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.


david said...

I have a different concern about the stations: since Tunney's is the western terminus (for now), why doesn't it have a centre platform? It's ridiculous to have to run up and down stairs for different trains heading the same direction.

I did send that comment to the city during the official comment period, and did not hear back.

Otherwise, I'm excited about this project. We're too big a city not to have a subway (even if it's not called a "subway"), and the Transitway is pretty dysfunctional downtown now during evening rush hour, where the fastest way through the core is sometimes to get off around Kent, walk past all the backed-up buses, and get on one near the front by the Rideau Centre.

Anonymous said...

@Dave: They actually state the reason in the info available. Normally terminus stations have centre platforms, but Tunney's is designed to be extended from at some point in the future.

Anonymous said...

The solution at Tunney's is to extend one leg of track past the end of the platform on the south side (opposite the bus ramp) allowing trains to enter the station on one side, unload and continue through the station. They then switch directions and re enter the station in the other direction on the other platform, so all trains depart from the same platform.

Assuming driver turnaround times are reasonable (and this process could be automated to ensure they are) this process would actually be faster than the usual process of trains alternating into the two sides of the platform and then waiting for the next train to clear the crossover before leaving.

david said...
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david said...

(Toned down a bit from the one I deleted — my cold is making me a bit grumpy.)

@anonymous wrote "They actually state the reason in the info available. Normally terminus stations have centre platforms, but Tunney's is designed to be extended from at some point in the future."

Thanks for adding that. It's not very convincing, unfortunately — what would be the harm in Tunney's continuing to have a centre platform when it was no longer a terminus? Many non-terminal stations on the Toronto subway, the London Underground, etc. have centre platforms.

I'm willing to be convinced, but I wish they'd give us a more-believable explanation, e.g. they'd have to widen the station and the rock cut that it's in is too unstable, or something like that.

Peter Raaymakers said...

@David: I share your concern the side platforms as opposed to centre ones (it came up recently on West Side Action, and it's also something I was going to mention in a future post). Since it looks like there are doors on both sides of the trains, there's no good reason I can think of for centre platforms at ALL stations, whether they're termini or not.

With buses, you can understand why side platforms are easier: They prevent the vehicles from having to cross paths. But with a train that has doors on both sides, there'd be no need to cross paths, so I don't really see any reason why side platforms would be attractive.

Thanks for the comments!

david said...

Thanks, Peter. Let's both hope that the real explanation doesn't end up being just some architect's ego, an unwillingness wanting to sacrifice his/her "artistic vision" for something as tawdry as convenience and usability. :-)

I'll look forward to reading more.

SheerCraziness said...

Great article Peter! Came over after reading your link from S7S.

I firmly believe that anyone that believes that buses can answer all our transit needs has never travelled more than 100 km. Any big city in the world has trains. Your point about Mackenzie King is bang-on: more buses won't help speed. You spend 10 minutes just getting through that station during rush hour.

david said...

Agreed with @SheerCraziness about buses vs trains.

I was in Bogotá last month, a very modern, well-maintained city of 7 million people, except that it has only buses (they recently added Transmilenio, the equivalent of our Transitway, with dedicated bus lanes).

Anyone who thinks a growing city like Ottawa can keep getting by on buses alone should be dropped at the Bogotá airport around, say, 4:00 pm (though any time of day from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm will do), handed a GPS and the keys to a rental car, and told to try to get downtown.

Anonymous said...

what I am looking forward to is just having the thing built. What would be more impressive to me is once it is built having a new line run from Hurdman to the Airport and even past the airport to Riverview and maybe Barrhaven eventually. I know that is a pipe dream but with all the growth in the south I am sure people would love easier ways to get around the city without relying on going into downtown. As it is now I have a friend that works in Barrhaven and lives in Riverview. To get to work she drives because otherwise she takes the 99 to Greenboro, transfers to a 97 to Hurdman then takes the 95 from there. That route takes her about 75 minutes or so on average. To drive she is there in 20 or so and that is by going through Manotick until the bridge is built.
I love the idea of the LRT being built but we also need to start planning the next steps after so when the first step is built we can start the next projects. Right now in Toronto they are building the subway extension into Vaughn, and the Crosstown LRT to scarborough and then soon they will be building the Sheppard and Finch west lines. So right now they have all these lines to be built or expanded over the next 20 years or so. We need that here now more then anything

Unknown said...
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stephane Monpremier said...

Great thoughts and thanks for the clarification on a few points I was confused about.