Friday, August 23, 2013

Pimisi name shouldn't be a problem for transit users

Earlier this week, Ottawa's Transit Commission voted to accept a list of recommended station names for the Confederation Line light-rail system. There wasn't much contention over the majority, with serious debate on just two of them: Tremblay Station, which is near the VIA Rail station, and Pimisi Station, a name recommended by the Algonquin Nation which means "eel" in Algonquin.

The discussion around Pimisi dealt with the fact that it's geographically irrelevant to the station's actual location. Other station names were passed through public consultation for their effectiveness as way-points and geographic markers that make it easier for people to know what stop they're to disembark at.

Councillor Rainer Bloess was the lone transit commissioner who voted against Pimisi. His comments, via the Ottawa Citizen, had to do with utility of the choice:
“It really doesn’t do anything for the Confederation Line,” observed Innes Coun. Rainer Bloess, the one transit commissioner to vote against the name. Victoria Island in the river, the heart of aboriginal presence in the capital, is probably due to be renamed, Bloess said, suggesting the Pimisi label might be more appropriate there.
Meanwhile, the Ottawa Sun published an editorial that called the name-change "ridiculous," pulling no punches in their criticism of the decision:
Get creative but don't undo the common sense that goes with geographic locations. It just doesn't make sense to name a key station on an expensive LRT line something so unfamiliar to users.
There's validity to the spirit of this concern, of course; geographically-based station names makes sense. They help regular and casual users orient themselves, and make it simple for tourists to use the system.

I'm just not sure "LeBreton" is significantly more relevant than Pimisi as a station name. Just because we currently know the station as LeBreton (and the area as LeBreton Flats) doesn't mean it's got special value; it's simply the name we've used historically. It's not as relevant as, say, Parliament (a signifier of the destination nearby) or Rideau (denoting a major street and shopping centre).

When transit users get off at LeBreton, the flats themselves are not their destination except for a brief few weeks during Bluesfest. People who get off their more than likely one of the following: Local residents who'll manage under either name; public servants heading to Gatineau who'll manage under either name; or people headed to the Canadian War Museum for whom the name LeBreton helps no more than Pimisi will.

I'd probably feel differently on this topic if it was a switch being made at a random time, but the name-change is happening as a component of a much more significant change: The establishment of a radically altered transit system. If riders aren't overwhelmed by the change to light-rail transit, then I think they'll manage through the short-term adjustment of referring to a station as something new. Before long, Pimisi will be as recognizable a destination name as LeBreton is today.

I'm sure not everyone agrees with me, though. What do readers think of the name change, and the adjustment that it will necessitate?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Confederation Line stations should be designed "with safety in mind"

During yesterday's Transit Commission's presentation on OC Transpo's safety initiatives (which came on the heels of a good deal of negative press surrounding the utility's response to recent sexual assaults), General Manager John Manconi brought up the importance of considering safety in the initial design of transit stations. As tweeted by David Reevely:

I've talked in the past about designing stations in such a way, including Lincoln Fields Station recently as well as Eagleson Park and Ride a couple years ago. Despite the obviousness of considering safety when designing and building these stations, it seems rarely executed proactively. That's a real shame, for two reasons:

  1. If stations aren't designed with safety in mind, then they tend to be unsafe for riders. (Obviously.)
  2. It's always cheaper and more effective to design with safety in mind than to retrofit stations to make them safer.
With this in mind, it behooves the city to consider safety as the designs of Ottawa's newest transit stations are finalized--especially those within the downtown tunnel. If the most recently-issued concept designs of the Lyon, Parliament, and Rideau stations are accurate, then the city needs to re-assess their design in order to make them safer.

These conceptual images below show a "side platform" configuration for all three underground stations, with eastbound and westbound platforms separated by the tracks themselves (and a big fence/barrier between them). I'm not sure why the choice was made to use side-platforms; they tend to be somewhat less crowded/hectic for riders and offer the potential for more retail space, but I've yet to read justification from the city's side.

Lyon Station:

Parliament Station:

Rideau Station:

They all look pretty similar (a separate problem), and they're all designed with side platforms--which goes against the recommendation that all three stations feature 180-metre long centre platforms, which was made in the December 2009 Planning and Environmental Assessment study. This image, from that study, shows the difference:

As you can see, the centre-platform design features a much more open area for riders. It would definitely be hectic during rush hour, and may even be slightly confusing for infrequent users unless there's ample very clear signage of which trains go where. On the other hand, getting from the westbound to eastbound platforms is an easy couple of steps, as opposed to a couple flights of stairs.

Outside of rush hour, though, the openness of the centre platform is a boon to safety and security. More people are congregating in one area, which is safer (and is the motivation for OC Transpo's current "Night Stop" program). It's also easier for security guards to monitor, and sightlines are greatly improved so people can be vigilant and respond to or report any unusual activity. There are also fewer places for people to hide, lowering the risk of surprise robberies or assaults.

In short, it's a design that makes safety its first priority and doesn't unduly interfere with service in any way that can't be offset with proper signage. If Ottawa is truly going to design its future transit stations with safety in mind, opting for centre platforms would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

OC Transpo's image hammered by inaction on harassment

The Ottawa Citizen published an editorial on Tuesday, which lambasted OC Transpo for its poor response to a recent sexual assault that was initiated at Blair Station:

"Of course no one expects OC Transpo to comment on the details of an alleged crime, but it is fair to expect the organization to grant an interview to a reporter who has general questions about security. OC Transpo already considers safety in the design of its stations, but without a frank, ongoing community discussion, it’s hard to know whether there is more Ottawa could do to make transit users less vulnerable."

That recent instance of harassment that took place near Blair Station took place last week, where a woman was sexually assaulted and robbed while waiting for her bus.

A failure to appropriately respond to that issue is obviously unacceptable, but it's even more deplorable when Ottawa Hollaback!, a local movement dedicated to ending street harassment, reported on how terribly common sexual assaults are on OC Transpo nearly a month ago--a report to which OC Transpo offered no meaningful response. They also approached OC Transpo and the city in February of this year, but were similarly "brushed off."

There is no shortage of instances of sexual harassment on OC Transpo. Although the transit utility claims there were only 14 incidents reported in 2012, the above-mentioned report issued by Hollaback! (Our city, our space, our voice : A report on street harassment in Ottawa) found that a 44 per cent of the 350 survey respondents stated that they had been harassed on public transit at least once in the past year. This is a significant issue.

Tomorrow's Transit Commission meeting is supposed to include an announcement on OC Transpo's new safety plan:

It's a long overdue announcement, but hopefully that time was spent developing a plan that will demonstrate real change in OC Transpo's ability to prevent these assaults from happening as well as a more meaningful policy on responding to them.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ridership and regional employment by the numbers

OC Transpo's most recent quarterly performance report indicated ridership dropped by 2.2 percent compared to the same period last year. Whenever there is a fall in ridership, all kinds of theories are tossed around, most of them involving the transit agency: fare hikes, service cuts, bad drivers, etc. While some of these factors will have an effect of some kind on ridership, they do not largely explain variation in ridership levels. The report to the Transit Commission states another factor, unrelated to transit fares and service:

“Historically, changes in employment in Ottawa-Gatineau have explained approximately 80 percent of changes in overall ridership.”

Ridership seems to be closely tied to the number of people employed in the National Capital Region. These are quarterly changes; But how much does employment affect ridership year-by-year? I decided to crunch some numbers myself using annual ridership figures (1996-2012) obtained from various sources: OC's website, a data set in a much earlier article on Transit Ottawa, and monthly employment data of Ottawa-Gatineau region from Statistics Canada. The employment data goes only as far back as 1996. To calculate the annual number of employees, an unweighted average was applied for simplicity.

The data suggests a strong positive relation between regional employment and transit ridership in Ottawa:

About 86% of the variation in ridership can be explained by the number of people employed. When the strike years (2008, 2009) are removed, the relationship is close to perfect:

An astounding 97% of the fluctuation in ridership can be explained by regional employment since 1996, considering OC Transpo serves a small area of Gatineau. But the idea of employment, in general, being nearly 100% correlated to transit ridership is quite remarkable. As we can see, there's very little OC Transpo can do to improve transit usage that will have a similar impact as local job growth.

In order to determine the marginal effect of an additional worker would have on the number of OC Transpo trips, we'll use a least squares regression analysis. With all years included (1996-2012) in the regression, the number of service days affected by the 2008-09 labour dispute is added as a variable. Here are the results of this regression:

As expected, the coefficient estimates of employment and strike days are both statistically significant, even with only 17 observations. This model is a tremendous fit for the data as shown by the R-square of 0.956.

The 2008-09 winter strike is an obvious reason for the temporary drop in annual ridership. The estimate suggests an additional day, weekday or weekend, of the strike decreased 2008 or 2009 ridership by 428 835 trips on average when all other factors are held constant. The number is somewhat high because OC Transpo's figure for ridership on an average weekday in 2012 is 400 000, but appears to be rounded down though.

As for employment, an additional worker in Ottawa-Gatineau leads to an increase of 166 trips or 83 round trips on average, if all other factors are held constant. It's equivalent to nearly four months of transit travel on weekdays. If that person were to buy four monthly passes, that's somewhere between $395 and $488, depending on whether it's a regular or express pass, in annual revenue for OC Transpo. In this case, it's hardly much.

But let's say 500 people lost their jobs in one year and remained out of work the next year. If each worker bought four monthly passes on average while employed, OC Transpo would have lost approximately $197,500 in revenue, on average, the following year. Whether there is a large number jobs created or lost, it will make a noticeable difference in OC Transpo's budget.

Employment seems to have a stronger relationship with ridership on an annual basis than on a quarterly basis. During seasonal changes, other short-term factors emerge like school days, weather, gas prices, or a fare hike. None of them are as economically or statistically significant as the number employed, a variable rarely discussed among everyday transit users going to work.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recommended LRT station names

While tunnel construction is underway, stations on the Confederation Line still require names. As you may recall, the City asked the public for their input on stations with confusing names or ones that were moved slightly away from their current Transitway stop. A City document, which will be presented to the Transit Commission next week, lists the recommended names:

  • Tunney’s Pasture
  • Bayview
  • Pimisi
  • Lyon
  • Parliament / Parlement
  • Rideau (Secondary Wayfinding Reference: ByWard Market)
  • uOttawa
  • Lees
  • Hurdman
  • Tremblay (Secondary Wayfinding Reference: VIA Rail)
  • St-Laurent
  • Cyrville
  • Blair

Tunney's was the initial proposed name for Tunney's Pasture, but now, the original name will remain to avoid any confusion in both English and French. Pimisi was suggested by the Algonquins of Ontario, in place of LeBreton, and means "eel" in their language. Kent will be renamed Lyon due to the locations of entrances of the western downtown station. Parliament is a bit of a misleading name, considering the station is on Queen Street, not Wellington Street. It may be better suited as a "secondary wayfinding reference" for O'Connor. The other three station names under public consultation, Rideau, uOttawa, Tremblay, remain unchanged since the first round of proposals.

Also, the exterior paint design of the Alstom Citadis Spirit trains seems close to be finalized and it looks nice:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mark Johnson is Ottawa's newest transit commissioner

Although this news is nearly four months old by now, it had completely flown under my radar until yesterday: The City of Ottawa's Transit Commission filled its vacant citizen commissioner position in April with the selection of Mark Johnson, a public servant from Barrhaven.

Johnson is an everyday transit user--currently the only one on the transit commission--and seems like he's looking towards being an active member: During his first meeting, he peppered city staff with a variety of questions about OC Transpo. He's also very active on Twitter, and can be found at @Commish_Johnson.

On the other hand, Johnson has no technical experience in transit planning (at least as far as I can tell). He seems like an energetic and ambitious new member, there's no doubt about that, but I still have questions about the value of the transit commission as it's currently configured. I've long been critical of the commission's structure, but I'm still optimistic there's a place for an independent commission. Johnson's passion will hopefully rattle the commission a little bit and push for some more outside-the-box thinking, but the commission still has a long way to go before it's really adding much more value than the previous transit committee.

Take, for instance, a recent vote on security cameras on OC Transpo buses: Although three of the civilian commissioners wanted to retrofit the existing fleet with cameras in the hopes of improving security today, they were out-voted by the city councillors who comprise the bulk of the committee (their are eight councillors and just four civilian commissioners). The Committee instead decided to insist only future bus purchases include cameras, which isn't really meaningful since the city's bought hundreds of new buses since 2010 (including $155M for 226 articulated buses in 2010 and $82M for 75 double-deckers in 2011), its oldest buses are from 2003, and there are no immediate plans to purchase any new buses.

I'm hopeful Johnson can energize the committee and challenge his fellow commissioners and inspire a bit more activity among them. In my mind, one of OC Transpo's biggest problems is with groupthink and inertia that results in a reluctance to challenge existing ideas and look for new ways to solve the many problems its system faces; the transit commission, even in its current form, can change that. But it won't be easy.