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.

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