Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is OC Transpo an essential service?

Public transit news made some waves earlier in the week when the Ottawa Sun ran a cover story featuring Toronto mayor Rob Ford saying that Ottawa should make OC Transpo an essential service, similar to what he's trying to do with public transit in his city.
“They should do the same thing,” said Ford when contacted by the Ottawa Sun on the subject. “It’s definitely an issue. We had 13 strikes in Toronto and it cost us $50 million a day.”
My immediate reaction was: Why are we asking the mayor of another city why Ottawa's public transit should be declared an essential service?

But after deciding to move beyond that question, I remembered the discussion of making OC Transpo an essential service in the aftermath of the 2008-09 winter transit strike. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which has jurisdiction over OC Transpo because of the inter-provincial routes included, sought to determine whether or not such a designation was fitting, and both the city and the union argued that it wasn't an essential service. Certain citizen groups had argued in favour of the designation, but given those counter-arguments, it wasn't done.

In response to Ford's comments, Amalgamated Transit Union 279 interim president Mike Aldrich said he was "surprised" by the comments.

My opinion on the matter is that public transit is most definitely an essential service for some people in the city. Although legislating it would be difficult, a partial solution for Ottawa may be designating the core of OC Transpo service essential (for instance, Transitway routes 95-96-97 and select others, like the 106), as was suggested by Klaus Beltzner (B.Sc., M.Math., M.B.A, and member of Friends of the O-Train) a couple of years back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Geotechnical report raises questions on Ottawa's LRT tunnel

As the preliminary planning work for Ottawa's light-rail transit plan chugs along, the Interim Geotechnical Data Report for the downtown tunnel portion was released this week, with a couple of snags that are reportedly forcing staff to consider changes to the plan.

The first of the potential changes, as reported by CTV Ottawa, it bedrock depth and poor soil quality around Campus Station. It might force the city to end the tunnel earlier than previously planned, bringing the Campus Station outside of it.

In the city's DOTT Planning and Environmental Assessment Study [.pdf, see page 13], three potential scenarios were outlined for the tunnel portal, leaving the door open for a shorter tunnel and Campus station being located outside of it. Should city engineers decide that the bedrock around the proposed station is too deep and the soil quality too poor, they'll likely choose the 'North Portal' option and have Campus Station at-grade. So that's not necessarily a huge change.

That scenario will naturally shorten the length of the tunnel--and perhaps fairly significantly, as much as 900m--but will it reduce the bottom-line cost of the project? The Ottawa Sun seems to think it could, in their story on the subject, but CBC interviewed city staffers who said it's not likely to bring down the cost.

The second, depending on the risk, may be more worrisome. The image below, a figure presented in the geotechnical report, shows the faults underground in Ottawa (click to enlarge):

The set of faults in question are the Gloucester Faults, which cross the proposed DOTT alignment in three spots between Lyon and O'Connor Streets, but may in fact lie further east of where indicated on the map above (which is based on a Geological Survey of Canada regional geology map), according to the report. Although the fault lines are present, they are apparently inactive, and city staff told CBC that they aren't a major concern.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A change of tone between the OC Transpo and the union

Well this is a refreshing dose of positive news.

Less than a week ago, I posted about early jockeying between the city and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 279 as the two sides were preparing to negotiate an extension to their agreement to keep OC Transpo buses running. It seemed the hostility between the two sides hadn't faded at all, and didn't bode well for negotiations.

But now, things seem to be a little different. Mayor Jim Watson met with acting president of the ATU 279 Mike Aldrich on Monday to discuss the future of Ottawa public transit (and preventing another transit strike), and Transit Commission acting chair Diane Deans is to meet with Aldrich on Tuesday for the same thing. The two had earlier said their interest was in smoothing relations between OC Transpo and the union, but hadn't done anything to put substance behind their words; opening up communication is a good place to start.

But it takes two sides to negotiate, and it looks like Aldrich is ready to do so now, too. On Monday, in an interview with the Ottawa Sun, Aldrich seemed to be moving forward with the negotiations:
Aldrich said he’s “looking forward” to the upcoming negotiations and hinted that things will be different with the ATU now under his leadership and not that of former president Andre Cornellier.

“It will be a whole new way of negotiating. We’re going to get rid of the adversarial attitude and get along. We (the ATU and the city) want to have a world-class transit system,” he said.

“This is the public’s transit system and I don’t want to use the public as pawns, we had 54 days of that s**t. It’s the last thing we want.”
There's some passion there, and it's a passion to find a proper agreement before push comes to shove and a strike seems inevitable. All of a sudden, I'm fairly optimistic these two sides can figure this thing out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bus ride reading: Urban Nation

While browsing through the Ottawa Public Library collection, my interest was piqued by Alan Broadbent's Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong. Broadbent's premise is that Canada is becoming an increasingly urbanized nation, and the powers currently reserved for provinces need to be given to certain cities so that they've got the capacity and flexibility to respond to unique obstacles.

Although Broadbent mentions Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver as the cities which in particular deserve (and, in his opinion, need) this authority, his focus is undoubtedly on Toronto. Only a few passing examples show a concern for Vancouver, and Montreal is only mentioned a handful of times. The book is very much focussed on how a possible re-organization of government would benefit Toronto.

I was somewhat disappointed in Broadbent's dismissal of the City of Ottawa; although not nearly as large as the cities he focuses on, the Ottawa census metropolitan area is in the unique position of being affected by five levels of government as well as numerous different government agencies (the National Capital Commission and Parks Canada, to name a couple). If the idea is to build a more efficient and specifically capable municipal body, few Canadian cities would benefit from the change more than Ottawa would. But that wasn't a focus Broadbent dealt with, although I think the book would have benefited from it.

Much of the book is focussed on taxes: How taxes could shift towards urban uses, different taxation mechanisms that would open up to cities with province-like authorities, tax credits, and financing infrastructure projects through taxes. Which is rather interesting, if somewhat dry at times to read. Still, Broadbent brings up some very good points about the benefits that could come about.

Peculiarly, however, are the significant jurisdictional modifications Broadbent suggests towards the end of the book. Noting a disparity between representatives in the federal government and population between rural and urban populations, he not only proposes more representatives for urban areas, but also proposes a provincial reorganization for less populous provinces. The Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick would be united as "The Maritimes" (a label which I'm sure residents of Newfoundland and Labrador wouldn't appreciate, given that that province isn't a maritime province), while Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would be united as "The Prairies". It seemed to come out of nowhere, but I suppose the point is that if cities are to gain powers, it's likely that someone else would have to give them up. In Broadbent's vision, that would be the lower-populated provinces across Canada.

Putting aside his vision for a "New Canada", Broadbent's point about a lack of sufficient powers setting cities back is very apropos. He uses more examples that I can recount here, but his bottom line is that Canadians are flocking to cities, and our governance structure--established almost 150 years ago--has failed to adjust to reflect changing realities. As it is, cities are subject to the whims of provincial and federal funding partners, virtually relegated to beggars coming hat-in-hand to other levels of government to seek funding for significant projects.

For readers interested in urban issues in Canada or the relationship between different levels of government would likely enjoy reading Urban Nation. But don't go into it expecting much of an Ottawa perspective.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jockeying starts early for city, union in negotiations

Although the contract between the Amalgamated Transit Union 279 and OC Transpo doesn't expire until March 2011, and with the winter 2008-09 53-day transit strike still fresh in our minds, both sides of the labour agreement have already started posturing to gain advantage in the upcoming labour talks.

Through his mayoral campaign and since, mayor Jim Watson has been stating his intention to mend the relationship between the city and the union; on the day she was selected as chair of the transit commission, Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans talked to CTV Ottawa about "a new era of co-operation" between the two sides. Although it's still very early in their respective mandates (Deans was just approved as chair of the commission yesterday), neither has done much, if anything, in the way of tangible action to change anything.

Meanwhile, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier has initiated a survey of workers to get to the bottom of the seemingly ever-present low morale issues at OC Transpo--a survey which, according to acting president of the ATU 279 Mike Aldrich, is identical to one which was done five years ago, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. Aldrich said issues are the same as were determined in the previous survey--"running times, scheduling and poor morale throughout the company"--and didn't approve sending the survey out.

On the other side, the ATU 279 leadership is using some more strongly-armed tactics, putting pressure on the city to make changes even before the union will agree to come to the table. Aldrich has complained that the negotiating team--led by Mercier--is the same as it was during the last negotiation, and that he wants to see some "changes" before proceeding with negotiations. From the CBC:
"We have the same players negotiating the same proposals," said Aldrich, referring to the 51-day strike in 2008-09 that shut down buses in the city.

"We know what happened last time. I'm not interested in going down that road."


"One of [Watson's] campaign promises was to repair the poisoned atmosphere at OC Transpo but so far nothing has been fixed," Aldrich said. "So until we see some changes, or improvements, we'll wait."
Although posturing such as this isn't really uncommon in labour discussions, it's still a little unsettling to hear that issues remain, and that these issues are enough to delay advance negotiations. On the plus side, both sides have said they want to avoid a strike; Aldrich told the CBC that there is "no way the union wants a strike".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New transit commission dominated by suburban councillors

City council's nominating committee submitted its list of councillors slotted on to the various boards, committees, and commissions on Tuesday. Although they will still need to be approved by full council, the new transit commission has eight councillors on it, according to the Ottawa Sun: Stephen Blais, Rainer Bloess, Diane Deans, Steve Desroches, Keith Egli, Shad Qadri, Tim Tierney and Marianne Wilkinson.

One thing you'll likely notice immediately is the heavy presence of suburban councillors, and very little in the way of true 'urban' representation among councillors. Five of the proposed members serve ridings outside the Greenbelt (Stephen Blais [Cumberland], Rainer Bloess [Innes], Steve Desroches [Gloucester-South Nepean], Shad Qadri [Stittsville], and Marianne Wilkinson [Kanata North]), while another two (Diane Deans [Gloucester-Southgate] and Keith Egli [Knoxdale-Merivale]) are just inside the Greenbelt, with their ridings encompassing the outskirts of Ottawa proper and significant portions of the Greenbelt.

Only Tim Tierney (Beacon Hill-Cyrville) represents a ward entirely within the Greenbelt. There is no downtown representation among councillors on the commission.

That's not to say these councillors won't be able to serve admirably on the commission, but it does mean that their direct constituents will rely on, at worst, a hybrid transportation strategy that will almost certainly include the bus complemented by a personal car. How this might affect the strategy OC Transpo employs moving forward remains to be seen.

The transit commission still needs to be filled out with four public citizens. It also remains to be seen how these commission members will be selected. According to Wilkinson, the position will be advertised in local papers and on Ottawa's website; according to Deans, the advertisements should be posted early in the new year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bike-share may be coming back to Ottawa

After a pretty successful pilot program from 2009 was set back in 2010, some bike-share program may return to Ottawa for the summer of 2011, according to Centretown News. From their coverage:
[NCC Director of Communications Lucie] Caron says the NCC is working co-operatively with Ottawa and Gatineau and hoping for the program to be completed by the spring.

Media spokesperson Jasmine Leduc confirmed the NCC’s expectation for 50 stations and 500 bicycles to be available in Canada’s capital region and on both sides of the river by next year.
Ottawa's 2009 bike-share pilot program was supposed to set the groundwork for a permanent system, but in 2010 the NCC was unable to find a partner to manage the Bixi bike-share service, so it didn't get off the ground. Now, it appears the program is expected to move forward in the new year.

In the Centretown News article, Somerset Councillor Diane Holmes voiced significant support for the moving forward with the project. However, in a June 2008 interview with PTIO, new councillor David Chernushenko suggested the city needs to truly invest in building up a cycling infrastructure in order to make sure any bike-share program will work:
"We would start by saying every time a street or a sidewalk needs repair, we can seize that opportunity not just to replace the sewer infrastructure and the telecom cables and everything else that’s there. We’re actually going to redesign that street."
Many recent street redesigns have included measures to make them more pedestrian-friendly, particularly in the core, and a potential segregated cycling lane would only add to that.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Doucet issues warning to Toronto

As new Toronto mayor Rob Ford appears to be embarking on a road eerily similar to that Ottawa took in the immediate aftermath of our last election, former city councillor and failed mayoral candidate Clive Doucet--long an opponent of the current transit plan and proponent of the cancelled north-south transit plan--has issued a strong warning to councillors in the city.

His guest column in the Citizen talks about the years--often decades--and incredible effort that goes in to forming transit plans, and the huge cost associated with cancelling projects that are just about to start, as was the case in Ottawa, or already underway, as is the case in Toronto. It's a terrific column and I recommend you check it out in its entirety, but here's an excerpt:

The young council in Toronto needs to pay attention to Ottawa because the individual political consequences for Ottawa politicians four years on from the initial rail cancellation were equally disastrous -- almost half the council either left voluntarily or were retired by the electorate. Councils need to
succeed and you don't get success by cancelling projects that are slated to change your city for the better.

If you think this is a rather extreme conclusion, consider this: If Ottawa now had a brand-new, light rail service from Barrhaven to the University of Ottawa in operation instead of $37 million
in cancellation fines and $60 million in lost investment; if O'Brien had finished his mandate by cutting the ribbon on that line and turning the sod on the new east/west line it would have connected to -- would he have been defeated?


The Ottawa experience proves it's not only expensive to cancel approved transit projects, the lost opportunities are even more costly. While Ottawa waits for the new transit projects to happen, it is becoming congestion city. The same will happen in Toronto.

All in all, a very interesting take from someone who, whatever you think about his politics, has a lot of experience a plenty of ideas on public transit and cities in the 21st century.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hero bus driver saves three from fire

Pretty incredible news story that came out last week. From the Ottawa Citizen:

The transit worker was driving his Route 5 bus when he saw a building on fire, the memo says.

After contacting the transit control room, he ran out of the bus and into the building, eventually making his way up to the third floor. He then kicked open the door and helped evacuate the apartment of the three people inside, Mercier wrote.

The driver, Peter Paquette, is a former firefighter, according to CTV News. And according to his wife Sandy Maxwell Paquette, as quoted in a CBC article, he "won't like" the attention that comes with being hailed a hero, but I think it's probably a fair label for a guy who saved three people (and a dog) from a fire.

With all the focus people have on how much bus operators get paid, how early or late their bus is, or how grumpy their driver was on a given day, we often forget that there are plenty of terrific drivers out there, too. Paquette's is an extreme example, but there are very often small ways bus drivers help riders as well as everyday citizens. For that, those drivers deserve our thanks.

Friday, December 10, 2010

U-Pass controversy bordering on absurd

Early last month, I discussed the controversy surrounding the universal student bus pass (U-Pass), and the headlines that controversy was making. In case you haven't been following it, the issue hasn't remotely settled down.

On Tuesday, 580 CFRA reported that a group of eight University of Ottawa students have taken the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) to small-claims court over the implementation of the $145/semester bus pass.

Just one day later, the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) and SFUO jointly issued a press release, "signed by Ottawa university students", calling on new members of council, and particularly new mayor Jim Watson, to make the U-Pass permanent (which is currently just a pilot project).

Both SFUO and CUSA lobbied the previous council to initiate a U-Pass program, each had a referendum at their school which passed, and both have had some students express disdain with the charge. It's almost laughable how rabid both sides are; the example above being just one instance. It's going to be interesting how things work themselves out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Council approves transit commission

In their first meeting after being sworn in, the new Ottawa City Council approved the creation of an arm's-length transit commission to manage OC Transpo. It was one among several governance changes made, as reported by CBC. The commission is expected to be up and running in just under a year, by September 2011.

The commission was a pillar of mayor Jim Watson's campaign, among the first announcements he made and likely the most significant promise he made for transit in the city. The composition of the commission will be somewhat larger than what Watson had originally suggested, with 12 members total: Eight councillors, and four members of the public with some specialization in transit issues (Watson's original plan was "probably 5-6 members of council, and probably 2-3 members of the public").

The commission wasn't universally supported by council, and some other commenters--notably David Reevely--have publicly wondered what it will do that the transit committee couldn't. The committee, in Watson's vision, will be able to focus more on the operation of the transit utility, and less on political motivations. The establishment of some arm's-length committee was also among the key recommendations of Larry O'Brien's mayor's task force on transportation, and both O'Brien and Andy Haydon were two other mayoral candidates who had announced their intention to establish a transit commission, if elected mayor.

Specifics aren't clear at the moment, so it's unclear what the qualifications are for a member of the public to apply for consideration on the committee, nor what the process would be. I will offer that information when it becomes available.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A dream transit plan for Ottawa...

I'm just going to post this picture (from Adam Bentley on SkyscraperPage Forum, via @dbmcclelland) and let everyone dream of how awesome it would be to have such a great rapid transit network. Forget, for the moment, how ridiculously expensive it would be to operate, let alone build in it entirety.

One odd note: Not even this dream-plan uses the Prince of Wales Bridge. Not sure why, but it's an interesting thing to avoid.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

OC Transpo to be fully stop-call compliant by March

Although the city had originally planned to have the Next Stop Announcement System installed on all OC Transpo buses by the end of this year, it has been delayed and has March 2011 as an estimated date of completion, according to 580 CFRA. Once the system is fully installed, the transit company will be compliant with Canadian Transportation Authority (barring technical problems, of course).

The city also announced that there will be a change to the "next stop" chime sound that has confused so many riders to make it easily distinguishable from the bell-ringing of a stop request. Good decision.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More of Ottawa's rail history in jeopardy

The City of Ottawa doesn't quite have a sterling reputation for rail transit. More than 50 years ago, the city scrapped streetcar service in the urban area in favour of personal automobiles and bus-centred transit. And in 1966, the National Capital Commission removed passenger rail tracks from Ottawa's city proper, relocating the city's train station out of downtown and to the southeast of the city.

Now, another potential loss for rail transportation in the area: The Ottawa Valley Railway, according to reports on, is in peril. The line, which runs from Sudbury to Smiths Falls, is owned by Canadian Pacific, and is currently out of use; they're planning on ripping up the tracks and selling the scrap metal for an estimated $50M, unless governments are interested in purchasing the line. Neither the federal nor provincial governments have stepped forward and publicly indicated any interest.

It's unclear what use the rail line could actually serve, though. It's certainly got historical value, as the Ottawa Valley portion of Canadian Pacific's cross-country rail line, but the line is out of service today, one assumes because it's not profitable to run trains on it. It may be a worthwhile purchase for the Canadian military, given that CFB Petawawa is right on the line, but they're not exactly in the business of running rail service. The chief value to governments would likely be as a strategic asset, as was noted in the CBC article; If CP is willing to sell the line for $50M or some similar price, that (plus associated refurbishing costs) would be a much more manageable price tag than trying to re-build it should the need arise in the future.

The O-Train marked a renaissance of rail transit in the city, even if it's taken some time for that to mature beyond that pilot project. Most city councillors are in favour of moving towards a rail-based transit system once again, though, and it seems the city is more friendly to it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Laurier could make a good bike lane, but still not perfect

After a few rounds of deliberations, the City has decided that Laurier Avenue represents the best option for a pilot-project segregated bicycle lane. But according to the Ottawa Citizen, it's not one that's free of issues that will need to be addressed:
While community members showed mostly support for the proposed segregated bike lanes on Laurier Avenue, concerns have arisen about the continued westward connections for cyclists past Bronson Avenue.

"I think there are some advantages to Laurier with eastern connections, but there is a huge problem with connection past Bronson," said cyclist Ryan Utter, 33, who rides his bike daily for most of the year.


"There's way too much of that in Ottawa where there's a bike lane and all of a sudden, it stops," Gauthier said.

She said the city would need to warn and direct cyclists to other routes.
Laurier, as you can see in the image above, basically ends at the western edge of Ottawa's downtown, pretty much right in line with Bronson Avenue--before it gets to Somerset, Hintonburg, or the other western neighbourhoods. Cyclists could turn north up to Albert, which turns into Scott and ends in Westboro. Or some other route, but it's going to have to go somewhere to be a successful pilot project.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

First western LRT consultation draws hundreds

Although I was out of town and unable to attend, CTV is reporting that Monday's public consultation on the Western corridor for the light-rail transit plan--the first in a series of consultations--drew hundreds of interested citizens.

General opinions were those which have been voiced before: A concern about appropriation of houses along possible routes (something which will almost always come up in the discussion of municipal mega-projects), and a widespread disinterest in running rail along the Ottawa River Parkway.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Toronto pressing the re-set button, too

It's hard to believe that the City of Toronto's mayor-elect Rob Ford is actually going to go down the same road which outgoing Ottawa mayor Larry O'Brien took: Cancelling a transit plan which had been approved by all sorts of assemblies of staff, council, and other governments in favour of his own direction.

Those who think O'Brien's decision was a mistake can look at Ford's for a little bit more solace: Ottawa had only signed the contract when the north-south plan was cancelled. In Toronto, not only have contracts been signed, but construction has already commenced. And O'Brien deferred to a task force on transportation to re-set the plans (that task force ended up recommending the downtown tunnel plan Ottawa has now), Ford's just out-and-out gone ahead and made his own plan: No more surface-grade light-rail, but instead a continued investment into subways.

Ford's first move as mayor is expected to be this morning's announcement of his intentions to stop the plan. Rest assured, it's going to be a bumpy transit ride in Toronto through his tenure.