Thinking Outside the Box, er, Car (2007)

Submission to the Ottawa Mayor’s Task Force on Transportation
Chris Bradshaw, May 8, 2007

PERSONAL NOTE:  I submitted my name to serve on this task force.  Besides not being chosen, I also was not contacted in any way to influence the process in any secondary way.  From your website, despite the fact that you are required to report to the Mayor before the end of this month, and you have a mandate to provide a public-input forum, there is nothing which invites any input, nor is there any information on the progress of the task force’s work.  I submit this in an effort to influence your work.

I am keenly interested in transportation for a number of reasons:

●    I had a career in municipal planning in Ottawa
●    I founded and led Ottawa’s pedestrian association, Ottawalk, 1988-2000
●    I founded and co-managed Vrtucar, Ottawa carsharing club, 2000-2006
●    I have been a member, and worked for, Citizens for Safe Cycling, and am owner of several folding and cargo bikes/trailers
●    I have a c.v. that includes many papers and presentations on transportation and community.
●    My wife and I have lived without a car of our own since 1995.

I do not subscribe to any conventional transportation philosophy, by any means.  Your website shows that you are to focus on the basic definition, “means of conveyance or travel from one place to another.”  I think you will find my ideas refreshing.

I.    Basic Principles:

First, all trips require walking, or, for those with difficulty in doing this, rolling. Walking is the mode which has the smallest “footprint,” lowest cost to the user, is utilized by the greatest percentage of the population, and is the most social and civic mode of transportation.  Further, people enjoy walking, but treat driving, riding in a car, and even transit as something they have to do.  Dependence on a car is not to be confused with “love,” as in “People love their car.”

Second, walking would be all we would require for daily and weekly trips if densities were high enough, although we would need other modes to receive goods and dispose of wastes.  This is what cities were a hundred years ago before they encountered problems and people started to “flee” them.   Although longer trips must be accommodated, they should – thanks to an inherent “scalar hierarchy” which dictates that the shortest trips are the most frequent and the longest the least frequent – be relatively small in number, not requiring massive resources or a transit system that discriminates against short-distance trips.

Third, the “alternatives” to “the car” have all been, over time, degraded by the continued growth of car use and ownership, such that many people who drive feel forced to do so by declining conditions of walking/cycling/transit safety, convenience, and cost.

Fourth, our transit system, like all such systems in the ‘developed world,’ is focused on only a small part of its potential client base: peak-hour commuting trips from low-density residential areas to high-density work areas.  Only a small number of commutes meet this combination; and commutes are only a small percentage of all trips.  As such, those who don’t own a car are disdained by transit planners as “transit captive,” while those with their own car are “transit choice” riders, reflecting the reality that transit people ignore their most loyal clients, and focus on the most fickle.  Is it really a legitimate municipal role to force people to buy cars, a personal ‘appliance’ that is designed only for use on public rights-of-way?

Fifth, although the bus system has styled itself for peak-hour commuting, and although such commuting is not a challenging form of travel (regular, uncomplicated, carrying nothing more than a brief case), the percentage of commuters using it is still very low; and the ability to meet the official-plan goal of doubling the modal share, if far beyond achievement with the current thinking.

Sixth, the main competitor for transit is not car use, as much as car-ownership.  The Toronto-based Centre for Sustainable Transportation, in 1996, pointed out that car-ownership is the one factor most closely correlated to car use.  If a person has a car available to them, they will use it.  And with the high fixed costs ownership entails, they will work to get a minimum of 20,000 kms of use a year out of it.  That leaves only variable costs as what they think of as the price they face when they do actually use it: gasoline and the infrequent parking fee.  No wonder a car owner demands a lower transit fare than a non-carowner: they are subsidizing themselves for the $500-$700/month in fixed costs, which makes driving seem less costly than using transit.  Coupled with the convenience of just-outside-the-house and permanent access, ‘weather-proof-ness,’ and hyper-privacy, the car is a very irresistible package.  Once it is bought, bus service is pushed far back in the owner’s as an alternative.  For this reason, a successful transit system must have as its prime goal the provision of a service that makes the ownership of a car unnecessary and impractical. Car sharing is a form of access that shifts all the fixed costs to variable, making it show its true trip costs and allowing trip-by-trip decision-making to include all modes.

Seventh, it is clear, of those living in higher density environments with most conveniences nearby, including frequent transit, relatively few eschew car ownership.  Look at the sad situation where the city requires lots of parking to be provided by developers of infill condo developments (and offices1) near main streets and served by good transit.  The developer then has to sell the spots, which put the price at $25,000 each (obviously subsidized compared to the price/ft2 of the apartment, plus separate monthly condo fee).  The higher prices of these units reflects a superior location.  Without an owned car, the residents of these units could actually live for less money than those living in less expensive, but car-dependent units in the suburbs.  Carsharing is perfect for this kind of living.

Eighth, ridesharing, despite, official Ottawa endorsement, is not getting off the ground.  Most ‘ridesharing’ that is counted is where people who share a household (and most share a bed), have decided to commute in a single car.  Where the more anonymous ridesharing is successful, it a) is heavily subsidized, b) is given special priority on roads and in parking lots, and c) get lots of help from employers by providing employees guaranteed ride homes or protection from last-minute demands by superiors that would cause rides to be missed.  The schemes also are disrupted by a) dependency on one driver-owner providing the service, whose vacations and illnesses are serious challenges, b) limitations in non-tripsharing vehicle uses, when larger vans are used, or c) the requirement to own a car, if the service depends on sharing the driving (and each sharer is required to have his/her own car).

II.    Proposals:

1.    Ottawa must commit itself as a city in which people can live without owning a car2.  This doesn’t mean that people can’t drive or otherwise use cars, but that they won’t be forced, by city policies, to provide their own private automobile in order to use what is, after all, a public amenity.  The City must realize that ownership of what was once a “family car,” but is now “personal,” imposes on the City: a) a high cost for providing enough lane-kilometres of road to accommodate the high probability it will be on our roads for long distances and at peak-demand periods, b) high general car-use to justify high fixed costs, c) high ownership caused by the corollary, “the only car available of all these hundreds of thousands of cars I see every day, is the one with my name on it,” and d) a requirement to impose on developments such high parking quotas that parking becomes free, a significant “private subsidy.”  Once a private car is purchased, it not only will add 18,000 kilometres of driving to the city’s streets, but since it sits parked 95-99% of a its ‘life,’ it requires 6-8 additional parking spots the city’s inventory.  Perhaps the most serious cost to the city is the inefficient demand-pattern for transit that ensures it can never get enough business at the optimal times to cover its costs.

2.    Ottawa must support forms of car access that don’t require ownership. One of the most common, taxi service, needs reform to reverse high prices, allow part-time cars to be available at peak periods, and provide seamless links to transit.  Ridesharing needs to be more aggressively promoted.  And carsharing, provided exclusively by Vrtucar since 2000, should be supported to a) expand to the suburbs and especially work areas, and b) helped to introduce technology that will allow for a second-generation service that will allow one-way travel between “pods,” and on-the-fly ridesharing, also linked to transit.  I am working on defining this kind of mature car-sharing broadly enough to allow it to eventually replace our one-car-one-person regime.  I see it being able to reduce a population’s overall car use by at least 50%, peak demand by 80%, and parking demand by 90%.  And because a different vehicle – and mode – can be chosen for each trip – or even ‘leg’ of a trip – there will be a market for many smaller cars.  Since the cars will be part of a business fleet, the vehicles will be better monitored and the driver more scrutinized.  Think of this and how it will set a positive example for Third World cities just embracing the car!

Just as taxis are adding technology to serve customers better, so is the carsharing industry, which is using GPS and GMS that allow all cars’ current location to be known, certain driver’s driving pattern to be monitored, and for significant cost savings for documentation, security, and maintenance.  A vehicle shared by many people is financially more likely to justify such technology.  But R&D funding would help.

3.    The City should work with a carsharing provider – as the City of Vancouver is now doing – to locate cars at all its workplaces, replacing both the city vehicles used only for business travel and many employee’s private car used only for workday personal travel, since shared cars can serve both, along with providing a superior form of ridesharing.  The city should also look at supporting the siting of carshare vehicles at all employment concentrations of more than 500 workers such as business parks. These places are far from residential areas, are low density, and usually lack such conveniences as banks, restaurants, dry-cleaners, and pharmacies.  A worker needs to know that, when they leave home without a car, they can, on short notice, get access to one when they need it, not only on evenings when they have to work late, or during a day when a sick child must be picked up from school, but also when a short-notice work trip is imposed on them, or a ‘hot tip’ has to be followed up at lunch.   Carsharing can provide this kind of access – perhaps through memberships provided through the employers participating in a ‘transportation management association’ (Ottawa has only one: the one the old ‘Region’ mandated for Nortel at its central campus) – for no subsidy at all.

4.    The city should ‘get real’ about the nature of car-use numbers.  Even though planners have included ‘smart growth’ principles in their plans, they are failing at implementing them for several important reasons – reasons which alternative car-access schemes will overcome. Under our one-car-one-person regime, city planners are overpowered by city road engineers who point to car-purchase and driving statistics that reflect historical growth twice as fast as population.  The claim that such numbers show that “people love their cars.”  Sorry, people need a car at certain times, and once forced to buy one, will over-use it.  A city whose citizens get their access via a common fleet will change the “transportation environment” so much that participants will naturally resolve locational challenges, not with just more cars and more driving, but with a better use of cheaper, more convivial, low-footprint modes of travel, higher patronage of small local businesses nearer to their residences and workplaces, and better decisions about where to live and where to work.

5.    Our transit system should be oriented for more balance, which is at the heart of overcoming the average perception that “everyone needs a car,” and overcoming the high subsidy our system – indeed any North American system – requires.  A transit system serving a city whose citizens share a common fleet would level out its demand over the day and week – which now creates the expensive reality of most of its fleet sitting idle and not earning its way most of the week and the idle buses’ drivers being paid a premium to work awkward split shifts.  This will be done by increasing its use during ‘off-peak’ hours, while, at the same time, relying on the shared-car fleet to provide shared-ride kind of transit that will skim off some of its current peak users, while attracting very large numbers of current car-driving commuters who rightly feel that OC Transpo ignores their low-density-area-to-low-density areas daily trips, which standard transit flat-out can’t (and won’t) serve with anything that respects rider’s needs.  Ride-sharing is far more practical and feasible when the vehicle is a standard car and any of several drivers can drive it, making the service invulnerable to the work schedule or health of the vehicle’s private owner, and being a practical vehicle for legitimate off-peak one-occupant travel.  This means that the transit service can concentrate on service on its “spine,” and work with taxi and carsharing to provide linkages for off-hours in low density areas.

6.    The planners need to prepare for a great more demand for infill development.  That demand will come from the conversion of off-street parking areas that will become redundant – if planners allow parking requirements drop or disappear, letting parking become entrepreneurial3.  First, they should have incentives for land owners to convert the freed-up land to green space as well as more built form.  Second, they should have a process in which the extra buildings are zoned for land uses that will bring more balance – more “location efficiency” – to the immediate area (housing, if there is too much employment; stores, if there is not enough of them; or a special facility, where nearby residents now need to driver to reach one).  This will require more neighbourhood/district studies.  Third, the surplus parking that is in structures needs to be studied to facilitate non-vehicle uses, to avoid demolition.  For example, some could be used for self-storage, and many service providers could rent such spaces to reduce their travel – and parking – costs of reaching clients in high-density areas, and give up all or part of their remote office-park locations.  It is not ironic that the areas that will potentially experience the most freed-up land and redevelopment opportunities are the ones that now lack the most such location efficiency.

7.    What does this all say about light-rail?  Drop it, now.  It is a lousy compromise that is simply not suitable.  It is an attempt by inter-city rail enthusiasts to compensate for the romance of inter-city passenger rail, and prevent to loss of urban artifacts of this period of our history (which should be retained – but for inter-city, not intra-city travel).  Light-rail has succeeded in getting built for one simple reason: the votes are there.  Suburban voters find them better than buses, think riding them would be ‘cool,’ and every voter thinks they will free up road space – even of only the other guy uses it.  Unlike streetcars, light rail gains speed only by traveling through open space and spacing stations too far apart to serve the customers living along its route.  They won’t really succeed, because, as former Toronto Mayor, John Sewell, said in Ottawa a few years ago, main-line transit belongs only on/over/under main streets, and streets designated to become intimate, ‘pedestrian-crossable’ ones. This is where the higher densities of residences, where professional offices, and where most of the services people want to reach are located within a short walk.  A service that is appropriate for dense corridors is either streetcars or some above/below technology that is much more expensive to build, but faster (and therefore brings more revenues per time unit of travel, but not as much if trips are not priced by distance – see next two recommendations).  A surface service will work quite quickly if a shared-car regime is put into place simultaneously, thanks to lower amounts of driving, especially during peak periods.  Also, average trip length should decline with ‘location efficiency’ that will accompany it, and this places less priority on accommodating fairly long trips (over 5 kms, which constitute a very large share of peak-hour transit trips).4

8.    What does this all mean for the way we operate buses?  Buses work best serving main streets that have continuous ICI uses along its length.  Ideally all patron destinations are already within 400 m of such a route.  Frequency is very important.  The reliance by OC Transpo on published schedules, the automated telephone service, and website have been used to give staff the illusion that low frequency is not as much of a problem to patrons as it is, the rationale being: since patrons can do their waiting elsewhere more productively and in greater comfort.  Off-peak frequency increases will become a self-fulfilling strategy, as it will, in itself, attract more users, and the other strategies recommended here will ensure more people living in a way that will require more transit access for mid-range trips (and incidentally, fewer longer ones) will pay the price of ‘admission.’

9.    Fare Structure.  I have two issues with fares.  The first is the lack of any distance-sensitive and time-sensitive pricing.  The other is the need to offer a second timed-transfer option.

Because the start/stop of transit vehicles and the collection of bus fares are a matter of significant overhead, and because the system tries to be very competitive with the driving for peak-hour commutes, the service has a bias against short and non-peak trips.  Even though these trips cost it considerably less to provide, there is no cost-break for this.  Peak-hour demand imposes significant costs in terms of more buses and more expensive manpower costs than are required for off-peak trip.  Off-peak demand utilizes these inefficient resources, by getting more use and revenue out of both.  And short trips provides more fares per seat-kilometre.  Reverse commuting is a third opportunity, by converting deadhead kilometres to revenue kilometres5.  Currently, the only premium fare charged is for rural service and for special limited-stop routes.  The former is relatively new and represents a compromise between charging full price, or not having any service at all.  The latter reflects, not the cost of a peak-service to OC Transpo, but a benefit to the riders of not having to stop as many times per unit of distance or time, and thus translates into a higher average speed.  Ironically, such fast service represents a savings to the agency, but because it allows a few bus-driver teams to squeeze in an extra peak-hour run some days.  However, this efficiency is eaten up by the cost to taxpayers of providing the transitway that isolates buses from road congestion.

Under a regime of shared cars, there is less need for the transit service to compete with the car alternative; in fact, many commuters should be picked up by ridesharing of various kinds.  As such, the rider should be charged realistic costs, and that means introducing fare cards that charge for both the time-of-week costs and for distance.  Such a technology would need to have the rider feed an on-board reader his car both on entry and on exit, so that the distance and the exact times of the ride are known to the system that deducts a charge from each card’s ‘balance’ after each exit (although some discounts might be provided when the pass is used for another boarding a few minutes later, signifying that the rider transferred).  This should replace the existing unlimited-use passes, which have the unfortunate effect of not providing OC Transpo any feedback on the details of their use, along with allowing some patrons – those probably without cars or those who use it for their work – to be freeloaders, using it excessively.  The feast-or-famine nature of these passes discriminate against those who can’t predict at the beginning of a month whether or not they will use it enough to warrant the cost.

Also, like most transit companies, OC Transpo treats short trips as being a nuisance.  It does this not only by not charging by distance – and thereby overcharging for short trips – but by the way it structures the service – long distances between stops (on the O-Train and on bus routes on the transitway and in newer areas) and the low vehicle frequencies.  This discourages all but those who have serious challenges and infinite patients.  The seniors, admittedly get a cost break for this reality, but not others.  The only other break these people get is the 90-minute unlimited-use transfer, but only for short stays at the opposite end.  It would be nice to extend that service so that those who pay with a three-ticket fare (a 50% premium) would get a, say, four-hour or five-hour (240- or 300-minute) unlimited-use transfer.  This would still prevent them from being used by full-time workers, but allow some part-timers and some with slightly longer stays, to benefit.  As to the $28.25/mo seniors’ passes6, they can be accommodated with a distinction made in the fare card that charge them at, say, a 35-50% rate.  I should also point out that I have been a retiree for 11 years, and still have two years to go to meet OC Transpo’s definition of a senior (the seniors’ activity centre in my neighbourhood defines me a senior at age 50).  Since I don’t get my federal entitlements until 65, I am more “needy” now.

10.    I have developed, to a conceptual level, two new forms of transit that: a) do not support sprawl, b) save enormous amounts of energy, and c) are compatible with main-street, mixed-use, medium density development.  These could become made-in-Ottawa exports, as the transitway was.

The underground “Gravi-tram” depends on gravity for acceleration and braking, and has no on-board engine or fuel (since it is powered like roller-coasters, needing an external ‘boost’ to get into the next station), and avoids the need for underground stations, escalators, and security.

The, other, the “Osci-tram” has on-board engines but only enough electric or inertial energy for one-kilometre of service, thanks to its short route of one kilometre.  By going back and forth along a short stretch of street, it avoids the need to pass other trams, and therefore uses the same tracks for both directions.  The freed-up space can be used for human-powered and one-person light powered vehicles (such as scooters and Segways) that adhere to the 25-km/h speed limit.

11.    An important factor in getting the location-efficiency concept across to citizens could be the property-tax regime.  Property taxes should return to being a fee servicing a property, to cover the costs of municipal government that are related to length of street fronted, the amount of land used for parking, and the location of the property (which imposes widely varying trip lengths on the inhabitants).  Today’s taxes are a bad compromise that mixes the traditional measure of the amount of real-estate with a poor measure of ability to pay (property values).  The amount of property that is most relevant is frontage, since that dictates the amount of roadway and piped services per-housing unit that the city must install and maintain; the land value is more a measure of location-efficiency – which the City should be rewarding – than it is a measure of ability to pay, as any senior homeowner will attest.  Thus, location-efficiency should be a reverse factor, translating into lower property taxes.  Finally, any such tax should include a factor for the number of parking spaces on the property; it is, after all, the accommodation of cars – and the subsidies to transit that wide-car use, through its denial of minimal usage levels, imposes – that constitute so much of a municipality’s budget.7

To make things clearer, such assessments should no longer be termed “property taxes,” but “property fees,” just as use of water, recreation facilities, etc. are fees.  Core services would be covered what Councillor Hume is suggesting: a municipal income tax.
III.    Conclusion:

We are in a downward spiral.  We build huge roads to compete against cheaper, more inclusive, cleaner, kinder/gentler travel options.  These roads support and stimulate longer trips and low density, isolated development that simply requires more and more roads and road-widenings.  People who prefer otherwise, only chose alternatives as a gesture.  The car is a dependency that creates conditions that only more car dependency can overcome.  We must break out of this downward spiral.

When it comes to commuting, we need to say to our citizens that the city no longer will provide a transportation system for commuting a) by car, b) alone, c) over long distances.  Those who insist on a long daily commute should not expect to do it alone in a 5-8 passenger motor car.  The city should confront such “dumb” thinking by simply not accommodating it. Even the provincial government reflects such thinking when, on the one hand, it forces school closings when 10% of desks are empty, while, while on the other, spending hundreds of millions of dollars widening its urban freeways for cars that are 80% empty.  As the Citizen said in a city-section editorial last week, people should be ensuring their place of work/school and place of residence are close enough for a walk, a bicycle ride, or a no-transfer transit ride.  If they don’t, they will have to use transit that is geared more to shorter trips or some form of ridesharing.  Period.


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