Monday, February 28, 2011

Transit union has a new president

As you might have seen reported in most Ottawa news media, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 279 elected a new president last week. The new boss is Garry Queale, a longtime driver and dispatcher for OC Transpo, and his first comments should be welcome: "I want to negotiate a fair deal for our members, and not do it through the TV and radio and newspapers."

His full (and brief) comment, from the Ottawa Citizen:
"My priority is to work within the membership to boost morale and work with the city together, and not through the media," said Queale, a longtime dispatcher with OC Transpo. "We’ve been through lots of battles and I want to negotiate a fair deal for our members, and not do it through the TV and radio and newspapers. I know Mayor Jim Watson; I’m sure I can work with him."
The last president of the ATU 279 was certainly commendable for the passion with which he fought for his union, but came under fire for his unapologetic comments in the media. And acting president Mike Aldrich, who served while Cornellier he was in poor health and since his mid-January passing, was no stranger to the media, and routinely offered his comments whenever asked--whether the subject was his membership, or simply OC Transpo as a whole.

Citizens and ATU members are both likely relieved to see someone who, at least initially, is more interested in negotiating with the city rather than negotiating through the media. The toxic atmosphere through 2008-09 transit strike was contributed to by poor choices on both sides, and poor decisions made by both Cornellier and former mayor Larry O'Brien in particular. Hopefully in this round of negotiations, with the sides led by quieter leaders Queale and Watson, we'll see a more amicable resolution.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

One tube station: Only £180,000

This is kind of awesome.
As recently seen on BLDGBLOG, Transport for London has recently put up for auction the old Shoreditch Tube Station, which opened way back in 1869 but was shuttered up in 2006, for a listed price of £180,000. Just a 20-minute drive to downtown London (at least that's what Google Maps says), it's hard to believe there haven't yet been stories about it being sold.
I assume a developer might purchase the property for the land, and tear down the old building in favour of newer ones (you can be sure if it was in Ottawa, that's what would happen). But how awesome would retrofitting the main station building into an office be? Or even a house? Would make for a heck of a story, anyway.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Catch PTIO on Talk Ottawa tonight

If you're in the Ottawa area, you can catch me (Peter Raaymakers) on Rogers 22's Talk Ottawa program this evening at 7:00 p.m. No word yet on other guests, but we'll be talking about all the big issues of the day: Optimization, labour negotiations, budgets, and bus-tracking apps based on GPS data--among, more than likely, other things.

There will be plenty of opportunities to call in, so tune in and say your piece on public transit in Ottawa this evening.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Angry driver gives OC Transpo a bad name

It seems like everyone is talking about the video that's surfaced recently of an OC Transpo operator absolutely ripping in to a rider on his bus, not just laying down some ridiculous personal insults but unleashing some pretty ugly profanity (all within earshot of young kids, no less). Some have come to the defence of the operator in question, including transit commission chair Diane Deans and acting ATU 279 president Mike Aldrich, stating that without knowing the full context of the event, there can't be conclusions drawn. I take issue with that, because no matter the context, the operator acted unprofessionally and disrespectfully. The rider, it would seem, did the same, but the rider isn't an employee of OC Transpo, so he isn't expected to uphold the service standards. Anyone who's worked in the service industry knows that customers can be disrespectful; that doesn't give you license to go off the handle on them.

But what I really take issue with is the reputation this (very isolated) incident gives OC Transpo operators. It's a sad reality, but negative press like this gets a lot more pick-up than positive press; already, this relatively minor story has received more mileage than the recent one of Peter Paquette, the OC Transpo driver who heroically stopped his bus to run into a burning house and help evacuate three people who were inside. In fact, in my experience, the friendly (or at least neutral) bus operators outnumber the surly (or downright disrespectful) ones by a decent margin.

The problem with this driver's actions, though, is not just that it's disrespectful to that individual rider, but it also gives the impression that disrespectful drivers are the norm, rather than the exception.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

OC Transpo "optimization": The process begins

With a fairly massive presentation at Wednesday's transit commission meeting, the groundwork was laid for the huge service optimization project at OC Transpo. The writing was on the wall for the process, as it's been said since the new council formed that service would be changed--and significantly. What was outlined on Wednesday wasn't a complete turn towards a true hub-and-spoke system, but it represents a much closer structure than the city's been running with for the last decade or so.

Basically, the idea will be to eliminate some routes, consolidate others, and streamline others still (read general descriptions and comments from commission members on CBC News and the Ottawa Citizen). Somehow, out of all those proposed changes, OC Transpo staff said that 90 per cent of trips will remain exactly as they are today; that probably shouldn't come as a surprise, considering Transitway routes of the 94, 95, 96, and 97 form a huge percentage of OC Transpo trips, and aren't going to be changed. For the full picture, check the actual business plan as outlined, or read my highlights from it below.

The bus fleet, in pure numbers, will actually fall for next year: 158 first-generation low-floor buses will be phased out and partially replaced with the purchase of approximately 75 double-decker buses. Those double-deckers would be assigned to long-distance express routes, while articulated buses will be used mostly for Transitway routes, and 40-foot buses would take over local routes. Basically, there will be predictability: If you're waiting for a 95, look for an "artic"; if you're waiting for an express, keep your eyes peeled for double-deckers. The idea is also to use buses for their (perceived) most effective and economical purposes.

And then the routes. The following bus routes will either be unchanged, or have enhanced service: 1, 2, 7, 8, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 24, 27, 33, 35, 38, 60, 61, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 73, 76, 77, 86, 87, 94, 95, 96, 98, 99, 114, 118, 122, 123, 124, 126, 128, 135, 146, 148, 157, 164, 170, 172, 173, 176, 177, 183, 184, 186, 187, 189, 194, 199, 245, 261, 262, and 263. So if you take any of those, you're in luck.

One of the possible changes looked at to review is to cut down on route duplication: When two routes have a good number of overlap along them, staff might try to take a "route of best fit" between them to consolidate them into one. Potential candidates for consolidation include routes 3, 4, 5, 6, 16, 23, 32, 34, 39, 40, 43, 57, 62, 63, 64, 65, 85, 88, 101, 111, 112, 115, 116, 117, 125, 130, 131, 133, 141, 142, 143, 144, 150, 151, 154, 155, 156, 158, 160, 165, 166, 168, 182, 188, 190, 191, and 316.

[Addendum: I missed a few routes that might have a reduction of service during peak period service: the 103, 116, 127, 136, 137, 140, 143, 145, 147, 149, 152, 153, 161, 163, 165, 167, 171, 174, 175, 178, and 306, and certain sections of Routes 5, 6, 9, 12, 16, 18, 40, 82, 97, 105, 106, 115, 120, 121, 125, 129, 131, 151, 154, 156, 166, 169, 190, 191, 192, 197, and 232.]

Finally, there's a proposal to cut down on loops and crescents taken by 'milk runs', which shorten the walking distance to bus stops but also lengthen the route and, according to the report, are costly to maintain. Some routes that may be made more direct include 5, 18, 31, 37, 101, 102, 179, 221, 231, and 283.

Overall, the report states that tens of millions of dollars in long-term savings could be found if these suggestions are taken. Which might be little consolation to the people who'll have to walk farther to their bus stop, but I think most around the city would agree that the OC Transpo system isn't working right now: It's trying to do too much, and that's resulting in higher operating costs and worse service. Some changes do need to be made.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Making money on transit station names

Something I've written about a couple of times in the past has been the idea of selling transit station naming rights to business or corporate sponsors as an alternative revenue stream for OC Transpo. It's generally met with resistance--having geographically-specific names makes for a much more intuitive and user-friendly transit system, so people heading down Bank Street can easily figure out they've got to get off the Transitway at Bank and Slater, for instance--but with recent news of Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Transportation Authority considering the measure to help offset funding shortages, it's obviously becoming a real option for public transit utilities.

Ottawa has funding shortages, too, as do just about every other transit utility in the world. Selling naming rights is always an option, although some might like to see it as a last-ditch one.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More double-deckers for OC Transpo

According to 580 CFRA, OC Transpo will be adding a few new double-decker buses to its fleet. There are three in service at the moment, and according to the report, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier has said the number they'll be adding will be in the double digits. From the story:

Part of the Transit Service's Plan to save millions of dollars in operating costs is to add more double-decker buses to the fleet.
I'm not really sure how the double-decker buses result in any significant cost-savings, but I find them to be a comfortable ride when I'm on them. They are limited, though; if I'm not mistaken, limited height clearance in some parts of the city restricts where they can go. And while common sense might lead you to believe twice the stories means twice the passengers, significant seating is eaten up by the staircase to the top deck, and no passengers are allowed to stand on the upper deck, either.

But when you're on the upper deck and lucky enough to sit in the front row, you can pretend you're driving. Which is pretty sweet.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fare hikes proposed for OC Transpo

The city's transit commission has suggested a series of fare hikes for OC Transpo fares to get the city closer to the 50/50 funding split between revenue and property taxes. The hikes are typically around the 2.5-4 per cent range, which is much better than the 7.5 per cent range of the past couple of years and much closer to the inflation rate.

Metro Ottawa has the full breakdown of fare and pass hikes. The most significant is a four per cent hike to bus tickets, up from $1.25 per ticket to $1.30 each. Doesn't sound like much, but considering an adult regular fare return trip is four tickets, you're talking about a $0.40 hike.

Beyond just this hike to ticket prices, though, the history of ticket price increases has been massive in recent years. In June 2009, bus tickets were $1 each, and in the 20 months since then they've gone up 30 per cent. That's a pretty massive jump for what was once a pretty affordable option for occassional transit users.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rebranding OC Transpo

Recent history has been hard on the OC Transpo brand, and it's not going to be easy for the transit utility to shake the negative associations that sometimes can follow the mention of its name. With that in mind, the city issued a Request for Qualifications to the public for consultants with ideas on how to "revitalize" the OC Transpo brand, as reported on 580 CFRA.

The process won't be an easy one, and really, revitalizing the brand starts and ends with improving the service. But even when (if?) service is improved significantly, the negative reputation built up will likely follow OC Transpo for a generation or more. So the question is: How do you counter that?

It's unlikely there will be a change to the name OC Transpo or the 'look and feel' of the brand. Too much investment has already gone into it, and the custom paint jobs on all the buses would be too much to change in the short-term.

The answer might just lie in the incoming LRT 'spine' to the transit system. It's obviously a ways off, but distancing the LRT system from the flawed brand of the OC Transpo bus system might be the best way to move forward with a revitalized transit brand for the city. Once the train--whether it's branded as an O-Train, or the DOTT Line, or the Capital Train, or some colourful name reminiscent of other cities' systems is hardly relevant; getting a new brand to build up with positive momentum would be all that is needed for the process. After that's taken care of, the decision of whether to expanding that brand into the bus system or completely severing the two from one another in terms of their brand can be made.

Monday, February 7, 2011

NDP tables "national transit strategy"

The New Democrat Party of Canada has a long history of making transit-related announcements, a couple recent ones being a couple of bills to protect transit operators, and before that--during the 2008 federal election campaign--a series of funding announcements in major Canadian cities.

Last week, Toronto NDP MP Olivia Chow introduced a National Public Transit Strategy. In a press release, the NDP said Canada was the only OECD member state without one. From the release:
“Canadians deserve fast, reliable, affordable and accessible public transit,” said Chow. “Every year billions of dollars are lost due to traffic congestion while simultaneously transit authorities struggle to meet demands.”

Chow’s legislation outlines a strategy for the federal government to:
  • Provide a permanent investment plan to support public transit
  • Establish federal funding mechanisms for public transit
  • Work together with all levels of government to provide sustainable, predictable, long term and adequate funding
  • Etablish accountability measures to ensure that all governments work together to increase access to public transit.
Hard to imagine how this could be a bad idea for municipalities looking for consistent funding for public transit infrastructure. The release goes on to discuss operating costs, which have never been funded by federal partners, but... hey, if it can help offer "predictable" transit funding, cities will be better able to plan their transit infrastructure development with the knowledge that the funding isn't dependent on how generous the government of the day is feeling.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Delays in implementing SmartCard system

Delays in implementing a SmartCard fare system have made it unlikely that the system will be ready before 2012, according to a report on 580 CFRA. The City had hoped to have Presto available "by 2011", but... apparently, that timeline was too ambitious.

From 580 CFRA:

OC Transpo says there are delays in implementing the new Smart Card system that will allow riders to pay for bus passes and transit fares online.

OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier says the city will use Presto, which is the provincial Smart Card system.

Mercier says the delay is because of new features Ottawa will use with the system.
The cards have been in the works for a few years now, and implementation at the time was budgeted at $12M--no word on whether or not that bottom-line number has changed since 2008, when it was originally brought up. The cards are supposed to store either your monthly pass credit or a cash balance for fares, and will reportedly be implemented on the STO fleet, as well--but I've got no news on that front.

UPDATE: David Reevely picked up on this post over at Greater Ottawa, and it turns out smart cards for OC Transpo have been in the works for more than just a few years. The Ottawa Citizen first reported plans to implement them in 1997, with the timeline at that time being "within five years". Reevely raises a good question: Why can't we figure out how to do this?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Last day to apply for Transit Commission

Just a heads-up to everyone out there who's considering applying for one of the community member positions on the new City of Ottawa Transit Commission: The deadline is today (Friday, Feb. 4, 2011) at 4 p.m.

For more information about the recruitment process, check the city's website. It should be a very competitive process, but if you've got ideas on how to improve OC Transpo service, send your application in.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Collisions, injuries, and deaths involving OC Transpo

As reported in La Presse, OC Transpo has averaged an injury every other day and one death a year over the first decade of the 2000s. From the story:
Des documents obtenus en vertu de la Loi sur l'accès à l'information démontrent qu'entre 2000 et 2009, les autobus de la société de transport en commun de la Ville d'Ottawa ont été impliqués dans 2057 accidents de la route qui ont fait 9 morts et 1868 blessés.
Or, roughly translated (any mistakes being my own):
Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show that between 2000 and 2009, the City of Ottawa's bus transit company was involved in 2,057 road accidents that resulted in nine deaths and left 1,868 injured.
As interim Transit Commission Chair Diane Deans said in the article, even one accident is too many, but they seem an inevitability given the number of hours logged driving across our city. The article goes on to say that in certain years, Ottawa had more accidents than even Montreal's transit system, despite a smaller fleet.

I will note, however, that considering how many cars and drivers are taken off the road on a transit system, the number of lives saved as a result of increasing public transit use would have to massively outweigh the number of accidents it costs; the American Public Transportation Association estimates that riding transit is 170 times safer than driving a personal automobile.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

OC Transpo system just isn't working

On Monday morning, the Ottawa Citizen published a massive exposé on the lacking reliability of OC Transpo, and its failure to adequately measure on-time performance. Glen McGregor, author of the article, found that less than half of our city's buses actually run on time; check out the entire article for all the information.

In a fairly candid interview with OpenFile Ottawa, McGregor spoke about the article he wrote for the Citizen, and gave some revealing insight into the challenge facing OC Transpo, and particularly Vincent Patterson, manager of performance and quality management.
The complexity of keeping so many buses on schedule, against such wildly varying potential delays, is astounding. I think it's to OC Transpo's credit they are trying to measure performance using GPS, even though the numbers may not be flattering.
It's like a juggling act, except there are literally hundreds of balls, and each of those balls needs to be guided by literally hundreds of operators. If a bus ends one run late, it will likely start the next run late, too.

The OC Transpo system isn't technically BRT, but it's close. But in BRT systems and in our pseudo-BRT system, there is a point past which the system can't be pushed. That's why transit systems eventually have to go to more advanced systems, including streetcars and light-rail transit: Higher capacity, increased reliability, and less of a "juggling act" getting things to run on time.

For some reason, fault gets heaved on the shoulders of the OC Transpo operators, and scheduling and overtime have become hot topics people continue to turn to when trying to explain the problems. But they're not; the simple fact is that OC Transpo's bus system, as it's currently structured, can't continue to operate reliably. If we put more stress on our drivers--by, say, increasing the potential shift spread to 12.5 hours--we're not only giving the people who run our system the short end of the stick, but we're just delaying the inevitable. At some point, we won't be able to continue offloading the problems onto the operators, and we'll have to actually address them meaningfully.

The problem isn't that we need a LRT-based system today. The problem is that we needed a LRT-based system years ago, but thanks to some pretty good planners and some committed bus operators and mechanics, we've been able to patch together our almost-BRT system to make it work at a "good enough" level for our purposes. But as we continue to stretch it more and more, it's becoming clearly evident that it can't continue to be stretched; there's a set limit to which BRT can be pushed, and OC Transpo seems, by many indications, to be past that.

For years, people have been talking about this system having hit its breaking point. The numbers are only going to get worse while we wait for LRT to be fully implemented, unless the system gets so bad that people stop using it altogether.