Thursday, January 27, 2011

Information on Transit Commission recruitment

I stopped in to City Hall on Tuesday for an information about the city's volunteer recruitment drive for advisory committees and boards, but personally I went to find out more information about the new Transit Commission.

Although a couple of the recruitment information sessions were sparsely attended, I overheard that there had already been around 40-50 applications submitted for the transit commission, with--at the time--still a week and a half before the deadline. The deadline for applications, by the way, is 4:30 pm on Friday, February 4, 2011, so get your applications together.

A couple of things I noticed while at the info session:

Public transit doesn't pay
Although there isn't any direct financial renumeration for taking part in the transit commission, members of committees will be reimbursed for transportation costs to and from meetings. Those who choose to take public transit, for instance, will be reimbursed for their fares in bus tickets. An odd contrast to that is the reimbursement commission members would receive if they choose to drive: $0.50 per kilometre, plus any parking costs. So paradoxically, it might make more sense for transit commission members to drive to meetings, rather than taking public transit.

City employees need not apply
For all committees, boards, and commissions, employees of the City of Ottawa are not eligible for community positions. The intent of this seems obvious, but it also disqualifies some community members who could very well be the most valuable commission members: OC Transpo operators. Few people in the city have a better knowledge of the system and how it works than operators, but city policies prevent them from serving on the commission.

No benefits allowed
This is a little bit of a silly point, but one thing I'd noticed in the city's guide of conduct for members of advisory committees is that they are not allowed to benefit directly or indirectly from the decisions they make. Makes sense if you're talking about members of the License and Property Standards Committee dealing with their own property, for instance, but any positive decision a member of the transit commission makes would invariably offer them some benefits (assuming they use public transit themselves). That's obviously not the intent of the stipulation, but it might be something worth looking into and re-wording.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

OC Transpo addresses criticism, increases service to Scotiabank Place

A little more than a month after getting torn apart in the Ottawa Citizen for flawed, lacking service to Scotiabank Place on event nights, OC Transpo announced that they're improving service to the arena. From their press release (.PDF):
Connexion 400 buses depart every 10 minutes from Bayshore Station starting approximately one and half hours before game time. Travel time is about 15 minutes on Routes 402 and 406, and 28 minutes on Route 404. Getting to Bayshore Station is easy on Route 96, which travels via downtown and the Transitway. Catch your Connexion 400 bus at Bayshore stop 1A.
Previously, the buses departed every 15 minutes, but were consistently late (or just missing) and filled up very quickly. The change would mean, if my math serves me correctly, an extra three runs, which should certainly help people looking to get to The Bank for games or concerts.

And for people who don't use the Connexion 400 buses, this is still good news: It tells us that OC Transpo, and the city, can respond to persistent complaints and look for ways to solve the problems. Which is exactly what happened here, and it's a good sign. With this one addressed, there are still a few left to look into...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Outsourcing an issue between city, union

One issue that didn't get as much coverage in the winter transit strike of 2008-09 but remains a significant one is the outsourcing of labour at OC Transpo. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 279, representing operators, obviously doesn't like the idea, but the city maintained that it was something they could use to keep operating costs lower. It's become an issue once again, according to 580 CFRA:

The vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Mike Aldrich says safety inspections for busses are being delayed because OC Transpo management didn't submit the required paperwork in time.

Mike Aldrich says it means the work - normally done by union members - is being outsourced to commercial garages in the city.

"It's just another way of somebody dropping the ball in management," says Aldrich. "Someone has got to be accountable for this."
Relations between the two sides seem to be improving, but this is one issue which will certainly continue to come up in the ongoing negotiations between the two sides.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part seven: Energy generation

Upon hearing the news that the city, after successfully installing rooftop solar panels on City Hall and an OC Transpo garage to take advantage of premiums paid for green energy, is planning on expanding their solar energy generation capacity with a further 20 buildings, I wondered something: Why not expand it even further, using the massive amounts of real estate occupied by OC Transpo, to fund the city's transit system--or even construction of the multi-billion dollar transit plan?

Back in November, I wrote about a project by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority to install wind-energy generator stations in order to power their transit stations, and posited that Ottawa could definitely benefit from doing it here--and as a bonus, any surplus energy generated could (hypthetically) be fed back into the grid, an alternative way of generating income for OC Transpo. If it's working for the city on other buildings, and it's working for transit utilities in other cities, there's little reason to believe it won't work here.

Immediately, I can think of three possible problems with OC Transpo trying it out: First is the cost; Solar panels, or tools to harness energy from other renewable sources, are not cheap. They can take a decade or more to break even, even if you can find the capital to install them in the first place, and capital is something the city's looking for when funding the current transit plan. If a corporation can be found to embark on a public-private partnership, or a higher level of government (provincial or federal) to fund the project, it would be manageable, but neither are a sure thing to find.

Secondly, given that OC Transpo is owned by the city, there's always the possibility that income from these stations would be siphoned off into the general budget rather than invested into the transit system. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing (it would give the city more money to invest into the transit system, although it could also be redirected to other things, like snow removal), but it wouldn't serve the direct purpose of funding transit or transit plans.

And finally, the premiums currently paid by the province for green energy aren't guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Those premiums are a big reason why the city's experiments in alternative energy have worked out well, but they could realistically be ended as early as the next provincial election.

As with anything, there are hurdles to be overcome, but if it hasn't been investigated previously, it's certainly something worth looking in to.

Monday, January 17, 2011

OC Transpo fare hike likely this year

As reported on 580 CFRA, Transit Commission chair Diane Deans suggested another OC Transpo fare hike is likely in this year's budget.

The head of the new Transit Commission is warning the City of Ottawa will likely have to increase transit fares for a fourth straight year.

OC Transpo fares increased 7.5 per cent last March, the third straight year transit fares increased.

Council hiked fares in the 2010 budget in a bid to reach a
50-50 split in covering the cost of OC Transpo operations between fares and property taxes.
I'm not terribly surprised there's going to be another fare hike; no one's ever denied there would be one, and with the aforementioned 50-50 split in funding OC Transpo, fares will go up to keep pace with ever-increasing operating costs. Should fares hold steady one year, it would mean either a reduction in service, or an increase in funding from property taxes.

Deans said she's hoping to minimize the hike, though, which is (aside from being an obvious statement) a good thing to hear. She's hoping to keep the rise to around the inflation rate.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Quarterly performance report on Ottawa's public transit

As pointed out on Greater Ottawa and OpenFile Ottawa, the City of Ottawa released its quarterly performance report for the third quarter of 2010. It's an interesting document with some revealing numbers, and of course some of those include public transit in the city.

All in all, eight measures are tabulated in the report, but I'm especially interested in the first four of them. If you want to read the others, check out the full report (.PDF). (All tables presented herein are copied directly from the City of Ottawa report.)

First up, conventional transit ridership. Although it would be nice to be able to project a full-year total based on the first three quarters, it'd be tough to do so due to the transit strike the spanned Q4-2008 and Q1-2009. Based purely on Q3 numbers, ridership is up from last year, but hadn't returned to pre-strike levels.

Next, occupancy rate on buses. It's pretty impressive that Transitway routes (I'd have to assume that means the 90-series buses, like routes 94, 95, 96, 97) operate at a terrific occupancy level compared to other routes. Considering the 95 runs 24 hours on weekdays and operates at, I would estimate, about 5 per cent capacity for those late-night runs, the daytime routes have got to be very full (and they are). Of note, also, is that occupancy on express and rural service has improved since last year.

Third, on-time performance. I bet if you asked most transit users, they'd estimate a much different distribution of numbers, but routes operating between 0-5 minutes late is kind of perfect. Although as an editorial note, just because a route is on time doesn't mean it does me any good; two on-time buses blasted right by me today, for instance, because they were packed to the gills and couldn't get one more rider on.

And finally, the percentage of trips operated. Again, transit users would likely estimate an even lower number, but it's still worth noting that Q3-2010 is the worst quarter of any of the three years presented when it comes to actual service operation.

Some very interesting figures for transit enthusiasts, for sure.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Want to join Ottawa's transit commission? Here's how

Plenty of transit users think they can do a better job of managing OC Transpo than those currently in charge. With Ottawa's new Transit Commission, you're getting a chance to have at least some say in the decisions the city makes with regard to transit services.

The city is expected to release information on how to join the Transit Commission, as well as many of the city's other boards and committees, tomorrow (Friday) morning, but I've received a draft-poster from city staff that you can download here.

Some key information:
  • These are voluntary positions
  • Members must be Ottawa residents and 18 years of age or older
  • There is generally one meeting a month, but there may be subcommittee or working group meetings more often than that
If you's like more information, you can contact Diane Blais at 613-580-2424, ext. 28091 or There will also be four open houses in the coming weeks:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Orléans Client Service Centre
255 Centrum Blvd, Room 340

Thursday, January 20, 2011
5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Nepean Sportsplex, Hall D
1701 Woodroffe Avenue

Saturday, January 22, 2011
9 a.m. to noon
Jean Pigott Place
Ground Floor, Ottawa City Hall
110 Laurier Avenue West

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Councillors’ Lounge
2nd Floor, Ottawa City Hall
110 Laurier Avenue West

You can see application details in the city poster (here it is again). They're due by 4:30 p.m. on Friday, February 4, 2011. Good luck!

Ottawa subway security: Is it an issue?

A few months ago, the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, a research unit out of Carleton University, blogged about the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) as a potential "target of interest" for terrorism, and wondered what kind of research has been done to mitigate the potential risks.
[Subway systems] are large and very long enclosed spaces, contain large numbers of people in close proximity to each other at specific locations, are difficult to protect due to the high number of vulnerable points of access, and, [sic] can be used to magnify the effects of any explosions as the subways run under buildings and other structures that may also be high value targets. The construction of all new transportation systems, such as the proposed Light Rail Tunnel (LRT) in downtown Ottawa, need to be assessed ahead of time with respect to their requirements for critical infrastructure protection.
I don't recall where, but I do recall security being mentioned perviously: When a route across downtown was being selected, concerns were raised about a possible line under Wellington Street due to the proximity of the Parliament Buildings and other federal government buildings right on the street, including the Supreme Court building and the Langevin Block, to name a few. Eventually, a cross-downtown route under Albert and Slater was chosen; whether the security concerns factored into that or not, I'm not sure.

Last month, USA Today looked at security for subway and rail, and found that the systems were extremely vulnerable--and also concluded that that situation would be difficult to reverse even if there were an appetite to do so (which, apparently, there isn't). From USA Today:
"Amtrak functions in a very open and, therefore, porous transportation environment," spokesman Steve Kulm says. "Because of advantages such as easy access, convenient locations and intermodal connections, rail and mass transit systems are completely different from the structure and organization of the airline transportation and airport industry."

A July report by the Government Accountability Office says high ridership, expensive infrastructure, economic importance and location in large metropolitan areas or tourist destinations also make passenger rail systems "attractive targets for terrorists."


Perhaps the only way to make subway and rail cars secure is to screen every passenger similar to what the TSA and its 50,000 screeners and some private contractors do at airports.


But security analysts say screening all subway and rail passengers is impractical and too costly. And the [U.S. Transportation Security Administration] "is not considering" requiring it, the agency said in a written response to USA TODAY questions.

"Mass transit systems in the U.S. are vast, a literal black hole," says James Carafano, a homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "They would consume every cent we spend on homeland security, and there still would be vast vulnerabilities."

Brian Jenkins, security research director for the Mineta Transportation Institute, which is funded by Congress and researches transportation policy issues, estimates that it costs $8 to $10 to screen a single passenger. "If you add that cost to a subway fare, it would destroy public transportation," Jenkins says.
No doubt it will have to be a consideration moving forward; how far do you think the city can or should go in securing the DOTT?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More transit dreaming for Ottawa

A few months ago, Dwight Williams wrote an article on Spacing Ottawa (which I wrote about on this blog) about uniting the city's mega-projects, light-rail and the Lansdowne redevelopment, with a rail line down Bank Street. He's since fleshed out the idea into an all-out proposal for a Streetcar and LRT system for the city of Ottawa, which you can see above.

There are a lot of interesting decisions Williams decided to feature in his plan, whether by including stops or choosing not to. One is the extension of light-rail part-way along the Ottawa River Parkway, complemented by a streetcar line down Carling Avenue. Light-rail doesn't go to Baseline Station, but a streetcar heads there, and one also heads to Bayshore to connect the southern and western transitways, respectively. A southeastern LRT line connects downtown with the airport, which is kind of a big deal. It looks like a streetcar line connects the LRT spine to the General Hospital complex, and Riverside Hospital and CHEO along with it.

There are likely plenty of other aspects you may have noticed, and feel free to mention them in the comments. It's certainly an interesting proposal to look at.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Public initiatives: OC Transpo Live Data

A recent article on OpenFile Ottawa talked to some of the city's open data advocates about a project they've embarked on to offer people live OC Transpo route timing data. From OpenFile:
Currently, bus locations are updated every two minutes, and the GPS signals are occasionally interrupted by tall buildings. But Ocampo-Gooding believes it may be possible for software to infer even more accurate information in the future.

On the much-talked about bus tracking app, he explains that software developers already have basic versions of it and that he "would be surprised if you had to wait beyond the new year to get access to that sort of stuff."

"The city is really excited about this. They love to see how citizens are playing with the data, creating new services, new jobs, and they hope to see more cool stuff come out," he explains. "It's not just making an iPhone app that shows you where the bus is, it's also doing stuff like monitoring where the buses go, where they slow down, and passing that off to academics or urban planners."
Check out the whole article; it's not too long, and it's got some great other details in it, too.

Check out the actual web page, too: Type in your station number, and know whether the next run is on time, early, late, or... well, "other", I guess. I've bookmarked the station I catch my bus at, and it's going to be a handy page to have when I'm leaving work to catch the bus.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wilkinson pushes for light-rail to Bayshore

Kanata North councillor Marianne Wilkinson is pushing for an extension of light-rail west, to extend the line right into Bayshore Station. From the Ottawa Citizen:
Under the plan, Barrhaven and other commuters from the southwest will transfer from buses to the train at Baseline Road, and then head downtown. Kanata and other west-end commuters will get off the buses at Lincoln Fields and then catch the train east along whatever route it ends up taking.

But Wilkinson says that plan will ruin the commute for thousands of the people who live in west, and could drive them away from public transit. The Kanata North councillor says the trains coming from Baseline would be chock full by the time they get to Lincoln Fields, causing unacceptable delays for the west-enders.

She says the city has to seriously examine the possibility of extending a spur from Lincoln Fields to Bayshore to make the transfer easier for commuters coming from Kanata and surrounding areas.

“What they are saying is that everybody from the west, a very large number of people — about 300,000 — will come by bus and transfer at Lincoln Fields to a train that’s already full with people from Barrhaven and the south,” Wilkinson told the Citizen Wednesday.
Given where we are now, it's a bit of a strange push for Wilkinson to make. Realistically, light-rail won't be moving at all for about 20 years. And although the current transit plan doesn't include an extension of light-rail to Bayshore (it stops at Lincoln Fields station before heading south to Baseline), you've got to think the plan will be amended--and perhaps significantly--in the 20 years we have before we'll even be finished phase one of the massive transit plan.

As the Citizen article says, though, earliest planning is already underway for the second phase of the plan. And given that the plan already includes a southern leg (on the eastern side of the Rideau River down towards the Airport and Riverside South), continuing the western corridor west rather than directing it south does, in theory, make some sense.

But Baseline Station is a huge transit hub, and an actual huge destination, given its placement within the Algonquin College campus. On-campus residents looking to head downtown would be served start to finish with a light-rail line (no transfers!), and Algonquin students living along the rail line would be in the same boat. Aside from shopping, Bayshore Station isn't a huge transit destination, but would be used as the western transfer point from bus to light-rail; looking at it objectively (or trying to), Lincoln Fields is likely a better transfer point than Bayshore, because it's more established and has more room.

It's unclear what Wilkinson envisions the "spur" to Bayshore would do. Will it simply be a short rail route connecting Bayshore to Lincoln Fields? If so, it's simply adding an extra transfer to riders from the west, and still sets them up to jump on an already-full train.

Will it be a stand-alone route running alongside the one from Baseline Station? If so, one would assume that it would double the amount of waiting time for users transferring onto rail at the two hubs (those from the west at Bayshore, those from the south at Baseline, as the two routes would take turns running along the main line). Would that offer a service frequently enough to adequately serve riders in either situation, or will it simply compromise service for both groups?

At some point, extending rail further west will likely be required. But at this point, questions remain as to whether or not it is the most prudent priority for city transit planners to put their weight behind.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A great new year's resolution: Avoid a transit strike

According to a report from 580 CFRA, that's exactly what at least one of the parties involved has resolved to do.
The head of the union representing OC Transpo drivers, dispatchers and mechanics is telling commuters not to put "too much worry" into the threat of a transit strike.

Contract negotiations between OC Transpo and the Amalgamated Transit Union will ramp up in January.

ATU Acting President Mike Aldrich tells CFRA News his New Year's resolution is to ensure a bus strike is not repeated.
So that's a plus. Because if there's one thing I'd rather not blog about in this year, it's labour strife at OC Transpo.