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.
Here’s an article about how we count who benefits from transit. It argues that we tend to undercount transit users when we measure only commuters.
According to research, the vast majority – about 84% of transit trips – are not straightforward home-to-work commutes. People use transit to go to school, drop kids off at daycare, go shopping, go to appointments, visit friends, etc.
If researchers just look at commuting, they’re looking at too few people. For example, the researchers looked at Boston (which has pretty good transit) and noted that only 12% of workers usually take transit to their jobs.
If you are a politician considering whether to add city resources to transit, it looks like you’re helping only a small number of people.
BUT the same study showed that in Boston, 29% of households include someone who regularly takes transit to school or work, and 56% of households use transit for at least some of their trips.
Therefore, politicians considering investments to transit need to understand that more people use transit than they realize.
What does this mean for Ottawa?
Ottawa politicians tend to focus on commuters – getting people from suburbs to downtown – often to the detriment of other routes.
Members of the Ottawa Transit Riders have been complaining that cutbacks have hit non-commuting routes especially hard (see concerns about routes 11 and 28). Other members have talked to us about how frustrating it is to have to go through the city centre when they actually want to go east or west from a point in the southern part of the city (such as Carleton University).
OC Transpo needs to re-think its approach to non-commuting routes.
The city of Ottawa is conducting a couple of surveys that may be of interest.
Consultations on disability
The city of Ottawa is reaching out to residents with disabilities for opinions on its Municipal Accessibility Plan. Click on the link to have your say.
The city is also conducting a survey of what residents would like to see in the new official plan. Click on the link to participate.
Although the primary goal of the Ottawa Transit Riders is to improve the quality of transit in Ottawa, we have some natural allies in the environment movement who are advocating for cleaner, greener buses.
The Healthy Transportation Coalition is campaigning for the mayor to honor his 2018 election commitment to launch a pilot project regarding electric buses.
“The greening of the City’s fleet will reduce diesel fuel costs as well as decrease harmful emissions. For this reason, Jim Watson will ask staff to bring forward to Council a business case for an electric bus pilot project in the next term of Council.”
The Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa argues that Ottawa should switch to electric buses for three reasons:
Combatting Climate Change
- OC Transpo buses produce 45% of the emissions from the City of Ottawa’s operations
- Electric buses have 95% lower emissions
- e-Buses are nicer to ride, quieter and cleaner
- They are more reliable, meaning more time on the road, less in the shop for repairs
- e-Buses are much cheaper to operate
- Fuel costs – a fully electric fleet will save about $30 million per year (at current prices; more if fuel prices rise)
- Maintenance costs – a fully electric fleet will save about $20 million per year
- e-Buses mean more transit with the same operating budget
Click for information and to sign the petition
What I learned from the webinar on “how to advocate for better transit in your community.”
One of the speakers was a representative of PITTSBURGHERS FOR PUBLIC TRANSIT, a grassroots organization of transit riders, workers, and residents who defend and expand public transit.
She had a number of stories where the city and/or transit authorities made some spectacularly bad decisions, mostly because they didn’t consider the needs of local transit users:
- Armed guards to enforce payment
- Destruction of affordable housing near transit stations, replaced with under-utilized luxury apartments
- Shifting users to a bus-only highway (like Ottawa's old transitway) that forced users to pay more, transfer more often, and spend more time travelling compared to the previous basic bus system
The theme of her presentation was largely that to make transit successful, you need to consult with riders and consider the needs of transit-dependent communities – especially low income people and persons with disabilities.
This is one of my priorities and I intend for it to be a key demand of the Ottawa Transit Riders.
OC Transpo should be mandated to conduct meaningful consultations with riders and communities to improve local transit.
The recording is now available for How to Advocate for Local Transit in Your Community. Feel free to share this recording with whomever you feel would benefit from the presentation.