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.


Ben Myers said...

The OC Transpo system as it currently exists is certainly a patchwork. There are some Ottawans who are hesitant to spend the money to overhaul the system - but that's exactly what's needed.

The simple fact is that it makes no sense for so many buses to take the same route through congested downtown Ottawa streets. This is the cause of delays and it needs a long-term solution, not another band-aid.

Anonymous said...

A tunnel is what they needed all along. It's sad how much time and effort went into debating it

WJM said...

And rail is what was needed all along. Four decades and a billion inflation-adjusted dollars have been wasted on busways that anyone with a brain knew weren't going to work in the first place.

Dwight Williams said...

Some would argue from a historically-informed position that we threw away the surface rail component over six decades ago, and fought to prevent a subway for over a century.

Anonymous said...

Poor reliability has more to do with the choice of the service delivery model than the use of buses.
A full hub and spoke system would dramatically improve on-time performance and reduce costs.
The current set up is an inefficient house of cards that falls very easily.