Suburbanites Running Transit

The scenario implied by the above title is one that I raised in an email with a local Citizen columnist, who raises the same point in his column today.  Ottawa Council recently named the eight councilors who will sit on the body that will make most of the decisions on how transit will run over the next four years.

For the first time in my memory, all Councillors making transit decisions are from suburban wards: Stittsville, Kanata South, Nepean east, Gloucester northwest, two from Orleans, and Barrhaven-Riverside.  The chair represents Hunt Club, the area just inside the Greenbelt in the south.  Although the two mostly-rural wards were not eligible for membership ( because their taxpayers aren’t asked to contribute to the 50% subsidy), the areas with most of the intensification sites, main streets, and pre-automobile neighbourhoods — wards 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and inner suburban wards 16 & 18 — are missing.   Apparently, since Council mainly uses councilors’  preferences in filling committee seats, the urban-ward councilors simply weren’t that interested.

The columnist, Randall Denley, said that was a problem.  It is a problem that has spurred my decision to offer my own name for consideration as one of the four citizen members (to be named by mid-March).

Even though previous Council committees had better urban-ward representation, transit has been designed for some decades, in my opinion, to primarily meet the suburban voters’ perceived needs.  Previous urban-ward councilors obviously did not see it that way, or weren’t successful ridding transit’s governance of that bias.

Part of the problem is reflected in the language those in the transit ‘biz’ uses.  They divide patrons into two classes: the “choice” are those who own cars and therefore have a choice of whether to drive their car or to ride on transit.   The others are deemed to be “captive,” without cars, and have no choice but to use transit.  Of course, only pressure for improvements from the former group needs to be listened to, as only they have an alternative to shift to.

Actually, in my mind, choice is greater for those who have gained ‘locational efficiency’ by living closer to the centre of the city or at least to the destinations they need to reach.  The central areas also have a better choice in modes: better walking and cycling infrastructure (and safety that comes from greater ‘street presence’), more transit routes over more of the day and week, access to car-sharing, and more available taxis (on most main streets, they can easily be ‘hailed,’ rather than summoned by phone, followed by a wait of indeterminate length).

The “choice” suburbanites, on the other hand, have no choice about owning a car, usually one per driver in the household.  Walking, cycling, carsharing, and taxis are also either non-existent or highly impractical.  And the choice of using transit is not that free.

Suburbanites tend to be willing to use only to commute to a job, and only when: a) the commute occurs in rush-hour when service is frequent, and b) parking at their job is charged for, and c) transit is fast and reliable.  These parameters leave out commuting to a job with odd hours or shift work, jobs located in business parks and activity centres with free parking, or a job that is too close to make the fares for fast service seem worthwhile.  Probably 95% of the suburbanites other trips will be done via driving a personal car.  That requires ownership of a personal car, which means that transit cannot charge more than what gas and parking costs the prospective patron, rather than the larger costs of ownership (insurance, depreciation, registration, and maintenance — let alone ownership chores and home-parking costs).

Urbanites, on the other hand, aim to avoid living far from their job and, if they use transit, it is usually a regular, all-day route, which is not fast.  They also use transit for some or most personal travel outside rush-hours.  If they reverse-commute (work in the suburbs), they find that transit service is bad, and use other modes, including ride-sharing.

The result is really two transit systems: rush-hour service that a) goes on smaller streets, reducing walking in low-density residential areas, and b) has no stops outside the community except at major employment centres and transit stations to other rush-hour routes.  These routes not only do not run at non-rush-hour times, but they travel in only the “peak direction,” running out-of-service between each service run and to and from the garage at the ends of each 2-3-hour shift.

The second system is for those who use transit more extensively over the clock and week.  These ‘milk runs’ in Ottawa (routes #1-18) run along main streets and converge in the centre of the city, specifically Rideau Street at Rideau Centre.  Their frequencies are between 12 and 30 minutes.  The 30-year-old transitway also carries the 80- & 90-series  routes that serve far-suburban arterials that radiate from the city centre, but reach them via a buses-only roads with stops/stations set farther apart, many of them built into suburban shopping malls (Billings Bridge, St. Laurent, Goucester Town Centre, College Square, Orleans Town Centre, Kanata Town Centre, Lincoln Fields, Bayshore, South Keys, and Barrhaven Town Centre) and a few employment centres.

Of those using the all-day/all-week services, they fall into two population groups:  a) youths, who have special routes for their commutes to high schools, but ride regular roues at night and weekends, and b) seniors and stay-at-home moms, who clearly favour traveling in mid-day on weekdays.

The fare structure reflects the division, too.   Those traveling occasional errands, will not have any use for anything except the basic fare, which is $2.50 in tickets, or $3.25 in cash (no change for a $5 bill is offered),  a whopping 75 cents premium for not buying tickets in advance.  Such users don’t need unlimited-use passes because they can’t predict with certainty that they will need at least 38 trips in the following month (the break-even number of trips that a monthly pass is equal to).  Only those commuting to jobs or school can predict that high a level of usage.

If one has children, it is good to know that youngsters up to age 4 pay nothing; those 5-11 pay half-fare, and those older pay full-fare, but have a range of unlimited-use passes at 80% discounts).  Seniors pay full fares, but can save if they expect at the first of a month, to need 17 or more fares, buying the seniors’ unlimited-use pass for a 60% discount.  But they also get to ride free on Wednesday, proposed to extend to Monday and Friday afternoons and evenings. This almost  makes transit free for seniors, who can have the flexibility to ride when they want.

The transit commuter will naturally choose passes, but there are three classes depending on the routes to be used, which reflect more the average speed of travel rather than distance.  There is also a one-day pass, which transforms into a family pass on weekends and holidays, a recognition that service on these days is infrequent and there are many empty seats to fill.  Finally, the transfer is one of the few devices that favour the off-peak, short-trip traveler: they allow unlimited boardings for a 90-minute period, long enough for those going short distances to complete both ends of a trip in one fare.

Poorer service outside rush hours seems to be a good way of keeping the service from appearing too appealing to those suburbanites who buy unlimited-use passes and might otherwise be tempted to use them for other trips.

In summary, urbanites need quite different transit service than suburbanites, thanks to their shorter trips, need to travel at any hour, and residential location close to shops and transit and the higher house and parking costs that characterize urban sectors.

The suburbanite, in contrast, is happy to have a car that he either leaves at home during his work hours to avoid parking costs, or drives on crowded suburban streets to a job with free parking; either way, he like transit (the second group believes that congestion is reduced by his neighbour’s use of it).  The latter wants fast service with  no road congestion or few stops along the way.  They see the premium for ‘location efficiency’ to be less than the cost of driving extra; the idea of not owning a car is not something they see location efficiency making possible, although car-sharing does just that for over 1,700 members (what is has grown to since starting in 2000.

For the proposed upgrade to ‘rapid transit,’ the light-rail plan, the suburbanites get their vision fulfilled — sort of.  They get speed and the comfort of rail service both classes agree on that comfort.  The suburbanites disappointment is that the $2.1 plan will be putting rail only a couple kilometres to the west (and only about half-way to Orleans in the east).  And the tunnels in downtown for three stations, while being close to dense development, will be a 100 feet underground, requiring long rides on escalators.  At least the routes #1-18 will stay on the surface for intra-downtown trips.

If urbanites were to have been allowed to design the next generation transit system, it would have been planned for main streets, like mayoral candidate Clive Doucet’s proposed Carling Avenue line to the west.  The seniors who travl so much along those streets, would love the ride: the smother acceleration and braking, and the sideway movements in and out of bus bays.

Of course, the new citizen commissioners will not form a majority (four of out 12 total), and thus will have a hard time steering the service ‘pendulum’ back to the middle, to a blend of urban and suburban priorities.   It will be up to a nominating committee of three councilor-commissioners to decide if there will be a least one such user on the commission.   It’s rather daunting to think it could be me.



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