Monday, December 17, 2012

The Confederation Line: Elegant, but not extravagant

Today in the Ottawa Citizen, a local resident published a letter on the city's Confederation Line transit plan. The letter, written by Mr. Roderick Taylor in response to a previous article about praise councillors heaped on train station "starchitect" Richard Brisbin during the penultimate approval vote, contained some good points but, in my opinion, was off the mark.

Since the letter likely contains opinions shared by others, I decided to respond directly to the comments made. I've tried to do so respectfully, and mean no offence to the letter-writer--his opinions differ from mine, but remain valid. Feel free to respond to my responses in the comments below.
Re: LRT station designs wow councillors, Dec. 13.
In their infatuation with station concepts, one is left with the impression that many on city council have forgotten that the most important criterion by far when considering the suitability of a transit project is not the elegance of its stations, but whether the plan itself makes rational sense from a transit planning perspective.
This "most important criterion" is certainly true, and planners who emphasise transit stations at the expense of the plan itself fail to see the forest through the trees. But I don't believe that's the case here; the transit plan was the first step, and has been heavily researched by staff, architects, planners, and others. Only once the plan was in place were the stations designed, and they have been designed very well.

I also think that the opposite of what Taylor is saying is true: Even the most sensible transit plan will be limited in its effectiveness if it's not something people will want to ride. Comfort is a huge factor in building effective public transit, and well-designed stations can transform the area around them, moving from transit hubs to lifestyle hubs. Will that happen in Ottawa? It could, if fostered well through planning decisions and local input. Without good transit stations, though, it almost certainly would not happen.
The foreshortened light-rail line ending at Tunney's and Blair (without, in all likelihood, the prospect of the necessary financing from senior levels of government for line extensions for the foreseeable future) will simply inconvenience legions of transit riders with time-consuming transfers at those points, and at Hurdman, and actually discourage transit ridership. It does not make rational sense.
The uncertainty of funding eastern, western, and southern extensions of the Confederation Line is a real issue, and it does surround the plan with questions. However, massive and long-term city-building projects like this one will always have huge question marks; if cities were to wait for all of those questions to be answered, nothing would ever get done except extremely small projects.

(It's also worth noting that the federal government's budgetary projections have them slated to ink a surplus in 2016-17, the year before this phase of Confederation Line will be finished, and--by extension--in advance of commencement of the rail extensions towards the suburbs. While these projections may seem as reliable as a crystal ball, they're the best we have at the moment. The province is another story, obviously, but the city has five years to lobby their federal and provincial partners to get supportive funding for the transit plan's next stages.)

Transfers are regularly cited as a deterrent, but that's not always the case; transfers are a necessary component of most transit systems, and they can actually make trips faster in certain circumstances. The key to avoid discouraging riders is to make the transfer points comfortable and to make the transfer times short. Comfort was discussed above, and trains in the system can run as frequently as every 1:45; that's pretty frequent. Transit systems that are effective for both user and taxpayer are virtually impossible without transfers, but systems with transfers can be designed to remain responsible to both groups of stakeholders. This system, by all accounts, does that.
LRT stations that may end up rivalling the Taj Mahal in their magnificence do not alter that stark reality.
This obvious hyperbole doesn't help the argument here, but the opinion that these stations are overly ornate may be a common opinion, but it simply isn't the case. Sure, compared to the existing OC Transpo bus stations/hamster cages, they're "magnificent," but compared to stations in other cities (Moscow; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Stockholm; these cities), they're fairly simple: It looks like there is a lot of glass, smooth finishes of metal and ceramic, natural wood, and open spaces. The stations are modern and minimalist, but look like they'll stand the test of time and will also be cost-effective.
There are other, more sensible and cost-effective ways of alleviating downtown bus congestion problems, such as supplementing the existing bus transitway system with a regional/local rail service using existing rail lines, which would be far more convenient and attractive for the travelling public.
Although I agree that leveraging existing rail lines to complement our existing public transit infrastructure is an idea worth investigating, I fail to see how it would alleviate downtown bus congestion--which is the most pressing issue for OC Transpo; the system has hit its capacity downtown, particularly around the Mackenzie King Station, and there is no longer room to run more buses there. Since supplemental rail lines would fail to serve most of the city's major destinations (the downtown business district, the University of Ottawa, Tunney's Pasture, etc.), it would not solve the underlying problems that have motivated the construction of the Confederation Line. The best they could do is transport people to either Bayview Station or Train Station, which would still require use of the Confederation Line itself.
Council and staff should be pursuing these options, not an exorbitantly expensive transit white elephant with dazzling stops en route. 
Roderick Taylor, Ottawa
Obviously, Taylor's point is laid bare in this conclusion: The plan itself is flawed, and not even the most beautiful transit stations would compensate for those flaws. But he says the plan is exorbitantly expensive, which it isn't; it's expensive, but the costs are controlled through a fixed-cost contract, they're in line with other similar projects, and funding has been earmarked from start to finish. He also says it's a white elephant, which it won't be; Ottawa is a resilient transit market (even a 53-day transit strike barely made a dent in ridership), and this line will serve a greater capacity of riders heading to the same destinations at least as quickly as they're being served already (likely more quickly), and in more comfortable surroundings.

There will be dazzling stops en route, granted, but they won't be ostentatious. They'll be cost-effective, and should fit in nicely with the new Ottawa aesthetic, alongside the Art Gallery, the re-designed Museum of Nature, the Ottawa Convention Centre, and the new Lansdowne Park.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Confederation Line: Can it really be happening?

Things actually seem to be moving along quite well for Ottawa's light-rail transit system, now officially christened The Confederation Line.

The Rideau Transit Group was recommended as the project team for the construction of the 12.5 km light-rail line, and yesterday the city released a huge presentation and unveiled the latest station designs. If you haven't seen them yet, you should definitely go look now at They're truly amazing.

From a personal perspective, this marks a milestone moment for me. Leading up to this point, I've tried to hold back my enthusiasm for the project--past experiences with similar projects had likely left many in Ottawa cynical about the prospect of this highly ambitious, $2.1B mega-project actually moving forward. But now, upon seeing these designs, reading up on the project team, and looking at the recommendation in detail, I'm finally going to allow myself to get excited about light-rail in Ottawa.

There are certainly flaws in the project, and I wouldn't dare suggest that everything is perfect. There also remain many unanswered questions about Phase 1 as well as the implementation of future phases. And considering how late in the process the O-Train extension project was cancelled, there's still a possibility (however slight) that this thing could go sideways.

But for now, I'm going to stick with optimism and excitement and see what happens.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to flip through this station design slideshow once again...

Friday, May 11, 2012

LRT Planning

It's been a while since my last post and much has changed about the LRT project in a year.  Since the tunnel was moved north to Queen Street, this massive transit project is becoming less and less of what I would imagine it to be.

By now, we know that staying within the budget seems to be the only reason for moving the tunnel further north and building Rideau station further east.  This is disappointing since city planning is taking a back-seat to political promises.  While still within the core, the downtown tunnel has somewhat moved further away from the denser areas.  The new location for Rideau station will no longer be serving Elgin Street with much higher density than the Sandy Hill neighbourhood.

Rideau station should remain where it was initially planned and the station at O'Connor Street be placed eastwards towards Metcalfe Street.  That way, the same number of stations remain and Elgin Street is better served.  The Mayor is correct to say that an extra station will slow down service, especially when Ottawa's density in the downtown core is no where near close to Toronto's.  Having the stations too close leads to unnecessary stopping when the density isn't there.

Plopping a station here and instead of there isn't easy and requires much more time and money.  If the money is the issue, which it always seems to be, we could delay another project and use those funds for this project.  There is no other future project in Ottawa near the magnitude of this one and this is one of the few that will benefit the entire city.

Money could be saved by not re-constructing Train station and not having it at all.  Instead, bus service to the Tremblay VIA station from Hurdman or St. Laurent stations could be coordinated with VIA schedules. There is supposed to be some new development for Train station once it re-opens as an light-rail station.  But, it isn't guaranteed.  Besides the few apartment buildings, new development around Cyrville and Hurdman stations has been disappointing since the Transitway was built.  Currently, Train station seems to the least-used Transitway station that will be served by light-rail.  With the Transitway, all stops are requested, unlike light-rail, at least in Ottawa's case, trains are required to stop at all stations.  If there were a station that will slow down the system, Train station would be the front-running candidate.  Having trains stop with few people getting on or off doesn't seem very cost-effective.

We could shorten the LRT line to Bayview station or St. Laurent station and use that money for fixing the planned downtown portion.  Of course, some may look at is as "back-tracking" or "scrapping the LRT plan" and no one at City Hall seems to keen on that.  I live in the east-end and use VIA rail on occasion.  So, this isn't a view from someone living in the downtown core, who wants what is best for themselves.

What about the bus routes feeding into the light-rail line?  A story from the Ottawa Citizen says that buses from neighbourhoods in the east will terminate at Rideau Centre on Rideau Street, while buses from areas in the west will end at the mall on Mackenzie King Bridge.  Here is the reason for it:

Keeping bus riders walking through the mall is one of the city’s objectives: “My understanding is there’s discussions with the Rideau Centre, and discussions on maintaining through-flow of people on foot through there,” [Councillor] Fleury said.
The City's goal should be to make transferring easy and quick for passengers, not help business for Rideau Centre.  Rideau Centre has an LRT station and doesn't require assistance in directing people into their mall.  As for transferring, passengers hate it and is one of the reasons why some don't use public transit at all.  If passengers get off a bus on Mackenzie King Bridge and have to walk through the length of the mall to transfer onto the underground LRT, then travel time will be lost, accessibility doesn't sound promising and it will be complicated for those not familiar with the mall.  Also, does this proposed route configuration imply that time-based proof-of-payment transfers will continue to exist?  Otherwise, Rideau Centre will have to be declared as a paid-fare zone, which is completely out of the question.  As well, with frequent fare increases, it's highly likely that the downtown area will be a fare-free zone.

What are your thoughts on the latest developments of this evolving project?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

In the Year 2012: Route extensions and changes on Rideau Street

OC Transpo released their 2012 Business Plan a week ago and in case you missed my previous posts on the plan, you can look at Presto Cards, Billboards for ads and bus arrival displays, and Park and Rides.  Today, we'll look at some ideas in the plan that calls for extending routes 94 and 99.

When the Strandherd-Armstrong bridge opens later this year, OC Transpo plans on extending route 94 to Riverview station and extending route 99 to the RCMP office in Barrhaven. Existing customers of either routes must be cringing.  The problem with route 94 is that it is such a long route and as soon as it operates with car traffic in the suburbs, it is no longer "rapid-transit" anymore.  There are more chances of the route being delayed when the route is far too long.  The route might better if it's broken in two like the old route 2 from Blair to Bayshore.

As for route 99 serving the RCMP offices.  Currently, there are two peak period routes (94, 199) and one regular route (176) serving the RCMP building on Leikin. I'm not sure how many RCMP staff members take transit, but, assuming service levels stay the same, four routes seems a bit much to serve a single company

There are plans to revise OC Transpo service to Gatineau: The OC Transpo bus routes extending into Gatineau will be revised to provide new connections with the STO’s Rapibus service, reducing
operating pressure on Rideau and Wellington Streets in downtown Ottawa.” This seems vague at this point in time. From what I understand, this may imply there will be fewer STO buses operating on Rideau and Wellington, which will be replaced by more OC Transpo service to STO's future Rapibus. For OC Transpo customers on a Rideau or Wellington bus, one would hope this means faster service in the bus lanes.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In the Year 2012: More Park and Rides

For the past few days, I have picked a few tidbits from the 2012 OC Transpo business plan. Today, we will look at the ideas for new Park and Ride locations.

OC Transpo's business plan promises more park and ride spaces in the city. This year, there are plans to expand the existing lots at Trim, Strandherd stations and to build a new lot at Strandherd and Woodroffe, which will be a 3-minute drive from the existing Park and Ride at Strandherd and Greenbank. Once the Strandherd-Armstrong bridge is built, the Strandherd/Greenbank lot will only be a five-minute drive from the Riverview lot. While the short distance between lots is great when one lot fills up, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to have lots so close to each other, especially when there is room to expand at the existing Riverview lot.

In 2013, if everything goes according to schedule, new Park and Ride lots will appear in Chapel Hill in Orleans, which will be part of the Cumberland Transitway linking to Blair station in 2021, Hazeldean Road between Kanata and Stittsville, and one in Kanata North, presumably on the route 93 line. In 2014 or 2015, Millenium Park and Ride will be expanded and a new lot will appear on Cambrian Road.

OC Transpo wants to continue down the path of providing more parking lots for customers because the spaces fill up quickly.  But, most of the spaces are free, so, of course, there will be overcrowded parking lots.   Who doesn't want free stuff?  If OC Transpo wants ideas for revenue, they may want to look at expanding their price system for the Park and Rides.  Why not charge for spots in the morning and leave the weekends free?  Those parking on a weekday morning can enjoy dealing with less crowded lots once people figure it's no longer free.

It's disappointing to be reading plans about proposed Park and Rides when there is no mention about improved local service. Improving local service would be drawing people away from parking their cars and encouraging people to take transit from their home.  It's probably more expensive to run more local buses all year long, but Park and Rides aren't cheap either; The facilities must be maintained and secured.

If there is one thing OC Transpo is quick at doing, it's building Park and Rides.  There will be more of them as long as there is available land and there is plenty of that in Ottawa's suburbs.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In the Year 2012: Billboards and Screens

Yesterday, OC Transpo's new fare system was discussed. Today, we will look at advertising and customer information from OCTranspo's 2012 business plan.

Besides fares and government subsidies, OC Transpo generates a small fraction of its revenue from advertisements. The business plan states 1.5% of revenues, nearly $3 million annually, are from advertisements on buses, shelters and stop benches and the typical percentage for large North American transit authorities is 2%. OC Transpo plans on “using billboards on transit property to meet the needs of transit users and the general public.”

They can start with...anywhere on the Transitway. There are very few ads to be seen at transit stations, which has been puzzling since OC Transpo seems to be strapped for cash quite often and space does exist at most transit stations. Take Mackenzie King Bridge, for example. There are no ads to be seen on one of Ottawa's busiest transit stations. OC Transpo could make some significant revenue if they placed ads on the median fence facing the platform. As a passenger, I wouldn't mind more advertisements if it means not cutting service or better yet, improving service.

Google Street View of Mackenzie King Bridge looking east.

OC Transpo also says it will have less paper-based customer information and more electronic information this year. Besides the mobile website, there will be “next-bus arrival information delivered through fixed displays”, assuming this is real-time GPS information. When Open Data is released to the public by March 22, OC Transpo may not be in as much of a rush to provide the new displays. Still, they would benefit all customers, especially those without a smartphone, and one day, we won't have to look at those MS-DOS screens anymore.

Monday, January 30, 2012

In the Year 2012: Presto Cards

Last Thursday, OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier presented the 2012 Business Plan to the Transit Commission. The 36-page document can be found here. Over the course of this week, we will look at this plan and pick out the highlights. Everything from operating costs to park and rides will be discussed.First, let's take a look at Presto.

As many of you are aware, Presto cards will be launching later this year to replace paper tickets and passes. These cards are transferable between anyone in the same fare group. For example, if you pay student fare, you may give your Presto card to another person who also pays the student fare – of course, you can't be on the bus or O-Train at the same time.

Another benefit with Presto is the different methods of payments you can choose to reload your card: internet, phone, mail, or in person. This should reduce the lengthy line-ups for passes each month. There is also an option to have your pass automatically purchased for the next month, which is adds to the convenience.

OC Transpo wants to simplify the system to two types of fares for students, adults, and seniors: single trip fares (similar to the existing ticket for less frequent travellers) and monthly passes. Since Presto does not use paper transfers, it might be difficult for most people to remember how much time is left on their single-fare.  The plan does not go into the specifics of how the whole fare system will be implemented. However, it might best for OC Transpo to install balance checkers at each Transitway station, on buses, and the O-Train.

Express fares will remain for express routes and the Day Pass, Family Pass, and U-Pass will continue. But, semester passes will be discontinued and the annual passes have stopped since December of last year. There was no mention of children's fare in the report but, it would make sense to have a fare for children, 6-11 years old, as they always have.

More on Presto can be found on OC Transpo's site and on Presto's site.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A look at cancelled trips

As you are probably aware, reports bus trip cancellations, but not all of them are revealed to the public. So, keep in mind, this is only a sample of the full dataset. Since December 21, 2010,, the companion website to OC Transpo Alerts Twitter, has been collecting data on bus cancellations. Below, is the data up to December 22, 2011.

Most common cancelled routes:

The top three most cancelled routes are, not surprisingly, routes 95, 96, and 97, which consist of approximately one third of the cancellations. Route 95 alone comprises nearly a quarter of all cancellations and on average, about six of its trips are cancelled per day. Transitway routes have more cancelled trips than other type of route because they are far more frequent and bunch up more frequently too. Routes 12 and 118 receive their fare share of complaints of being late and at times, much too late to even bother starting its run in the reverse direction.

As expected, there are fewer cancellations on the weekends. Wednesdays and Thursdays seem to have more cancelled trips than any other day of the week last year.

Peak hours experience more cancellations than any other time of the day. After 9 am, the number of cancellations decrease (fewer buses on the road and less traffic), but after 11 am, the cancellations start to increase. The afternoon rush hour period seems to be the worst, especially at 4 pm.

January and February saw over 35 cancellations per day, on average, which is primarily due to heavy snow falls and snowstorms. In September, many routes were modified and customers needed some time to adjust to the new routes. Normally, in September, students return to school and people are returning from holidays. The combination of increased ridership, cut buses, and some confusion and enquiries over the new routes created some reliability problems.

OC Transpo reports about 27 cancellations per day on average, which is a very small fraction of all the runs in the system on a given day. Absent buses are due to bus breakdowns, chronic unreliability of the route, traffic jams, bus collisions, shortages in available buses and drivers, and similar events.