Ottawa Transit Riders Talk Transit at the Green New Deal for Canada
On Friday, June 14, Ottawa Transit Riders joined with environmental groups and social justice advocates in the Ottawa launch of the Green New Deal for Canada. An overflow crowd packed into Glebe-St. James United Church to listen to speeches from environmental leaders like Maude Barlow, Avi Lewis, and David Suzuki. It was an inspirational night filled with great discussions about the role that citizens can play in fighting climate change.
Throughout the evening, members of the OTR Board of Directors talked with attendees about public transit and its crucial role in helping to make the planet greener. We heard some great ideas about how to make public transit more affordable, accessible, and sustainable!
If you haven’t done so already, sign up here to become a member of Ottawa Transit Riders.
On June 12, 2019, councillors participated in a rather contentious city council meeting.
OTR Board Member John Reddins attended.
The first item of interest to our members was a proposal from councillor Catherine McKenney (Somerset Ward) to study the merits of ‘Vision Zero’ – “a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.”
It is a strategy pioneered in Sweden that has been highly successful in reducing traffic fatalities and creating infrastructure to encourage cycling. Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto have already started working towards ‘vision zero’.
In Ottawa, the proposal was sparked by the tragic death of a cyclist on Laurier Avenue right in front of City Hall. Two more cyclists were hurt on Tuesday morning. Vision Zero was also invoked after the Westboro bus station tragedy this past December. It is an issue since residents are at risk of being injured on Ottawa’s roads while crossing streets to get to bus-stops, waiting at bus-stops, or walking/biking to transit stops.
The proposal was defeated.
The second item of interest was a proposal from councillor Diane Deans (Gloucester-Southgate) to reduce transit fares as a way of acknowledging that transit riders are not getting quality service for their fares.
"The very principle of fairness would suggest that we should not be charging full fares for a partial or unreliable system," she said.
The proposal was defeated.
A follow-up motion to freeze transit fares until the LRT is operating was accepted.
Then things got bizarre as the Mayor threw his full support behind the transportation manager who has been at the helm while transit service declines, frustration rises, and costs skyrocket.
“John Manconi is one of the most noble, sensible, competent general managers of transit that we have ever seen in the history of the City of Ottawa and to be casting aspersions on him and our senior staff is an absolute disgrace for political posturing and points,” Watson said before councillors banged their desks in support.
What do you think?
On Friday, June 14th, join Ottawa Transit Riders and many like-minded organizations at the LEAP event to promote the ‘Green New Deal’ at the Glebe-St. James United Church (650 Lyon St S), 6:30 – 9PM
Speakers and performers include David Suzuki, Avi Lewis, Maude Barlow, and MC Jill O’Reilly.
We'll hear about:
- How the climate crisis is impacting our communities
- Who’s responsible for the mess we’re in, and
- How the Green New Deal can build a better life for all
The evening will close with a 'barnstorm' led by 350.org.
We’re going to fall in love with what’s possible. And we’re going to lay out our plan to win — together.
What’s affordable in Ottawa?
Our partners, Healthy Transportation Coalition might be interested in this article on affordable living, rather than affordable housing.
You may have heard the rule of thumb that families should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing, but the author of this article argues that you can’t consider the true cost of living anywhere without calculating transportation costs.
The examples here are all American, but the lesson applies to Canadian cities as well. Families who live in dense walkable neighbourhoods may be able to live without a car or with only one car because they can shop at local places and get most places on foot, by bike, or by transit. Their rent or mortgage might appear high, but other costs are low.
In comparison, families who live in the suburbs of large, sprawling cities might pay less for their homes, but might find themselves paying more for multiple cars and/or spending more TIME in transit.
This is not to argue that one situation is inherently better than another, merely to argue that all costs need to be considered when advocating for affordability. When city councillors are planning and designing new developments, they should be thinking of giving residents as many choices as possible. It may be a choice for many to drive everywhere, but others might like the option of walking or cycling.
Ottawa has a golden opportunity right now to build affordable housing in close proximity to transit – ie the LRT.
We should also be building multi-user systems so that people in far-flung suburbs can walk or cycle to transit hubs.
Let’s keep fighting for a better, more accessible, more people-friendly city!
A cheap, easy way to make riding the bus less painful – accurate real-time information
As anyone who rides transit in Ottawa knows, buses are often late or cancelled with no notice. Plus, OC Transpo is not very good about informing customers about delays and cancellations. The Ottawa Citizen reported that over a 29-day period in February and March 2019, OC Transpo cancelled 6,284 bus trips yet they advised the public only about 10% of the time.
An article on Mobility Lab suggests that improving real-time information can radically change the transit experience. With accurate information, riders can modify their plans and choose alternative routes. Their frustration levels go down and some studies suggest that riders perceive shorter wait times.
Ironically this article uses a tweet from an Ottawa customer complaining about OC Transpo as an example of the frustration that unreliable buses combined with inaccurate information cause for riders.
Real-time information supported by GPS can be available on SmartPhones or at screens at bus stops and transit hubs.
Something easy that OC Transpo can achieve
How to increase ridership … improve bus service of course!
Anyone reading this website knows that Ottawa is experiencing a crisis in transit. Buses are unreliable, often over-crowded, and slow. Riders vent on social media about ‘ghost’ buses that vanish from bus tracking apps. Fares keep going up even as service declines. Users of ParaTranspo rally to advocate for online booking, more capacity, and better service. Citizens petition the Transit Commission to DO something …
And yet, not much is being done.
City councillors have allowed OC Transpo to run their operations without much oversight for years and the result has been a cycle of decline – worse service, higher fares, and declining ridership.
So what to do?
In 2018, researchers at McGill University published a report on 14 years of transit data in 25 of North America’s largest cities. Ottawa was not one of the cities studied, but we can still learn from the results. The study made some clear recommendations:
Based on our models, transit agencies and municipalities wishing to increase their ridership should consider improving their bus service through investments in their operations, while limiting increases in fares
The study determined that external factors like employment and gas prices are less relevant to ridership levels than service and cost.
The authors were dubious about the value of expensive infrastructure projects, noting that investments in humble bus service often provided more concrete and measurable improvements in service. They also suggested that improving cycling networks so that people could ride to and from transit stations is a valuable and often-overlooked strategy.
The Star reviewed the study and discussed its relevance to Toronto:
The study itself is available here (although fair warning, it's pretty academic):
To no-one’s surprise, the LRT is delayed again
What does this mean for long-suffering transit riders?
Well, as members of Ottawa Transit Riders have been saying for a while, the LRT isn’t going to fix all the problems in the transit system anyways. Residents of low-income neighbourhoods like Vanier and Bayward are paying for this delay even though we are not going to benefit even when the train is running.
OC Transpo needs to sit down with communities harmed by cut-backs to discuss fixing some serious irritations … restore the routes that were cut last year, fix the GPS system to avoid the ‘ghost’ buses, stop cancelling 6,000 buses a month, and implement the online booking system for ParaTranspo.
To rub salt in the wounds, OC Transpo had been planning to raise transit fares this summer. Councillors are now discussing freezing or reducing fares (at least until the LRT is running).
Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans is proposing a reduction in transit fares. However, the mayor is not on board so her proposal is unlikely to succeed.
Frustratingly, while a temporary far freeze is being discussed, there is little interest in reversing the poorly-considered route cut-backs from last year that have caused so much pain and frustration.
Here is information on several American cities that have been successful in improving their transit systems.
In February 2019, Transit Center (a foundation that supports advocacy, research and leadership development for transit reform across the US) released a report on the state of transit in American cities in 2018. The results are interesting:
Seven cities demonstrated clear improvements in ridership: Seattle, Pittsburgh, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Detroit, and Las Vegas.
How? Well ...
Detroit expanded frequent service on 10 of their busiest routes by adding 500 trips a week and running them 24/7.
San Antonio outfitted 1,000 bus stops with shelters and invested in ADA-accessible sidewalks
Houston redesigned its bus network to deliver frequent service to more neighborhoods. Last year, bus service accounted for most of the region’s ridership growth.
There are some areas of concerns that Ottawa should take note of:
Denver spent billions on a light rail network that extended far into the suburbs without improving the bus network, which serves the urban core of the region. In 2018, modest gains in rail ridership were swamped by losses in bus ridership.
The report clearly states that improvement in one neighbourhood or on one line, will not improve ridership – transit agencies need to look at the whole system.
Public transit should be built according to rider needs
In December 2018, several transit advocates met with OC Transpo to discuss improvements to bus service in Vanier. A strategic decision was made to focus on restoring route 12 – not because that’s the most important problem in the city, but because it would be so easy to fix. We wanted to see if OC Transpo was willing to respond to rider requests on an issue that would cost no additional money, would require no further investment, no changes to infrastructure, no training, no additional staff, no trade-offs with competing needs … merely a willingness to accommodate the needs of riders.
At the meeting, we presented OC Transpo executives with a petition signed by almost 200 people asking for the 12 to be restored and the report from the Vanier Forum describing what people in Vanier want.
We heard nothing.
One of our board members submitted an ATIP request to see what OC Transpo had done with our modest suggestions.
For the record, we offered two potential solutions: 1) continue route 12 along Queen to Kent and start/finish the route on Kent at Sparks, or 2) continue along Queen to finish near the Lyon station, then loop around to the left and re-start the route on Kent.
Here is an image of the map.
City staff proposed other options, but decided that even this minor change would require additional cost – $500,000 to $600,000 per year.
We can see no reason why a modest change to route 12 would cost anything.
It seems that OC Transpo and city staff are determined to resist calls to consider the needs of riders (especially riders from a low-income, transit-dependent neighbourhood) when making decisions.
Disappointing, frustrating, discouraging …
Further evidence that transit is struggling
What does it mean that OC Transpo is receiving less revenue than expected?
Well for one, we hope that it encourages OC Transpo and the Transit Commission to see this as evidence of a system in decline so that they both get motivated to fix the problems.
Potential solutions to improving transit?
- Better reliability – reduce the number of cancellations
- Restore some of the routes that were cut (11, 12, 28)
- Improve GPS information about route cancellations
- Consult with communities about bus stops and route coordination
- Re-think route design – not all transit users are commuting from suburbs to downtown
OC Transpo needs to consult with communities and riders about what we want.
Build the transit system FOR the riders.