Saturday, November 30, 2013

Coffee and comfort for riders, extra revenue for OC Transpo

Some years ago, I proposed the idea of a bar car on Ottawa's trains as a way of recouping operating costs on the upcoming light-rail system--a bar car, of course, is a car on the train that offers drink service for riders. There's definitely a potential for revenue in the system, especially once Ottawa's LRT system grows out beyond the first phase from Tunney's Pasture to Blair.

But bar cars aren't everything; you can avoid the questions of licensing and still make money (potentially far more money) by operating a café car on trains--which is what happened earlier this month in Switzerland, where a Starbucks location recently moved into a train. From Fast Company:
"Starbucks locations already seem to be everywhere you look. But starting November 21, the company will take on a new frontier: trains. Starbucks, with the help of Swiss train company SBB, has converted a double-decker car running from Geneva Airport to St. Gallen in Switzerland into a fully functional Starbucks store, complete with wood tables, leather chairs, and, in another first for the company, waitstaff."
The train route in question, from the Geneva Airport to Saint Gallen, is a four-hour trip each way; the long haul and lower passenger count probably makes installing a café in a train car a slightly simpler proposition than, say, doing it on a Confederation Line train. But there's no reason why it couldn't be done in Ottawa.

There are plenty of questions about it, including how you'd have people line up and, after receiving their drinks, how you'd get them out of the way. Plus a café car raises the spectre of spills and resultant burns, a potential lawsuit waiting to happen. But maybe a discussion with Tim Horton's or some other local coffee chain would be a good way to start assessing the feasibility of the idea.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What might Surrey's transit funding request mean for Ottawa?

The City of Surrey is in the Metro Vancouver region of British Columbia, and it boasts a population of less than half a million people.

It's also hoping to embark on a massive light-rail project to bring the city together, not unlike that Ottawa city council has recently approved. For their part, Surrey recently applied for $1.8B in federal funding for their plan, and they expect that--if approved--they'd receive about one-third of that (which is in line with historical funding agreements between the three levels of government). That would equal about $600M from the feds--the same amount they pledged to Ottawa for the first phase of this city's light-rail transit system, which is under construction now.

Apparently TransLink, the provincial transit authority for Metro Vancouver, is advocating an extension of the SkyTrain further into Surrey in combination with bus-rapid transit, while Surrey city council favours an all-light rail system in the city. Each option is roughly $2.2B (SkyTrain/BRT just over, LRT just under). The province is considering a regional referendum in Metro Vancouver to determine priorities for TransLink, which--as one might expect--has concerned Surrey, considering the relatively small population and large spread of the municipality.

But setting aside provincial and regional politics on the west coast, Surrey's ask is an interesting one because of the potential influence it has on other decisions. Ottawa, which is a municipality twice as large as Surrey, received $600M from the feds some time ago, and is now beginning to spend it on the first phase of the light-rail plan. But Stage 2, that plan's second phase, is slated to begin construction immediately after completion of the first stage and expand LRT service in three directions at a cost of about $2.5B.

(Note: Although you would be right to mention that Metro Vancouver is twice as large as Metro Ottawa, this proposal from Surrey isn't a Metro Vancouver improvement--it's a locally-oriented transit solution for Surrey specifically, so I don't think comparing metro populations is right.)

That $2.5B price tag sets the stage for a near-future federal funding ask of another roughly $830M, plus the equivalent from the province. In proportional terms, it's not far off what Surrey is asking for their plan, so it might not be as much of a reach as it seems at first glance.

Supposing, of course, that Surrey's request gets support from the federal government.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Does bike-sharing work?

National Post columnist Jesse Kline penned an intriguing article a couple weeks ago questioning the wisdom of municipalities investing in Bixi or Bixi-like bike-sharing systems. Although they've long been seen as a potentially valuable component of urban transit, it's hard to deny Kline's points throughout the article:
The best that can be said about the bureaucrats behind Bixi is that they’ve done a good job of selling the bike-sharing service to other cities. Indeed, the only profitable part of the company, which was later sold off in order to comply with Quebec law, was tasked with marketing the program abroad. Unfortunately, Montreal also has managed to export many of the problems that go along with the Bixi model.
Examples from other countries also provide cautionary tales. The Washington, D.C., bike-share system received $16-million in federal, state and local subsidies. This money was supposed to give disadvantaged people access to a low-cost mode of transportation, but one user survey found that it was almost exclusively used by affluent, well-educated people — hardly the demographic that needs taxpayer subsidies to get around town.
Although the City of Ottawa's prudent fiscal managers have so far resisted to give money to the system, the NCC has put forward a good deal of money (according to Kline, about $600k). It might be sensible to them, as it provides tourists with a low-cost way of travelling between local attractions, but little is known about adoption or usage rates.

On the surface, a large-scale Bixi system in partnership with OC Transpo could offer a good solution to the "last mile" conundrum of getting commuters to and from transit stations, but at what cost? It would certainly be more expensive than the current solution of having riders walk (or get a drive) to and fro.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

OC Transpo must take real action on transit safety

A few months ago, in the aftermath of a horrific sexual assault that began at Blair Station, I wrote about how badly the inadequate response of OC Transpo was hammering the utility's public image. It's also negligently and unnecessarily putting more riders at risk, and recent e-mails revealed by the Ottawa Citizen suggest that it was a public relations strategy to downplay bad news and promote good news that influenced the decision:
When a young woman was attacked by four men at Blair station on Aug. 11 and then sexually assaulted in a nearby secluded area, the public demanded answers about transit safety. But instead of speaking to news media, Transpo staff refused to talk for more than a week until they could present their safety improvement plans at a public meeting.
That presentation was OC Transpo's ten-point safety plan, which included very little of substance. Although changing the Night-Stop program to begin at 7 p.m. is an actual tangible change, the others seem administrative things, including the development of "an inventory of best practices" and the encouragement of more assault reports to gather data on where they happen more often.

Is that really going to make riders safer? Or even make them feel safer?

And the feeling of safety is a big concern. In a recent column, Metro's Steve Collins spoke to one OC Transpo rider about why she stopped taking the bus, and a lack of safety was at the forefront of her concerns. That is important in terms of public safety, of course, but it's also important in light of the continuing decreases in ridership on OC Transpo.

Instead of trying to downplay the significance of bad-news stories, OC Transpo and the City of Ottawa needs to address the underlying issues of safety on and around its buses and stations. The onus shouldn't be on the assaulted to snap a photo of the assaulter, as happened in a 2012 case of assault on an OC Transpo bus. A safety audit might also be a good idea, but OC Transpo seems convinced that they don't need to do one--despite the fact that it's been nearly a decade since their last thorough audit.

There are lots of things OC Transpo and the City of Ottawa could do to improve safety. They could increase the presence of special constables and even police officers on and around transit stations. They could retrofit buses with video cameras, instead of simply having them installed on all future ones. They could appeal to organizations like Hollaback! Ottawa for ideas on what might improve the situation.

The last thing they should do is try to ignore it until it goes away, because it's an issue that's not going anywhere.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Keeping bus drivers safe keeps bus riders safe, too

Ottawa's City Council recently voted unanimously to support two private-members bills presented to Parliament that seek to toughen penalties against people who assault operators on public transit in Canada. Both Bill C-533 (moved by Liberal MP Ralph Goodale) and Bill C-402 (moved by NDP MP Peter Julian) are in progress and were written to offer more protection for public transit employees.

The city's vote comes on the heels of a recent well-known assault in Ottawa, for which a man who pulled his bus driver from the vehicle and beat him bloody received only a suspended sentence and no prison time.

Mayor Jim Watson was quoted in the Ottawa Sun after the City of Ottawa's vote, and he had this to say:
"Broadly speaking, a driver is vulnerable when operating a vehicle. They're focusing on the road and upcoming hazards, looking ahead and checking mirrors, with both hands on the wheel. And they're doing all this, sitting by themselves, while trying to keep the other passengers in the vehicle safe. In the case of transit operators, these passengers can number in the hundreds or thousands in a given day."
There's enough for operators to worry about even if they're not at serious risk of being assaulted--and sadly, the numbers suggest they are at risk. The president of the union that represents OC Transpo operators said that there are, on average, about 60 physical assaults on drivers every year; that's more than one per week.

Bus drivers obviously need better protection, for their individual sakes and for the sake of the passengers they're ferrying around the city. Hopefully these bills pass and can offer that protection.

Friday, November 22, 2013

OC Transpo fares to increase 1.9 per cent in 2014

The annual tradition of fare increases will continue in 2014, as yesterday the Transit Commission approved a budget that will see user fees for OC Transpo go up by an average of 1.9 per cent on July 1, 2014.

Hey, it's better than the 7.5 per cent increase that riders saw in March of 2010--in fact, OC Transpo General Manager John Manconi claims it's the smallest increase of OC Transpo fares in nine years:
Courtesy of the Ottawa Sun's Jonathan Willing, here's the full rate card:
I think my favourite is the new DayPass charge of $8.10... so utterly inconveniently random. Most people will probably just drop $8 in there, but I'd wager that shortfall will be made up for when people inevitably round up the $3.45 regular cash fare.

Presto fares, for the record, will be going up five cents to $2.77 per trip.

The most significant increase is the 16.4 per cent hike in community passes, from $35 to $40.75 per month. Those passes are designed for "Ottawa residents who receive benefits under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)" and registered Para Transpo customers.

It's an obvious reality that as costs of public transit increase, the costs to use public transit will also increase. But that doesn't make fare increases any more palatable.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Flaherty not in favour of national transit strategy

Although it likely comes as no surprise, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty--the member of parliament who holds the purse strings for the federal government--is not in favour of a national transit strategy to offer predictable funding to municipalities for public transit projects.

Flaherty was recently quoted in the Edmonton Journal about a project taking place in Alberta's capital on the issue:
"Quite frankly, I’m not a big fan of fancy, big national programs. I’d much rather take the approach we’ve been taking, and deal with the City of Edmonton … deal with the various municipalities."
So far, that strategy has worked fairly well for Ottawa, as the city has received $600M in federal funding for the $2.1B Confederation Line LRT project. However, it also means that the city--as well as other cities across Canada--are forced to plan transit blindly, designing systems they'd like under the assumption that the federal government might offer one-time funding for it. We're seeing that right now with Ottawa's Stage 2 draft transit plan, which has a price tag of about $2.5B and therefore expects the federal government to come forward with another $830M or so--roughly one-third of the overall cost (the remaining two thirds, in line with past funding agreements, would be split equally between the city and the Province of Ontario).

A national transit strategy was a campaign promise of both the NDP and Liberal parties in the last federal election (the NDP even tabled a motion to establish one), and it's something very strongly supported by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). The idea behind the strategy would be to commit dedicated funding in the annual federal budget that would be invested in eligible transit-related projects. Ideally, it would provide more predictable funding and make municipalities more able to plan transit projects thanks to the guaranteed funding.

Canada is, according to FCM, the "only OECD country without a long-term, predictable federal transit-investment policy."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

OC Transpo ridership down again, three-year lows expected for 2013

As reported in the Citizen and Sun last week, OC Transpo's ridership are down yet again for the third quarter of 2013. From the Citizen's coverage:
"According to newly released figures for July, August and September, OC Transpo gave 21.1 million rides in those months, down 3.9 per cent from the year before."
OC Transpo continues to place the blame on job cuts in the federal public service, although that seems like it's just their best guess--there are likely other factors that could be at play, including the introduction of Presto cards, the phasing out of EcoPasses, recent and continuing increases in bus fares, and construction-related transit delays.

The continued ridership decline means that OC Transpo is expecting to fall below 100 million rides for 2013, despite exceeding that number in 2012 (101 million) and 2011 (103.5 million). It's unclear at this point whether ridership will even match numbers from 2010 (99.3 million), which could mean this year will be the worst for OC Transpo since the 2008-09 winter transit strike.

No one wants to talk about that thing again...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Old OC Transpo buses hit the streets in Sault Ste Marie

photo © Soo Today

Anyone heading to Sault Ste Marie in the near future might recognize some of the buses running around the city, which bear a slight resemblance to OC Transpo's fleet--because they were recently purchased from the City of Ottawa.

As shown on Soo Today, the Orion VI buses retain the characteristic maple leaf on the back of the bus, but the OC Transpo name and other branding has apparently been removed.

Sault Ste Marie got a pretty good deal on the buses, too; they're expected to be in service for at least another five years, and the city offered Ottawa $80,000 for approximately 12 buses--roughly the same cost as refurbishing one of their existing Orion VI's would have been (Ottawa's buses had been previously refurbished, specifically with their front-end suspension design). It works out to a little over $6,000 per unit, and Soo city staff expect it could save the city as much as $650,000 in avoided maintenance costs (see page 142-3 of this very large document for more info).

According to Wikipedia, OC Transpo once had 140 Orion VI buses in its fleet, which were purchased in 1999. All have now been retired or sold off.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Should pets be permitted on OC Transpo?

As reported in the Ottawa Sun, a group of people from the Ottawa Pet Expo have launched a petition to have OC Transpo initiate a pilot project to allow small pets in crates or carriers on buses during off-peak hours. From the petition's description:
The Ottawa Pet Expo petitions for a "Pets on Public Transit Policy" to be introduced as a six-month pilot project, allowing small pets in crates/carriers on public transit during off-peak hours. During this six-month pilot period, OC Transpo bus drivers will be given the discretion to refuse boarding to anyone with a crate that exceeds size restrictions, e.g. larger than can be carried and stored easily or a crate or carrier that appears insecure.
This isn't the first petition that's been circulated on this issue; back in 2008, the local chapter of the Responsible Dog Owners of Canada published a 2,000-signature petition to the same ends: A six-month pilot project that would allow pets on OC Transpo buses.

The current petition, however, backs up their request with statements of support from the Ottawa By-law and Regulatory Services Branch, the Ottawa Spay & Neuter Clinic, Ottawa Public Health, and the Ottawa Humane Society for a pilot project. Also, apparently there are 25 cities in Canada that allow pets on public transit, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

Potential issues remain, however, and the one that stands out to me is the potential impact of this pilot project on a bus operator's ability to concentrate on his job. Allergies are a major issue; noise is another, but there's no shortage of noise on the bus most of the time so operators must be pretty used to that by now. The possibility of a pet escaping from the control of his or her human companion is another issue, of course; a dog or cat running around on the bus could create a very dangerous distraction for the operator.

Also, giving operators the discretion to refuse animals just opens the door for conflict--if an operator says no, the pet's human companion may not (and probably will not) react calmly. Operators take enough unwarranted abuse from riders and giving them discretion over such an issue opens the door for even more.

And, of course, animal crates take up space. That won't be as much of an issue during off-peak hours, but it could still cause problems.

On the other hand, regular transit users have pets that need to get to veterinarian appointments. If this pilot project moves forward, it will offer them the opportunity to get there by public transit, increasing the number of off-peak and non-commuting trips available to Ottawa residents.

So I put the question to readers: What are your thoughts on this pilot project?