Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ottawa Transit Commission results from a series of baffling decisions

Shortly after the announcement of the four public representatives for Ottawa's new Transit Commission were three lawyers and a management accountant with nothing in the way of actual transit experience, there was a fairly unanimous response: These are our public representatives? Comments on this site and newspapers (like the Ottawa Citizen) wondered what unique experience the four would offer a Transit Commission, and David Reevely may have put it best on Greater Ottawa:
I don't remember anybody ever saying that Ottawa's transit system needs more lawyers. I thought the point was to add some transit experts, some people with business experience, maybe a regular person or two. We got three lawyers with no transportation-industry knowledge to speak of, and a general-purpose management consultant.
Reevely went on to say that these four individuals could very well prove to be beneficial to the Commission, and that's certainly the case, but they're still not very representative of the Ottawa public, and especially not representative of the transit-using portion of that population.

But the choice of these four individuals as public representatives is not the first bizarre choice Ottawa has made with the Transit Commission. In fact, since the Commission was established, I have been routinely baffled by the decisions made surrounding it.

The idea of a transit commission seemed to come out of nowhere in the last election, but it was actually one of the most pressing recommendations of the Mayor's Task Force on Transportation when they issued their Moving Ottawa report back in June 2007. That report, however, suggested an "arm's-length operating entity" to separate it from the City's bureaucracy.

The Commission Ottawa established, though, was not arm's length. It was formed with eight councillors and remains fully entrenched in the City's bureaucracy. Realistically, with the exception of the four public members, it was different from the previous transit committee in name only. But it was approved (although not universally) during Council's first meeting.

With the Commission approved, the next question was which councillors would be appointed to it. How representative of the city, notably the core where transit dependency is most pronounced, would the eight councillor members be? Turns out, not very: None of the eight councillors were from urban ridings, including suburban and rural councillors. They could certainly be solid contributors to the Commission (and have been working hard on it, no doubt), but the fact remains that few of their constituents are transit-dependent.

Then, this "interim" Transit Commission went on to make all the difficult decisions of the year, accepting the drastic service changes that come with the OC Transpo "optimisation", which included an $82M double-decker bus purchase (Correction: As pointed out by Joanne Chianello [thank you Joanne] in the comments, the double-decker purchase is not yet finalized; it is pending a business presentation likely within the next month. -P.R.). If the public members of the Commission are equal to the councillor representatives, should they not have had some say or input into this decision process?

Finally, we were left with the appointments of the public members. It seemed very strange that after full council failed to name the public members on time, they delegated that decision to the "interim" Transit Commission, meaning the councillors would choose the public representatives that would be joining them. What message is that supposed to send?

These decisions all boggled my mind, and they make me wonder: With its current structure, is there any way the city's Transit Commission can possibly succeed?


Ben Myers said...

It's important to ask these questions, Peter.

I think the only criteria for the public reps (aside: aren't councillors supposed to represent the public?) should have been "Rides the bus on a regular basis".

It's not meant as a slight, but these sound like well-paid people. I would rather have a grocery-bagger or student on the commission than a lawyer - people who understand what it's like to spend 40 minutes on a crowded bus, or know what it's like to be inexplicably abandoned for 5 minutes while a driver gets coffee.

Anonymous said...

Bus drivers don't get breaks or lunches. Some go all day without a suitable break. Sometimes nature calls in the middle of a route. Should a driver have to stand up and announce to the whole bus "I have diarrhea, I'll be back in 3-6 minutes, if that's ok?" Bus drivers in all cities around the world jump out for a couple of minutes from time to time, get over it.

Joanne Chianello said...

I just wanted to point out that the double-decker bus purchase is not a done deal. There will be a detailed business plan presented to the commission and then council, likely next month.

I'm fairly sure there will be some rigourous debate around the issue -- a few councillors are quite against them.

RealGrouchy said...

The only good thing about the selection (their abilities pending) is that three of them are from downtown/central area. That helps to balance out the mostly suburban representation of councillors on Transit Commission.

Of course, living downtown is just a demographic, and not a predictor of how well they'll perform (on behalf of downtown residents or in general).

- RG>

Anonymous said...

That was the only positive/potential reasoning I could find in the selection as well.
However, there is still a significant imbalance between urban vs. suburban/rural Ottawa on that Commission and (referencing Ben's point) how helpful is this increased urban representation if the public members don't use the transit system?
I'm actually completely baffled. I can't see how this Commission can possibly make any informed decisions about transit and, like Peter, I don't have much hope for its success.

gawp said...

How many of these people actually ride the bus on a regular basis?

Long ago my Dad said that the meetings should take place at random places and times in the city and all representatives should get there by bus.

I still think that's a good idea.