a new transit commission to an essential-service designation. Mayoral candidate Mike Maguire, too, has an idea: Privatization of the service, or at least of some parts of it.

Maguire sees the size of OC Transpo as ineffective, and a big reason for some of the service problems that have been seen. And he thinks that by breaking it up into smaller, independently-managed pieces, some or all of those issues can be adequately addressed:
OC Transpo, as a corporation, has probably grown beyond its effective size. Certainly, we’ve seen a number of different indicators of that: Extremely low employee morale; the massive subsidy necessary; the confusing interpretation of the mandate; a $100M garage that you can’t drive the bus into. I realize that can happen, but when you’re dealing with public money, you really don’t get a second chance when you screw up like that. And that was $100M, up from $60M; that hurt, that really hurt.

I challenge the notion that we need a single bus company for the entire city. It’s contrary to common sense, and there’s no question that we need to look at privatization of routes. It comes down to money.
What his proposition would entail is a profit-sharing arrangement where a the city owns the service--both the bus services, as well as the commuter-rail "GO Ottawa" system he supports as a transit vision for the city--and the operators on it have a commission structure where their earnings are based on the service they provide.
I like the idea of owner-operator; in some way, we need to incentivize the staff who work on that to be profit-share, or part-owners. We need to break the cycle of bad labour relations at the city level, so here’s an opportunity to do something like that. We have a major issue with many of the operator grievances at OC Transpo, I think, are valid. However, we can’t possibly meet all of the demands of the operators, and yet the city has no other option at the moment. So you end up with things like that bus strike that eventually we capitulated on. And we gained nothing; nobody gained a penny on it. The operators lost money. We didn’t run a service for weeks, and we lost money; that should be impossible. And the commuters got screwed. So what was the possible value of this?

So here’s a chance to reinvent the wheel. This one, in particular. I like the idea of either a profit-sharing arrangement, or partial ownership of the service. However it’s done, the smart people will devise this later, but it can’t be the way it is.
Maguire, at the moment, hasn't yet come up with specific details on the structure or implementation of the new organization, but thinks that operators would be some of the best authorities on the subject to help design the program.
As the owner-operator, profit is your motive, not just the paycheque at the end of every two weeks. I trust in the cleverness of people to fill in the details.

O'Brien promises transit commission for OC Transpo

Larry O'Brien's transit platform is obviously going to include his continued support for Ottawa's transit plan in its current form, but when the incumbent in the mayoral race launched his campaign on Wednesday night, he threw in a new detail: A promise to create an independent transit commission to manage OC Transpo is re-elected.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

"I as mayor am not happy with the governance of OC Transpo," he said. "There are many reasons for this, but all of the improvements that I can see have to start at the top. The drivers are not the issue."

O'Brien said public transit, the city's single largest budget line item, is plagued by micromanagement, and councillors have no
business deciding transit routes or union contracts. "We must detach the day-to-day management of OC Transpo from the day-to-day politics of City Hall," he said, adding that running transit through a commission would save money.
(O'Brien used the opportunity to try to smooth things over with the transit union; by all accounts, O'Brien isn't popular with OC Transpo's bus operators.)

At first, I was rather surprised by the pledge, and then I remembered that this isn't the first time he called for it: On Rogers Talk Ottawa program back in March (long before he'd announced his intention to run for a second term), O'Brien said that it was an idea that had his support. It's also an idea that was given high priority by O'Brien's 2007 mayor's task force report, but hasn't had much political weight behind it yet.

It's an idea that's been discussed before, and the main criticism--which Alex Cullen said in March and David Reevely blogged about today--is that an unelected management team won't likely be as accountable to the public as a group of elected city councillors. As Reeveley said in his blog, Greater Ottawa:
I've said before that outsourcing the oversight of the city's single biggest program is a bad idea because it would put accountability in a no-man's land. Either councillors sit on the commission and it's not really any different from having a transit committee the way we do now (that's the TTC model) or it's a mixed body and councillors share power with people who answer to nobody (that's the Hydro Ottawa model, and isn't that a model of excellent and responsive service?), or it's all independent ousiders and basically we're all helpless supplicants to our transit overlords (nobody uses this model).
It seems a bit of a trade-off: While a commission may not be as accountable as a council-managed utility, it seems likely that it will be more knowledgeable about the issues facing transit and transportation in a modern city.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

2010 Election: Lawrance on the DOTT

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

The Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) has received its share of criticism, mostly about the $700M price tag associated with it. Mayoral candidate Robin Lawrance, however, has public safety concerns with the project.
A month ago, we had an earthquake, remember? What have we got underground, has anybody asked? Bedrock. You keep shifting that bedrock, you’re going to have a major earthquake, down comes all the buildings, hundreds of thousands will be dead. We don’t even have a disaster team put together.
Although the recently-released environmentally assessment contained no reference to an increased risk of earthquake due to the tunneling (which will be about 100 feet underground), Lawrance still cautions about the risk.

He's also concerned about price, though, and would prefer to see the city look at expanding O-Train service, although he didn't offer details on specifics of any plan. And Lawrance also said that the city could pursue agreements with VIA Rail to "open up the rest of the tracks in the city".

City announces money for cycling

Ottawa City Council came out of their meeting on Wednesday with a couple of new programs for cycling funded.

First off was a smaller one, but still useful: $500k to put bike racks and shelters at OC Transpo stations. The funds are part of about $30M in federal infrastructure funding the city is finding a hard time finding suitable projects to fund; in short, ones that fall under infrastructure categories and also will be finished by the federal deadline. ($1M of that money will also be spent on OC Transpo operator rest stations.)

The bigger announcement, though, is a $5M annual allotment earmarked for cycling needs in the city. The motion, drafted by councillor Jacques Legendre and inspired by his recent trip to cycle-friendly Copenhagen, will be used to fund different projects to encourage cycling in Ottawa.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Doucet releases comprehensive alternative transit plan

On Tuesday morning, mayoral candidate Clive Doucet held a press conference to announce his plans for transit and transportation if elected mayor of the City of Ottawa. And his plan is pretty much completely different from the current plan. [Read the press release here.]

Doucet's plan calls for a deference of the tunnel "until [its cost] can be justified", and instead proposes running at-grade light-rail along Laurier Avenue downtown as a parallel line to the existing bus-rapid transit on Albert and Slater. He also proposes a western leg along Carling Avenue (a resuscitated version of his co-sponsored Light Rail Now! transit alternative from November 2008) into Kanata, extending the O-Train south towards the airport, and heading east towards Blair Road and beyond. Doucet says that he would begin the groundwork for the projects immediately, and that he could have them finished within a single four-year mandate, and for a total cost of "around $2B".

After finishing his presentation, Doucet turned the floor over to a couple other transit-oriented speakers. Local "suburban commuter" Liam Jerusalem described his purchase of a home in Riverside South with the expectation of light-rail (under the cancelled North-South transit line) running through that suburb, and his disappointment that followed the cancellation of that plan. And his other guest speaker was Sustainable Transportation Consultant Joel Mulligan, who described the virtues of a cycle-oriented society and offered his support for Doucet's promises to place more emphasis on cycling.

Doucet also discussed his plans to "optimize bus service" by organizing OC Transpo into three distinct service modes that compete with one another for funding: Community service, commuter service, and light-rail service. He also expressed a desire to approach VIA Rail in an effort to establish GO-Train-style commuter transit for outlying communities including Smiths Falls, Richmond, Perth, and Casselman.

Finally, he pledged his support for high-speed rail in the region, committing his support to establishing a Quebec City-Toronto corridor with Ottawa along it.

I will be offering more specific information on Doucet's presentation in the coming weeks, as a part of Public Transit in Ottawa's 2010 election hub.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A historical look at OC Transpo ridership

Above is a chart illustrating the ridership trend for OC Transpo (click to enlarge), from when the corporation was established in 1972 until last year, 2009. That first year, ridership was 37.544 million. The high point in ridership, denoted by the letter C on the draft, was of 95.646 million, in 2007.

Two of the low points on the graph were ridership dips due to extended labour stoppages. The first was a 20-day strike in 1979, which became known as the 'five-cent bus strike' because five cents was all that stood between the two sides. The second, much fresher in the minds of Ottawa commuters, was the 51-day 2008-09 winter transit strike, which brought ridership down in 2008 and especially in 2009.

The other big dip in the graph came to a head with 64.812 million rides in 1996, denoted by point B on the graph. Ridership had declined 11 of 12 years from 1984 until that year (which also had a 21-day strike to go along with the downward trend). A few years earlier, as a response to the declining ridership, a comprehensive review of OC Transpo operations was undertaken to find the root causes. Part of the problem was almost certainly the steady and steep rise of fares: Cash fares were only $0.65 in 1981, but they broke the one-dollar mark in 1985 and had climbed to $1.50 by 1987, and $2.00 by 1992. All told, fares rose more than 300% in slightly more than ten years. They were brought back in check after the transit strike in 1996, when fares were actually reduced to $1.85.

Since then, fares have continued to rise, although not at the pace seen through the 1980s. Today they sit at $3.25, although the difference between ticket and fare prices has never been greater. But fare-setting is a process of trial-and-error, awaiting that point where the the cost becomes a barrier preventing increasing ridership.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How bad are relations between OC Transpo and its union?

Late last week, a possible deal between OC Transpo and its drivers was rejected by the drivers' union. It was disappointing to see the issue continue to go on unresolved, but the motion seemed to point to one positive fact: Communication between the two sides is ongoing. Given the intense negativity leading up to, during, and since the 2008-09 transit strike, any communication must be a good thing.


Hopefully. But as David Reevely points out in his latest column at Greater Ottawa, the ATU 279 membership, it appears, is "militant". With that in mind, who knows whether or not the results of these votes are true disagreement with the agreement put forward, or just rejected out of spite? From Reevely's blog:
"The dangerous problem I see isn't that the OC Transpo union members are militant. They were pretty badly put upon at the time of the last strike, by managers who wanted to take away an extremely important element in their contract with apparently no understanding of why it was there in the first place (letting drivers, in particular, have considerable control over their own work schedules was a key move in an effort to detoxify the OC Transpo workplace after the deadly Pierre Lebrun shootings a decade ago). I can see where the militancy comes from, and anyway, tough but skilled managers can deal with a militant union membership in a non-destructive fashion. They did it after the shootings, for example."
Leading up to the vote, on the OC Transpo livejournal, user roadwarrier came out in support of the agreement. Roadwarrier is one of the more vocal operators on the LiveJournal, and he tried to convince his brothers and sisters why it wasn't such a bad deal--or at least to explain why he was voting yes.
"Well gang, I was one of the big naysayers, no at any cost, with a serious vendetta against management. Quite frankly, I walked into the meeting ready to vote this thursday, ready to vote no at any cost, no matter how good the offer was.

"And I've done a 180. The executive has worked very hard to get some strong language and some real goodies for us. Stuff that's going to cost the company a lot of money and that really benefits us. Stuff that wasn't on the table when we walked and stuff that was on the table. At the end of the day, my gut tells me that this is a very good offer and the only reason the offer is so good is that the city knows they can't keep going with the way it is."
Since roadwarrier's post, a series of follow-up threads were posted leading up to the vote: Titles such as "NOT SUCH A GREAT DEAL", "Vague language in Contract - vote NO unless rectified", "VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO! VOTE NO!", "Vote No", and "Why I've decided to vote no" were all put up. They acknowledged "minor improvements" for drivers, but cautioned union members to "think worst case scenario" [sic]; it seems the relationship is so toxic, the union is assuming managers are trying to pull one over on them, and will be taking a mile for every inch given.

And now, interim union leader Mike Aldrich has taken issue with explanations made by OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier about service issues. Rather than Mercier's excuses of vacationing drivers, Aldrich said that service problems that have come up through the summer had more to do with these 'scheduling issues' that continue to elude proper, concise explanation.

So we've got a union head who seems open to compromise (Aldrich) standing in for a much more confrontational union leader (Andre Cornellier, who's taken personal leave) in leading a group of militant employees (the ATU 279) to negotiate with a manager who's done little to befriend the union, and a fair bit to irk them (Mercier)--and who, it should be noted, is supported by a mayor who seems enemy number one to the union (Larry O'Brien)--to come to an agreement on issues few, if any, truly understand and may or may not actually materialize into 'operational efficiencies' (scheduling).

Brace yourselves. The end seems far off.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

2010 Election: Bello on LRT affordability

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Ottawa mayoral candidate César Bello wants public transit improvements in Ottawa. As a social justice advocate, he's in favour of increased accessibility. But he's concerned with the cost of the current transit plan, including the underground tunnel--or, more accurately, concerned with the uncertainty around cost.
There is not an exact amount. We don’t know how much [the project will cost to finish]. If there is some increase, at some point in the future, about this, we will have no choice but to increase the property taxes [...] to me, it’s important to be prudent at this moment.
Although concerned, Bello didn't mention any ideas on how to get around cost uncertainty when in the planning stage of different transit projects. And he didn't have any particular ideas on an alternative, but he said that city council had to be "creative" in order to make a more affordable plan.
We have to look at efficiency, of course, but a tunnel is too much. It costs too much, and it’s painful for the residents for owing money for many years. So we have to find another way, more affordable, more realistic, and of course more articulated for the service to the residents.