Thursday, March 31, 2011

OC Transpo runs $4.6M deficit in 2010

Buried in an article on 580 CFRA about the city running a $16M surplus last year was the revelation that OC Transpo had to pull from its capital reserves to make up for a $4.6M budget deficit in 2010.

I'm sure we'll hear more about it in the coming days, notably explanations for the shortfall. In August, the utility predicted a $4.7M revenue shortfall, so I guess that's a plus.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Selling public transit as a real alternative

The Globe and Mail has been running a great series on traffic and transit in Canadian cities over the last few days, and it's offered some pretty good content to look at for folks interested. On Monday, there was a very cool slideshow-type feature that discussed the "psychological gridlock" that seems to be preventing so many Canadians from really buying in to public and alternative transit as realistic ways to get themselves around the city.

The slideshow dealt with some of the 'best practices' that transit systems in Canada would be well-served to duplicate:
  • Bringing in a no-nonsense, no-apologies transit guru like New York City's Janette Sadik-Khan; she's not without controversy, but Sadik-Khan gets things done.
  • A transit 'smart card' that goes above and beyond, like Hong Kong's 'Octopus Card', which not only simplifies paying for public transit, but simplifies paying for a huge number of city services.
  • Get subways in place, like Madrid, Spain has done; a good choice for funding, when done right, are public-private partnerships, which were how much of the Madrid system was built.
  • Congestion pricing on highways, but carefully: If you're going to force people into public transit, make sure you improve public transit capacity to ensure you can handle the surge in ridership. That's what Stockholm, Sweden did--to great results--in 2006.
  • Spreading demand for transit to times outside peak periods, to increase your capacity without needing to increase the actual fleet size.
Ottawa could use a lot of this. The so-called "O-Card" smart card is in progress-and has been for more than a decade, but remains far off. The subway Ottawa's getting is a start, but is still a long way off, and is a pretty small first step. Congestion pricing on Ottawa highways might cause a massive riot among suburban commuters, but since OC Transpo wouldn't be able to accommodate the increase, it's hard to blame them. And OC Transpo actually used to have 'peak fares' and other fares, but changed that arrangement, likely because it was too complicated (with a smart card, it would be much simpler to have in place).

The story ended with an interesting point:
When Canadians are travelling, their openness to alternative modes of transportation seems to blossom, while back home many cities remain psychologically gridlocked when it comes to how to improve our daily commute. Change also requires the kind of permanent funding that big-city mayors and others believe should be part of a federal urban strategy – and on the table for discussion in the national election campaign.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ignatieff promises national transit strategy

We're still very early in the 2011 federal election campaign, but already Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has stated his commitment to establishing a national public transit strategy for Canadian cities. As quoted on CBC's Inside Politics blog:
Ignatieff: I think it's crucial to have a national strategy on this, if you go to the lower mainland, Vancouver they need dedicated transit money, you go to Calgary, Winnipeg, you go to Toronto and especially Montreal. We have to sit down. I got a $56 billion deficit I gotta bail you out of. But the key thing here is to give people choices. The thing that bothers me most about the way we live is people are locked! They gotta be in their cars and we gotta renew public transport. We've got to have a plan. Ottawa can't tell Montreal how to do this stuff but...

Norris: Are you prepared to commit to a dedicated, recurring, reliable source of federal money for public transit?

Ignatieff: I'm prepared to commit to federal investment in public transit. You'll see it in the next platform.
It's really the first I've heard of public transit so far in the very young campaign. We can probably assume the NDPs will outline a national transit strategy because, well, they're always talking about transit funding and just last month they tabled one, and the Greens would likely have something in their platform, as well. The Conservatives didn't include any notable public transit promises in their recent (failed) budget, but time will tell if it forms part of their platform for the 2011 campaign.

We'll see which party ends up as the top choice for transit funding, but Ignatieff got a head start.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why OC Transpo optimization isn't just good--it's overdue

I'm sure just about everyone has heard, but this past week OC Transpo released a list of 100 bus routes which are going to be changed in some way under the "optimization project" they've undertaken to make service more efficient. If you haven't heard yet, check the OC Transpo website to see if your route is affected or to get a look at what the changes are going to look like.

The changes are sweeping and fairly expansive. Although OC Transpo says 90 per cent of riders won't be affected by the changes, that ten per cent could be affected fairly significantly, from longer walks to bus stops, limited hours of service, or more frequent transfers. It's not going to be a painless exercise, and I do think we will see at least some changes to the plans. But in theory, optimizing the service might end up being the best thing OC Transpo has done in years.

Frequent riders of OC Transpo know that there are problems with the system right now. Once in a while, the route you're waiting for is ridiculously late; sometimes it just doesn't show up. OC Transpo always seems to be hiring, and despite that, costs associated with overtime are ridiculous--and at their highest this year. Every year, fare increases far outpace the inflation rate, and despite those increases, revenue shortfalls at OC Transpo still force the city to pay more than budgeted (last year, it was a $4.7M revenue shortfall). In my view, the signs all point to one thing: OC Transpo is operating beyond its means. The service is trying to do too much, and hasn't critically examined the system map and made the necessary changes to clean up the spaghetti-like map of routes.

Take, for instance, a look at the image below, from a presentation by city staff via the Ottawa Citizen (click to enlarge):

The image at left is the current, pre-optimization structure of routes. It's a ridiculously complex map of meandering express routes (red) which, for the most part, follow streets that are already served by faster cross-town routes (black). The right image is the optimized map, with express routes bumped off community roads, and black routes moderately re-routed to find a best fit, cutting down on redundancies. This is a fairly small glimpse at a very large change, but serves as at least an example of what the city and OC Transpo are trying to do with the optimization project.

Are all the proposed route cuts appropriate? I doubt it. I do know that plenty of people are upset with routes they use frequently being changed, and I understand that. But I also understand that the system isn't working right now, and something does need to be done to fix it. This optimization project is a step in the right direction.

For those of you with input on the optimization, whether positive or negative, the city is holding a series of public consultations on the following dates at the following venues:

Tuesday, March 29th
5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Presentation will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Ottawa City Hall, Jean Pigott Place, 110 Laurier Avenue West

Wednesday, March 30th
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Presentation will begin at 8 p.m.
Kanata Recreation Complex, Hall B, 100 Walter Baker Place

Thursday, March 31th
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Presentation will begin at 8 p.m.
Nepean Sportsplex, Halls C and D, 1701 Woodroffe Avenue

Monday, April 4th
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Presentation will begin at 8 p.m.
Jim Durrell Recreation Complex, Ellwood Hall, 1265 Walkey Road

Tuesday, April 5th
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Presentation will begin at 8 p.m.
Shenkman Arts Centre, Music Rehearsal Hall, 245 Centrum Blvd.

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?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Public members of Transit Commission appointed

On Wednesday afternoon, the City of Ottawa Transit Commission appointed the four public citizens set to join eight councillors to form the full committee. The public members, along with biographies from the city's press release and links to profiles from around the web, are:
Blair Crew: Long-time resident of River Ward, Mr. Crew holds a bachelor degree in Environment and Resource Management, and a Bachelor and Master of Laws (LL.B and LL.M). He is currently employed by the University of Ottawa Community Legal Clinic where he delivers front-line legal services to economically disadvantaged citizens of the City. Mr. Crew has one daughter, enjoys Canadian history and is an avid outdoor education enthusiast.

Justin Ferrabee: Mr. Ferrabee has deep community ties through his professional and volunteer activities. He is a board member of the Strategic Planning Forum, a not-for-profit strategic planning association, a fundraiser for the United Way, and a founding member of the Carleton University Charity Ball fundraising committee. Mr. Ferrabee is currently the President of Totem Hill Management Consulting where he specializes in corporate transformation and change management for both public and private sector organizations. Mr. Ferrabee is a resident of West Carleton March Ward, he holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in Business Administration. Mr. Ferrabee has travelled extensively and brings with him considerable knowledge of some of the best transit systems in the world.

Emily Rahn: Ms. Rahn is a resident of Ottawa’s Capital Ward. She is a volunteer in a wide range of community-based groups from coaching a Glebe Little League Baseball team and Women’s Ringette team to volunteering for the Easter Seals Regatta which allows disabled children to go out for a day of sailing on the Ottawa River. Ms. Rahn is fluently bilingual and holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws with a specialty in civil litigation. Ms. Rahn currently works for the Ottawa-based law firm Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall.

Cyrus Reporter: Mr. Reporter is a community leader and resident of Somerset Ward. He has extensive experience in government and complex public policy issues. Mr. Reporter places great importance on his volunteer work with the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, the Ottawa Community Immigration Services Organization, the National Arts Centre’s Gala Sponsorship Committee, and as a past member of the Board of Governors for Carleton University. As the national lead of the Public Policy Practice Group for the Ottawa Law firm Fraser Milner Casgrain, Mr. Reporter has demonstrated his ability to solve complex problems and contribute to the creative development of public policy. Mr. Reporter is a first generation Canadian with a strong ethic towards the betterment of the community.
Crew, Ferrabee, Rahn, and Reporter join councillors Daine Deans (chair), Keith Egli (vice chair), Stephen Blais, Rainer Bloess, Steve Desroches, Shad Qadri, Tim Tierney, and Marianne Wilkinson to form the full 12-person committee.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The predictable relationship between oil prices and transit ridership

In 2008, the cost of oil and gasoline hit record highs. And with them, public transit ridership also hit all-time peaks. It was in headlines across North America for months, as records continued to be broken for ridership. Then, when oil prices came back to earth, driving went back up and transit ridership back down.

Now, with unrest throughout much of north Africa and the middle east, the cost of oil is going up once again. And once again, people are looking at public transit as a way to avoid paying the higher prices for gasoline. From CBS News:
In Pasadena, Calif., Jackie Gilberto rides the rails to her job in downtown Los Angeles.

So why did she ditch her car?

"About three months ago in November when I realized I was spending about $400 a month in gas," Gilberto said.

The train costs Gilberto $62 per month, and she now has plenty of company. Rail ridership in Los Angeles is up 8 percent versus last year -- from 273,756 in January 2010 to 298,180 last January, according to the local transit authority.

The city says these numbers are because of gas prices. Trouble in the Middle East caused pump prices to climb for the 21st straight day Tuesday, adding nearly a penny at the end of the day for $3.517 per gallon.
Environmentally speaking, it's a good thing: If the price of oil gets so high that it begins to reflect the environmental cost associated with burning it off, it will push people to alternative (and greener) transportation options, like walking, cycling, and--of course--public transit.

In Ottawa, the transit system is already pretty darn close to its capacity. Building light-rail is going to increase capacity, but it's still a long way off; if oil prices continue to rise and demand for public transit follows suit, how will OC Transpo respond?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OC Transpo making express service even faster

With its spring service changes this year, OC Transpo is working to make express and rural express (the commuter-targeted direct-to-downtown transit option) faster than ever. The changes will limit the number of stops these routes make during the morning rush hour, with most routes offering only drop-offs when travelling between the community they start from and downtown.

Express service is also due for improvements when the city's $82M double-decker bus purchase goes through. The double-decker buses have been earmarked for express service, offering a more comfortable ride for users.

What does all this mean for urban riders within the Greenbelt? Not very much. Express buses, with relatively low cost-recovery due to the necessity of dead-heading, aren't too popular with urban residents as it is. And with these changes, it's probable that even more buses will drive right past people in the core waiting at the bus stop (although many express routes are full at that point, so many would be driving past that way even under the current service model).

As an express bus rider, though? This is good for me personally.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cooler heads need to prevail in OC Transpo contract negotiations

Through the 2008-09 winter transit strike and ever since, citizens in Ottawa have been witness to the back-and-forth between OC Transpo and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 279, which represents OC Transpo operators and mechanics, about (along with other issues) scheduling. OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier has a number of ideas which, by his numbers, would increase efficiency and improve service for Ottawa transit system; the ATU, led by current vice-president Mike Aldrich, thinks most of the changes will do the opposite, and also says they'll further poison the work environment at OC Transpo. For most citizens, it's a debate short on provable facts and high on rhetoric, which makes it all the more frustrating for most.

Last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Randall Denley waded into the debate, offering a column that indicated support for Mercier and management as the decision-makers. From his column:

Mayor Jim Watson said Monday he wanted to get the facts on the table as the city heads into contract negotiations so that “urban myths” weren’t allowed to persist. Good idea.

The problem with running an organization like OC Transpo is that every employee and bus rider fancies himself an expert because he knows something about some element of this complex service.

What is little appreciated is that the current Transpo management has brought rationality and a numbers-driven approach to running a bus company that used to be an amateur operation. Mercier won’t win any popularity contests, but most of what he does is soundly supported by numbers and analysis.

Unfortunately, numbers and analysis are never as compelling for an individual as his direct experience, however limited that might be.
Denley also spoke about a few other issues currently being debated between two sides. But through it all, Denley made one especially prescient point: No matter whether the ATU is in the right or the wrong, their attempts to gain publicity for the issues have for the most part backfired. The public hasn't been sympathetic to the concerns of drivers, and for the most part the perception--whether rightly or wrongly--is that operators are compensated well for their work, and if they are unhappy with what they get, there are many others prepared to step in and accept it (that was also the tone Denley ended his column on, as well: "OC Transpo who really think the job is terrible should quit and give the opportunity to someone who wants it."). That's a dangerous stance to take with any group of workers (imagine the experience that would be lost), but it seems a fairly common sentiment. The union lost the battle for public opinion in the last round of negotiations; they would do well to heed lessons learned and keep their tactics to the bargaining table, especially with a mayor who seems more willing to play fair this time around.

It does seem that the union realizes there are things they can do to improve their reputation among the public. On the OC Transpo LiveJournal, a hub dominated largely by operators, user mayorzero published an entry called "Stop The Whining", asking his fellow members to stop complaining to the media about their working conditions, pointing specifically to this letter published in the Citizen from a 30-year veteran of OC Transpo. Mayorzero speaks to Denley's column:

While most of Denley's column is complete and utter crap (as usual), he does make a number of good points too, and the union and membership should take note.


So please stop whining on Facebook, blogs, letters to the editor,
(especially) CFRA etc, etc. Every time somebody whines on behalf of the membership, the public and the majority of the media just bury our asses further and further.

All we should be hearing from the union right now is exactly what we are hearing from Jim Watson: "We will not be negotiating in public, we will bring the issues before our membership and will provide information at the appropriate time."

It would seem that new ATU president Garry Queale is handling things the right way: Say the right things about wanting to avoid a transit strike, issuing complaints through the appropriate agencies (like the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which was sent a complaint a few weeks ago) instead of through the media, and--basically--taking the high road in the negotiations. The city and OC Transpo has done a good job this time around keeping their tone civil.

But one thing that absolutely must change, if we're seriously going to see an improvement in relations? Regular citizens of Ottawa, the people who take the bus or even those who only pay taxes, need to show a little bit of respect and respectability here. ATU members are fighting to get a bit more money from you, yes, but they're also human beings, with families and lives. So treat them with the respect they deserve.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Are bike lanes really this divisive?

Last month, the City of Ottawa approved a two-year pilot project in which a segregated bike lane will be installed on Laurier Avenue--but it wasn't without controversy. Cyclists, for a time, were opposed to Laurier, and non-cyclists (at least some of them) were opposed to a bike lane in general, wherever it would go.

But that's nothing compared to what's happening in New York City. That city recently opened a demarcated cycling lane along Prospect Park West, running 19 blocks in total. Opponents of the lane have gone as far as to sue the city, demanding the bike lane be removed. From the New York Times:
The lawsuit, filed by a group with close ties to Iris Weinshall, the city’s transportation commissioner from 2000 to 2007 and the wife of Senator Charles E. Schumer, accuses the Transportation Department of misleading residents about the benefits of the lane, cherry-picking statistics on safety improvements and collaborating with bicycle activists to quash community opposition.
The story actually made the front page of the Times today. And it's not even the first time New York has been sued over bike lanes: It happened in the 1980s, as well.

But the Guardian's "Bike Blog" thinks that this lawsuit is about more than just one bike lane in one city, but could affect cycling infrastructure projects worldwide:
Connect the dots, and this becomes a much more significant story than the future of one bike lane in Brooklyn, or even the career of one official. New York City justly sees itself as the world's greatest city: here, in some sense, people live the way everyone would live if they had the chance. How New York – the city that still has a uniquely low level of car ownership and use – manages its transport planning in the 21st century matters for the whole world: it is the template. If cycling is pushed back into the margins of that future, rather than promoted, along with efficient mass public transit and safe, pleasant pedestrianism, as a key part of that future, the consequences will be grave and grim.
Personally, I don't see why bike lanes are so divisive. We devote so much space and resources to automobile infrastructure; what's the harm in a little bit of love for the cyclists out there?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taking OC Transpo for a ride

Amazing story from Tuesday night where someone hijacked an OC Transpo bus and took it for a ride around Ottawa's east end before abandoning it. From the Ottawa Citizen:
Ottawa Police Sgt. Sal Barakat said police responded to a call for a stolen bus near Ogilvie Road and St. Laurent Boulevard at about 11:30 p.m. The bus was empty when it was taken, he said.

A short time later, Barakat said, the bus was found abandoned on the side of a road close to where it was stolen.
It would be hilarious, if it wasn't so dangerous. I'm glad I wasn't on the road when this guy was driving around.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why sell station names when you can sell the stations themselves?

Last week, the Ottawa Business Journal published a very interesting article on ways to increase revenue from transit stations in the city. On this site, we've talked about options like energy generation at transit stations or selling station-naming rights to generate revenue; OBJ takes it one step further and looks at the possibility of selling transit stations themselves to developers.

From the OBJ article:
“I’d sell the stations,” [Lawrence Solomon,] writer and founder of Energy Probe, an environmental agency, said in a recent interview.

“I’d put them up for auction and allow retailers to bid on them … Mall developers would be very interested (and) would figure out the best way to get people in and facilitate passenger (movement).”


Mr. Solomon suggests transit operators look to modern airports for inspiration, where shopping areas and concourses are oriented to be part of a passenger’s experience, and generate large amounts of revenue for terminal operators.
An interesting idea indeed.

Obviously, the functionality of the space needs to be retained; transit stations need to be first and foremost designed to allow people to easily transfer to and from buses so they can get where they're going. But if opening up transit stations to retail developers can improve the experience of the transit user, then I think it could be a win-win.

The article above mentioned Hurdman Station as a particularly drab place to transfer buses; it's also a station I go through most days, and one I considered when thinking about this idea. My imagination brought out a vision of a similarly wide-open ground floor, to offer some shelter and also allow people to move back and forth between platforms. But I'd picture a cafe or coffee house along with a slightly larger convenience store, and heck, maybe even a second story with a place to get some grub.

Maybe through it all, transit stations could be made destinations themselves, rather than simply transfer points.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bike-share to make its return to Ottawa

It's been a bumpy ride, but after a one-year hiatus, the Bixi bike-rental service is going to return to Ottawa this summer. From the Ottawa Citizen:
The NCC, Ottawa and Gatineau, ran a successful pilot project in 2009 and had planned to launch a full-blown system of 500 bikes at rental stations spread throughout the Ottawa-Gatineau downtown core. The project is designed to provide an alternative mode of transportation downtown and enhance the green credentials of the capital. The scaled-down program will cost the NCC $660,000 and start with 100 bikes — 10 at each station. But Lemay said the goal remains 500 bikes, and the numbers will be increased as Ottawa and Gatineau come aboard.
After that fairly successful 2009 pilot program, the hope was that a company would step forward and manage the system for summer of 2010, but none did. The program was put on hiatus, but it appears the NCC is going to move forward with it now, even without the cooperation of either municipal governments in Ottawa or Gatineau--which the NCC was looking for--or an outside company to manage it.

Good for the NCC. In 2009 most reviews were positive, but it may still take a few years for the service to really gain sustainable traction in the city; if the NCC can help it get to that critical mass, a company should have no problem taking over and managing the system. Montreal has shown it can work, if supported sufficiently.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Everyone's talking about another OC Transpo strike

It seems like everyone's pretty pessimistic about the possibility of avoiding a transit strike during this year's negotiations between OC Transpo and the City of Ottawa. Considering the virulent back-and-forth between both sides through the last one, people can probably be forgiven for their cynicism.

Although the possibility of a strike has been in everyone's mind for quite a few weeks, it really took off when former mayor Larry O'Brien penned a guest column for the Ottawa Citizen suggesting that we're headed down the same road as we were last time. David Reevely pointed out a few falsehoods in O'Brien's op/ed on the Greater Ottawa blog, but even if the factors O'Brien pointed to are flawed, the fact that some of the same issues which caused the last transit strike remain unsolved is undeniable.

On the plus side, no one wants a transit strike. Or at least both sides say they want to avoid one. From the city's perspective, a strike would be disastrous, and would likely be something saddled on mayor Jim Watson--whether it's fair or not--after he promised to work on repairing strained relations with OC Transpo. Unions never really want to go on strike, but it is one of few options available to them in negotiation; still, with the last strike so fresh in their minds, you've got to think the ATU 279 are especially dreading the possibility--their new president, Garry Queale, said in one of his first interviews that he's not in favour of a strike (although his predecessor, Mike Aldrich, said the same thing weeks before walking away from negotiations).

If you think Toronto's recent advances towards an essential service designation for the TTC might pave the way for a similar one in Ottawa, don't count on it. Neither the city nor the union are in favour of the designation, and also anything in Ottawa would have to go through the federal government (which in the past had no interest) rather than the provincial.

So the negotiators from the city and the union will have to figure it out themselves. Well, once they get back to negotiating...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What would an out-of-towner premium mean for OC Transpo?

Cumberland councillor Stephen Blais, a member of the City of Ottawa's Transit Commission, recently put forward an idea to have commuters from outside the City of Ottawa who use OC Transpo pay a premium for the service. The premium, according to CTV Ottawa, would help cover the true cost of the service, and at least partially recover what "out-of-towners" don't pay to the service in property taxes.

While the idea is still very much in its infancy, it's one that, at least on the surface, seems rational. Since only about half of OC Transpo's operating costs are funded by fares (the other half coming from the tax base), a rider from Kemptville is paying about half as much as one from inside the city line.

By that rationale, though, tourists are also paying far less than the 'true cost' of OC Transpo rides they might be taking, and we're not about to start asking them to top-up their fares. It's always going to be a tricky line to walk when certain people pay for (part of) a service aren't the only ones who might use it.

One possible benefit of the move, according to CTV, would be unclogging the Park'N'Ride lots through the city. Which might be true, but even if it does, that just means more cars driving into the city, and fewer people taking the bus; is that really a positive outcome, overall?

As said above, it's still all hypothetical, and in the investigative stage; it won't even be considered until next year's budget. Who knows, perhaps staff will come up with an arrangement that brings in some extra income to offset the discrepancy, but still doesn't overly inconvenience out-of-town riders; that would be the ideal situation, realistically. But it will be interesting to see if the idea gets much political traction.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pros and cons of Ottawa's $82M double-decker bus purchase

The City of Ottawa's (interim) Transit Commission has recently approved a purchase of 75 double-decker buses for $81.8M to build up the OC Transpo fleet. Sounds like a lot of money, especially since it's been less than a year since the city spent $155M to get 226 new articulated buses. But, as is usually the case, there are pros and cons to the purchase.

This may not be an exhaustive list (I encourage people to add what I've overlooked in the comments), but here's a quick look at some of them:

  • Higher seating capacity. Although the expected capacity for a double-decker is supposed to be around the same number as an articulated, there are more seats--which means more comfort for passengers.
  • Lower road-space per person. Double-deckers are the same length as a 40-foot bus, but have the same capacity as an articulated. Anyone who's ridden through the Transitway at peak periods knows this more compactness can be valuable.
  • Lower costs. The new buses will replace 158 older 40-foot buses in the fleet, meaning lower maintenance costs; net savings are estimated at $20.4M.
  • Simpler identification. Typically, if you're waiting for an express bus, you can watch for a double-decker. If you're looking for a Transitway route, look for an articulated. Seems minor, but as dozens of buses are driving by you at Bank and Albert or something, it can be a serious relief.
  • Less flexibility. The double-deckers are earmarked for express routes, but there are a certain few spots where they can't run. This reduces the flexibility of moving them around as needed, and will require more planning.
  • No garage space. Although part of the $81.8M price tag is $24M for new washing facilities, the new $97M bus garage on Industrial Avenue is not designed with double-deckers in mind.
  • Accessibility. There are some concerns about accessibility for riders in wheelchairs, as outlined by CBC. They will likely be addressed, but are initially an issue.
  • Loading time. Because riders can't (or aren't supposed to) be standing in the stairs or on the upper deck while the bus is moving, loading and unloading time is a concern. (This is less of a concern on express routes, where stops are less frequent.)
While I'm not sure the fleet--already a very modern one--necessarily needed these upgrades just yet, the addition of double deckers could very well prove a positive move for OC Transpo.