Ottawa Transit Retrenches

It’s been a challenging year so far for OC Transpo, the transit authority for the Ontario portion of the national capital.  They were told by the new mayor that recent annual fare hikes that were four times the rate of increases in the cost of living — intended to get revenues up to 50% of all costs — would end with a ‘modest’ 2.5% increase during the next four years.  On average.  Tickets have been approved to go up a nickel a ticket (adults require two of these for a ride), or 4 percent, but the many passes would have increases closer to the target, staff seeing no need for pass prices to be rounded to the nearest nickel.

Governance of the authority also was changed, from a committee of Council, to a commission.  Although there are still nine councillors on it (one being the mayor), there are four citizens chosen by the councillors.  They were just named and approved last week, and now await Council approval.  I had submitted my name, but, like most of the other 170 applicants, didn’t even get an invite to an interview.  The final selection gave me a better idea of what they were looking for: three are lawyers and the other an MBA strategic planner.  Despite asking for bilingual capability, only one speaks French.  The media criticism in January that they should be from the parts of the city without representation was partially heard, as two are from central area, whose councillors showed no interest in sitting on the commission.  As to being transit users, one only is a regular user, while one lives beyond the service area.  Ho Hum.

But what is currently seizing the commission and its customers is the “route optimization” plan that is now in the approved budget, and is promised to save $18 million a year.  Only three examples of cuts were shown at budget time, but now the ugly details are on the table.  The principle is that 90 percent residents in the urban service area should live within a 5-minute walk of the closest stop for peak-hour service, and within a 10-minute walk of off-peak service.  Of course, walking speed is the same regardless of who is doing it and the weather conditions (-:}

These are walking distances only at residential end of trips, not those at the destinations ends, which are more than half (since a good many trips are from destination A to destination B, rather than always going directly home from the main destination).  There is also no sign that destinations are prioritized any more than users are.  This is unfortunate, since so many users are ‘captive’, the not-so-euphemistic term used in the ‘biz’ for those who don’t have cars.  I call them PED-CIVS: poor, elderly, disabled, children, ill/infirm, visitors, and ‘symplicists,’ the last being those who choose to live frugally and with small ‘footprints.’ Unlike their ‘choice’ counterparts, they use transit for more than getting to a job that doesn’t provide free parking.  That means getting to the basic convenience outlets — grocery, pharmacy, hardware, bank, library, laundromat — several times a week.  These trips are usually outside of peak hours.  So that means that these folks: a) are expected to walk further, b) get service that significantly less frequent, c) take trips that are significantly shorter (their site says the average is 10 kms), d) travel slower (the faster transitway is rarely used by their routes), and e) represent demand that doesn’t cost OC Transpo much, since buses are rarely full during off-peak.  My pitch to the commission for half-fares for seniors played up this point, suggesting that seniors cost the service less, and thus smaller fares were simple justice.

For instance, my wife and I, who are both elderly and simplicists and my wife is also a bit infirm (arthritic knees), purposely moved in 2006 from the Glebe, where we lived 300 feet from a stop on Bank Street for two routes, to Sandy Hill, within 200 feet of six routes (and 500 feet of a seventh), and the same distance from a double-car Vrtucar station.  That has worked fairly well for four and a half years, even though two years ago, a smaller ‘optimization’ plan cut in half the route we used to get to the Ottawa Hospital’s General campus, requiring a new transfer at the no-man’s land of Hurdman Station.

Now, the new changes will eliminate the only remaining two-bus alternative to reach the hospital.  The 16 will end at Main & Lees.  And the buses we use to get to the east and west along Rideau have been reduced by two: the 5 moving north to St. Patrick, which is a speedway with no commercial uses, and the elimination of the 306, one of the last ‘communi-buses’ that serves the two seniors residences on Porter Island near New Edinburgh.  Two of our seven routes is reduced to five (but one surviving one is rush-hour only, one of the rare ones that travel in both directions each peak period).

I have emailed fellow members of the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee inviting them to analyze the many changes from the view not only of conglomerations of seniors residences (although it is provincial policy to support “aging in place,” which translates to seniors staying in poorly-located-for-transit housing) but also the kinds of destinations seniors frequent, such as seniors activity centres (the largest, Good Companions, is served by a different communi-bus that is also being eliminated, and the one near us will lose members as it no longer will provide access by those living in Alta Vista.

I plan to attend all five of the open houses, in an effort to learn more about how people depend on the service and what grief the changes will cause them.  More later.



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