Opinion: tomorrow’s rapid transit will support today’s urban sprawl

Prowling the depths: best left to auto traffic?

Chris Bradshaw is the co-founder of Vrtu-car, and was co-owner until 2006. He is also a co-founder and long-time (1988-2000) executive member of Ottawalk. He is now a member of the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee. Chris and his wife live car-lite in Sandy Hill.

Originally submitted as a comment, the following is Chris’s response to an earlier Spacing Ottawa post (“The History of the Ottawa subway”) wherein author Alain Miguelez outlined his reasons for supporting the City’s plans to build a transit tunnel underneath downtown Ottawa.

The history related by Alain Miguelez shows that the wonderful ‘moment’ we have today is partly thanks to the procrastination of previous generations of planners and politicians; otherwise, we would be stuck with yesterday’s technology and problematique. It is sobering to consider whether the plan now waiting for funding and environmental assessment will suffer the same fate. I expect so.

I start with the premise that people belong at the surface of cities. Let vehicles with their power and speed use the subterranean spaces. For instance, downtown auto users are either passing through or destined for an underground parking garage. Why don’t they go underground, instead of people? And the proposal’s enormous number of very long escalators should simply be strung out horizontally for moving sidewalks to connect two super stations at either end of downtown, like Denver does (linked for decades by free electric buses on the surface).

There is also the matter of the routes 1 through 18 that don’t use the transitway today, and won’t tomorrow. They serve the nearer urban sectors, housing people who have the good sense to live closer to their city-centre jobs. At least those traveling within the core will have these routes, rather than heading down 100 feet and back up for just a kilometre trip. And Alain makes too much of a point about standing waiting for a bus in cold weather. This is also the argument for underground tunnels and overhead passages, which Jean Pigott championed for so long, and which are going nowhere. ‘Climate’ also includes the feelings of isolation that breed dread when one is riding below-grade escalators, standing at almost empty stations, or wandering ‘plus-15’ passageways (often lost). Being a little chilly on a public street is my preference.

The argument about surface congestion is not just about too many cars, but the enormous number of buses serving different routes to commuters supposedly averse to transfers. That makes the buses poorly utilized, too. This inefficiency is to be overcome by a hub-and-spoke system that is beginning to be implemented (and which I defended in a Citizen letter four years ago — especially if the resultant transfers occurred at points where riders could do some shopping or other errands), but to suggest that implementation is unique to either an underground tunnel or even to rail transit is erroneous. It can be done on the surface with our current BRT (bus rapid transit). I simply don’t find downtown congested, except for the bus lane.

If one wants to look into the future a little further, one will find a decline in auto ownership and people living much closer to their work and to denser main-street and suburban activity-centre development. The corner store will also have made a comeback, making walking-only travel more common for errands. Trips of all types will be shorter and this in itself will make ‘rapid transit’ with its far-apart stations and isolated rights-of-way. Speed will be of secondary importance.

Yes, I’ll say it: rapid transit is a concept and technology to support today’s sprawl. It attracts only a) those commuting to jobs where parking is far from free (not in the suburbs), and b) at other hours, only those who don’t value their time or convenience very highly, thanks to low frequencies. So above-average-salary worker face the expensive option: own a car they don’t drive to work, and then pay an unlimited-use pass to commute, as well as transit subsidies in their property taxes. The suburban worker at least avoids the monthly transit pass and uses his ‘private transit.’ But the lower-income downtown worker (e.g., office cleaners, tourism/hospitality workers) have the worst situation: long-commutes at off-peak, higher property taxes, and still the cost of owning a car for non-commute travel.

We need to re-visit streetcars (they are a part of the long-term plan, with services on Montreal Road and Carling Avenue, but are so far off that every pundit has forgotten them), and just tell citizens that long trips in the city will be hell in the future (as if they aren’t now!). We can’t meet climate-change and peak-oil challenges by following the path we are following now.

photo by Rene Schwietzke


  1. I’m not sure if I agree with Chris’ final conclusions, but I will agree with his intermediate ones–that the rail project currently proposed will not serve to adequately improve transit usage.

    For one, the much-touted ‘rail’ plan, according to the estimates in early 2008 (which have since grown considerably) allocated $1.5 billion of the then-$4 billion project to more buses in the suburbs.

    As for the rail component, the 2008 Transportation Master Plan (TMP) includes only 12km of rail transit, one tenth of the amount in the 2003 version. And with a considerably higher price tag per kilometer. 12km won’t even reach into a single suburb, even if it were all on one side of downtown. How is condemning people to 25 more years of a commute mainly by bus supposed to attract people to public transit?

    Then there’s the chronically unused Prince of Wales rail bridge. The City didn’t presume any cross-river transit in the 2008 TMP, saying they’ll leave that decision to the Interprovincial Transit Study, conducted by a partnership of the City of Ottawa, STO, and NCC. Now that the Interpovincial Transit Study is underway, they’re not suggesting any plans to use the rail bridge, saying it isn’t in the City’s 2008 TMP! I hear a similar shell game is being used on the Gatineau side.

    The last rail plan was bad, and this one’s much worse. And nearly everybody in the City seems to be in on it.

  2. While you put forward a very well-written argument, I can not agree with your point that rapid transit only suits suburban sprawl, even in a smaller urban centre such as Ottawa.

    I especially take exception to this point here:
    “They serve the nearer urban sectors, housing people who have the good sense to live closer to their city-centre jobs. At least those traveling within the core will have these routes, rather than heading down 100 feet and back up for just a kilometre trip.”

    There seems to be a sub-group of urban dwellers that predict the death of suburbia where people will all abandon the long-existent suburbs and move downtown, and that anybody with sense has already done so. Peak oil, they say, will do this. Therefore, we must aim to make transit as slow as possible to reward the yuppies and hipsters living downtown, and to hell with the middle class families that for a multitude of reasons (and not just because they like their cars), live in the suburbs. So let’s just build streetcars.

    Perhaps this ideal might have made sense back 30 years ago, when people didn’t switch careers as much as they do now, by choice, or by necessity. A house that might be close to work today may end up on the other side of town five years from now, even if the employer remains the same. Just moving around to follow your job doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    The suburbs that already have been built are here to stay. I say, let’s move forward with rapid transit and try to make the suburbs work so that cars won’t be the necessity they are now. That means intensifying suburban nodes and connecting them together and with the downtown core. We’re never going to see Ottawa contract to an area within Base Line, St. Laurent and Woodroffe, the extent that a purposely slow neighbourhood trolley could possibly serve, so let’s be realistic. Rapid transit – the Ottawa LRT – makes the most sense for the city region we have now.

    That said, I wouldn’t be against curbing current sprawl. Many of those rapid transit stations would make excellent densification nodes – look at other cities – Vancouver and Toronto immediately come to mind – how stations, even suburban ones, can attract the right kind of development. And build those streetcars, and direct some more growth along streets like Montreal Road. But you aren’t going to turn Kanata back into farmlands anytime soon.

    As for moving cars underground: that’s going to be at least as expensive as a LRT – the picture shown is the Boston Big Dig, moving a downtown arterial underground at an enormous expense. I wouldn’t dream of burying the Queensway. At least bus nodes and, yes, parking lots and garages, at the ends of a LRT will allow you to reduce the number of cars coming downtown, getting rid of surface lots and perhaps even allowing for more pedestrian malls and wider sidewalks.

  3. Sean – note that the DOTT doesn’t go to the suburbs until some undefined time after 2031. Only to Blair, Baseline, and South Keys.

  4. This seems like a good place to link a recent post by Jarrett Walker of Human Transit, where he asks: “Is speed obsolete?“.

    The distinction in this post (surface transit vs. grade-separated transit) boils down, in general, to slow transit vs. fast transit. I agree that building rapid transit to underdeveloped suburban areas is bad for city-building, but rapid transit does work well when it links distant nodes where there is existing density. In these cases it competes with driving instead of walking. I’m not familiar with Ottawa’s light rail proposal or its geography, so I won’t comment on this project, but I think the issue is a bit more nuanced than this post makes it out to be.

  5. Charles’ comments relate more to the deficiencies of an expensive plan that does too little too late. But he seems to endorse the view that rail is so much better for ‘rapid transit’ than buses. I agree it is better, but by a fairly small margin, and thus won’t attract many additional riders, making it even more expensive on a capital$$/new-rider analysis. And that cost translates into a slow roll-out for the new technology, which is Charles’ second point. Ottawa made a RT technology choice 30 years ago, and should stick with it (BRT, bus rapid transit, is becoming more popular for cities with only arterial bus service). It is very expensive to change one’s mind.

    Sean, on the other hand, criticizes me for things I didn’t say. My comment about people in the climate-change/peak-oil future will not be willing to travel so far to get to a job — or to even their shopping and recreation — doesn’t mean that the current suburbs will become ghost towns. They will finally lose some of their prurient manners and allow for some small-scale commercial and community services, no larger than can serve the ‘walk/bicycle shed’ (catchment area of about 10 km squared). Corner stores will start appearing; off-street parking lots at malls and big-box centres will be redeveloped to housing, as mall storefronts will be halved for double the # of shops.

    As to people changing jobs so frequently that having to move every time would be onerous, his point ignores how onerous it today (and sure to become worse in the future) to commute long distances at peak period, with everyone occupying 10-30 times the space they would if walking or cycling or using transit. They also will realize that leaving their ‘community’ for 9-12 hours five days a week, means that it isn’t really a community at all.

    And community is hurt not just by the absences of its most active members (even the kids in school are ‘encased’ away from the community life, too — why go home at lunch to a house that is empty?), but by the fast, automobile-dense traffic all this long-distance (commuting) and district (recreation/shopping) travel entails.

    At least people should arrange for their job to be in their district/neighbourhood, so that streetcars will serve 90 percent of their travel beyond what walking and bicycling can serve. The car should be not needed in the city; just parked at the perimeter for trips into the countryside. In that case, it doesn’t need to be owned individually, but shared.

  6. Chris, I agree. Most suburbs won’t disappear by being reclaimed as farmland (though there are some poorly-located ones that might) but by densifying into urban districts. Tramlines create anchors and would help this process.

  7. “The history related by Alain Miguelez shows that the wonderful ‘moment’ we have today is partly thanks to the procrastination of previous generations of planners and politicians; otherwise, we would be stuck with yesterday’s technology and problematique. It is sobering to consider whether the plan now waiting for funding and environmental assessment will suffer the same fate. I expect so.”

    Alain never said this. It appears to me to be a complete and purposeful twisting of his words, as he said clearly that he wonders why it took so long to build the tunnel downtown. I find this style of argument to be quite misleading.

    I also can only guess that you don’t understand the effect that rapid transit has on communities. Without rapid transit, sprawl increases, and we end up with tomorrow’s sprawl on top of today by the time when, in 10 years or 15 years, peak oil becomes impossible to ignore. Rapid transit, on the other hand, creates urban villages within the existing urban fabric – think Yonge-Eglington or North York in Toronto, Metrotown or Joyce or the growing Brentwood area in Vancouver. It’s turning existing sprawl into actual cities, places where people can walk to do all their daily errands, where jobs can be focused outside of downtown yet still served by transit, and helping to address environmental and urban problems caused by a dependence on cars for all trips.

    Inner-cities are not going to all of the sudden be able to hold all the people in the entire metro regions of any major city in the country, and inner-city land values are continuing to rise disproportionately to other areas, even as you mention that many poor have to work in the downtown area. That means poorer people end up around the periphery, much like exists today in many European cities such as Paris, and without rapid transit those people’s lives are turned upside down. Transit problems have been discussed as one of the possible factors in why many in the outskirts of Paris feel so disconnected, despite the fact that the city itself is so well served by transit. To say that rapid transit somehow makes the lives of poor worse is absurd – you’re slowing down people’s commutes by keeping it on the surface.

    Congestion isn’t going to disappear, either, just because you build a hub and spokes style bus model. Either way, the same number of people still need to travel out of downtown, and so the number of buses will not decrease by much while those buses will remain stuck behind cars in many cases. At the same time, having that extremely slow on-street period in the downtown makes cross-town trips, which are becoming more frequent, far more cumbersome by transit.

    And finally, I don’t know why you find subways so bleak. They can be done extremely well, as in Montreal, Moscow, Munich, Bilbao, or they can be done awfully, just as is true with any transit. But even in Toronto or Vancouver’s underground sections, I’ve never felt what you described.

  8. Getting these comments helps me explain myself better.

    1. ‘Rapid transit’ is an oxymoron: a service is either rapid or it provides transit. Our system is bifurcated into a transit service and a rapid service: a) a service that runs along main streets that is slower, but connects to the busiest businesses and centres, and b) a faster service that runs longer distances between fewer stations. The latter consists of express routes that don’t exist outside rush hour (and therefore don’t serve people working outside regular hours) and don’t service business parks outside the centre (and thus don’t have a serious transit option of any kind) as well as a few mainline routes that run only on the transitway, and require connecting to local three-digits, slow, infrequent routes.

    2. Subways are the best compromise: it keeps the route near ‘the action’ but it isn’t so fast. While avoid street-level congestion and traffic signals, it is slowed by closer stations and in-station times for heavy boarding
    [above-the-street routes (e.g., Vancouver’s skytrain) are noisier and visually intrusive)]. But putting stations 10 storeys underground, makes it slower yet (see below), degrading the option while making the cost higher. Stations are usually half the cost of underground transit; in this case it is higher.

    3. The successful suburban intensification projects work because rapid transit gets those living there to their downtown (and near-rapid-transit-stations) jobs, and to everything else by foot or bike. Those masses living not that close to these nodes (which will still be the majority of suburban lands) still need to own a car (as do those who live in the node but work at isolated workplaces). There is still no local good (slow) transit for the trips to shopping/services/appointments that are almost always shorter than work trips — and more frequent.

    4. Remember that the shorter the overall trip, the less important the travel speed, and the more important the distance one has to walk (horizontally and vertically) to reach transit stations (at both ends of each trip, not to mention walking/waiting when transfering). That distance can be long, even when one lives right next to the rapid-transit line, if there is no station there.

    My comment about choosing a technology, which Tess suggested I had misquoted Alain on, was really partly tongue-in-cheek, and reflects irony. Most cities are lethargic about making tough, expensive decisions on matters of road congestion and the challenging of development patterns. They, though, keep their options open, watching how the small number who take chances and act early do with their systems. Ottawa, despite the cold feet on the Chiarelli light-rail plan, has been a leader, in that we made a decision for BRT (bus rapid transit) three decades ago, and followed up decisively. It is being emulated around the world (but rarely within soft-tushy world of North America). Even the Outaouais is following the BRT example.

    Ottawa has become a follower since then, envying Edmonton’s, Calgary’s, and more recently Toronto’s surface light-rail systems. We even almost accepted a proposal in the 1980s by previous Regional Chair Andy Haydon to build a downtown tunnel for the diesel buses. It was thought to be too expensive and never made it very far. It was closer to the surface (Thanks to buses being able to weave between parking garages more easily) but would need better air circulation to handle the diesel fumes.

    But the present attempt to switch the busway sections to rail transit (not just add rail to Carleton U, the airport, and the South Urban Community) is folly and ridiculously expensive. It reflect little more than the West and East having rail envy. (And given the long distances and multiple transfers between their homes and the Tunney’s Pasture terminus of the rail service, they won’t have much to crow about).

    I live close enough to downtown to see current rush-hour conditions. It is not that congested _outside_ the single east-bound and single west-bound bus-only lanes. There are other downtown streets available, plus my idea for putting cars destined for parking garages downtown (a much different idea that Boston’s ‘big dig’). One can also tax parking spaces downtown, and facilitate their conversion to industrial uses (e.g., computer-repair and some warehousing for the downtown sector).

    As to the bleakness of subways, I didn’t suggest that, although I will comment that any underground or above-ground pedestrian facilities are scary and lacking natural ventilation. They require expensive security and air-conditioning systems, plus lots of signage to keep people oriented. Art work isn’t enough.

    Chris Bradshaw

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