Ottawa Needs a Transit Plan

To: Members of the Ottawa Transit Commission

Topic: Comments on the Master Plans [in draft form: Official Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Pedestrian Plan, Cycling Plan, Infrastructure Plan]I have attended a good many commission meetings.  I have been trying to understand the transit “biz,” and to influence the development of better transit, which included addressing the commission both as a representative of the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee — of which I am still an active member — and as an individual.  In submitting comments here, I act in the latter capacity.

My wife and I live in Sandy Hill.  We are retired with three grandchildren, two living in Ottawa.  We do not own a car, using Vrtucar a bit, but mostly walking, cycling, and transit.  This combination meets our needs for frugality and health.

I know that most of the delegations to  the Commission over the current  term have addressed service and fares of both the “fixed-route” and Para services.  The master plans are not something these groups and their “publics” easily relate to, and I suspect, you will not get that many comments on them.

But I suspect part of the fault of that is the lack of a specific “transit” master plan, as the two modes of cycling and walking get.  The gap leaves many matter untouched.  That goes for the two modes of driving cars and being a passenger in cars, plus freight transportation.  The TMP only addresses matters that are, in fact, not the domain of the commission: building infrastructure to speed up transit-passenger movement, and development around transit stations (ignoring the failure to put transit where people live and shop, which calls for streetcar service, that was in a previous plan but was not even mentioned here).

The TMP allocates $3 billion to transit infrastructure and almost $1 billion to “roads,” while beggaring walking and cycling.  And yet, the TMP, OP, and of course, the Cycling and Pedestrian plans clearly recognize the superiority for Equity, Efficiency, Affordability, and Environment/Energy factors, not to mention road congestion, to having major shifts away from car use.

I am asking, therefore, one simple thing: That the Commission request that Council, in time for the next review, prepare a master plan for transit.  I would suggest that plan would address the following matters:

1. Examine car-ownership rationale.  Why are cars purchased, and what mix of improvements to the other modes would make it possible for households to not purchase a car, including the availability of car-sharing across the whole urban area, which makes it possible to get access to cars without ownership?

2.  Revisit the business plan that is common to all public-transit agencies in North America, which is wholly based, as the draft TMP admits, on making a small dent in the modal share for drive-alone commuting at peak-hour.  That results in a certain “respect” for the residents with cars — considered “transit-choice” people — who can use their cars as a threat at rush-hour, vs. those without cars (the “transit-captive”) who must accept whatever off-peak service that is offered them.  As I’ve pointed out during previous presentations, it is most easily summed up as “walking twice as far; waiting twice as long, for a trip less than 20% as long, and still paying as much (or for seniors, about 75% as much) as “AAAs” (active, affluent adults) pay.  The current poor off-peak service will never attract those who can buy cars, even if challenges their household’s affordability standards.  So most households face the most inefficient arrangement of all: bus passes for all members over 13, and a car for each person over 16 for the rest of their trips.

3.  The TMP gives figures for the length of the average transit ride and the average car ride.  I have to suspect the figures come from the O-D Survey, which is done once every five or so years, and for a small sample of households based on one adult member’s knowledge and memory of what travel they and the others in the household did the previous day.  Thanks to the Presto system, OC Transpo can now get more data.  But here’s the question: Why has the Presto system been implemented without any way to find out where Presto users disembark?  Vrtucar and Bixi know that information, even if they have to hide identities of users to share with others; and Metrolinx’s system allows for “tapping” when disembarking, since many systems in the GTA have “zone” fares that are a crude, old-technology way of charging by distance.

4. Related to the previous question, could the Transit Master Plan examine a fare system that charges by distance?  All other modes charge some or all of their costs by distance (e.g., gas for cars, km charges for carsharing, time for bikesharing), but a 20-km cross-city commute on the transitway at peak period — when buses are in short supply and extra drivers cost a premium for split-shift work — costs the same as a senior riding at midday to go five stops to a shopping centre or health/recreation complex.  Remember the latter user has a longer walk and wait (and the probably most of the total travel time is spent on those ancillary two activities rather than sitting on a transit vehicle).

The focus on the decision of households to buy a car — or a second or third car — is going to require a great deal of research: focus groups, review of psychological and economics research to understand what choices people face, what they value most, and how they plan for their futures.  It will mean exercising leadership, rather than being happy with “peer reviews.”  Ottawa was a leader when it created the bus-based transitway system (now called BRT internationally), but now it is following again.

I want to ask for one other thing: Restore and expand that is part of the 2008 TMP: “In 2031, the ability of residents to access essential opportunities will not depend on their ownership of a car. Urban residents will be able to meet daily needs by walking, cycling, taking transit or ridesharing. . . . .”  (p. 2 of Section 3.1)  This should be carried over in this new Transit Master Plan, as a core goal of transit: to focus on reducing private car-ownership, not just on increasing ridership at peak-hours, which will not be successful if car-ownership is not tackled head-on.  The TMP does include a statement critical of “automobile dependence,” but no plan to really reduce it, including improving off-peak service, a better fare system, and making further improvements in Presto (or replace with another system).  [The lack of capacity for Para is also something that should be addressed.]   The non-transit components of these plans also need to help: by understanding that roads for cars can never by “efficient” if the owners of cars refuse to use them efficiently (most cars at rush hour carry no more than can easily be carried by cycling or walking), partly because they are not charged for most of the public costs (remember that cars are used only in public places — and much of their storage occurs there as well, and the rest requires removal of street-parking spaces for access).  The TMP recognizes the recent downward trend in car-ownership and use but doesn’t seem to understand how profound this is, since the “driver” of the trends are young people who will be around a much longer time than my generation.

In closing, let me say that the way the public consultation program for these documents has been handled has been poor.  Staff missed announced deadlines (the documents were to have been released in June, giving the public the summer to read, mull, and discuss their contents and implications).  The “slippage” has not been accommodated by extending the date by which Council wants the documents adopted by Council, which has chosen not to waive its rules to allow delegations to address the whole of them, which cannot be done at the fractured committee stage.  My decision to speak as an individual is related to this problem: groups of citizens, the executive of which usually meet once a month (and thus have only one chance to meet after the documents’ release), and their memberships meet much less frequently.  I attended the one open house in my part of Ottawa, and stayed the entire four-hour duration, but still have felt the need to ask more of them as I pore over the documents.  To all this, I have to ask, “What’s the rush? It’s a 28-year plan, FGS!”

Chris Bradshaw
494 Besserer Street, Ottawa
hearth@ties.ottawa.on.ca

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