Opinion: time is right for teenage transit to grow up

Bumper-to-bumper on our BRT - growing pains on the way to adulthood?

Reading my friend Chris Bradshaw’s recent Spacing Ottawa opinion piece on rapid transit reminds me of the challenges of a growing family. Canada is a family of cities of various ages and therefore at various stages of maturity. Montreal and Toronto are the “older children”. They were the first ones to go through the growing pains of passing through the stages of development that children experience as they move through their teenage years and into adulthood. Because they are older, they always thought of themselves as the “bigger kids” and, like most first-borns and second-borns in large families, they were the ones who had to learn from mistakes, rather than benefit from the teachings of older siblings they never had.

Ottawa, on the other hand, is one of the family’s younger children. It was cuddled and sheltered more than its older siblings and, accordingly, was spared some of the mistakes made by its older brothers and sisters. It has more green space than its older siblings. It has fewer of the harmful effects of some of the more misguided urban interventions tried by their larger siblings. It has fewer scars as a result.

But just as we don’t imagine children growing from newborn to toddler to big kids while still drinking milk from a bottle or using diapers, so cities grow out of the more junior arrangements that come from the days when they were smaller. And children usually do resist, at first, things like potty training, picking up after themselves or doing their homework after school. It’s hard to grow up. It’s also unpleasant at first. And children aren’t equipped to see the richer life that awaits them once they learn new skills and take responsibility for themselves.

So it is for cities. Human children have parents to guide then through those steps. A family like Canada lacks “parental guidance” for its cities in the form of a national government that takes both an interest and a proactive stance in guiding them through their stages of growth. I’m sure that this will change in the current century, but for now we have to rely on ourselves as a maturing city to take the steps we need to take to grow well and become an attractive, efficient and well-rounded big city.

Chris says that our LRT plan will only support today’s sprawl. I beg to differ. The LRT lines that we are planning will serve the inner core of the city at first. Granted, many of the areas along the planned lines are still suburban in nature. An investment in rail transit will set the stage for their transformation into mature urban areas which will, in time, become full-service neighbourhoods connected by rail to the rest of the denser sections of the urban area. And as a larger city, we have a larger populated area to connect. Since people won’t walk from Blair to Tunney’s, how will we get them there?

Chris points out that we should redraw our transit network as a hub-and-spoke system. I agree with him. The LRT plan us gives the opportunity to do this. The hubs will be the stations. The bigger spokes will be the LRT lines and there will also be smaller spokes connecting neighbourhoods and mainstreets with hub stations. Chris is correct in saying that bus routes like the 1-18 will still be there. They will be vital spokes feeding stations. If anything, we should aim to increase frequencies on them. The same goes for all the other spokes in the network, even those feeding BRT stations. Hub-and-spoke means transfers, and transfers mean potentially dead time waiting for the next transit vehicle. So with a hub-and-spoke system comes the responsibility of ensuring that wait times are kept to a minimum. That means frequency, an up-front investment that goes hand-in-glove with growing up as a city.

Chris says that he doesn’t find downtown Ottawa congested except for the bus lanes. Well, that’s the problem. If you are a passenger on one of those buses stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you’re right to wonder why it takes as much time to get past downtown as it takes to reach Lincoln Fields. It’s a key question. Buses or trains at grade must stop at traffic lights. Today’s bus lanes are regularly invaded by cars who cut in front of buses to make a turn, often getting caught at a red light midway through their attempt to turn and therefore clogging the city’s entire rapid transit system for the sake of one guy in a car failing to sling across an intersection. And the worst part of this is that nobody wins. The car with its single driver is still stuck in traffic, and the long caravan of buses behind it, with its hundreds or thousands of passengers, are delayed by this one guy. That’s nuts. It’s not something a mature big city can live with indefinitely.

Chris says that people belong on the surface and vehicles should use the underground. Should we envision subterranean highways? More to the point, are there not people in those vehicles? If so, does it make more sense to build a subway for single-occupant vehicles, or for trains that carry thousands per hour?

In mature big cities, subterranean spaces become part of the urban space and subway stations are key places of arrival. Last fall, Paris unveiled the results of a design competition for the urban plaza at the mouth of a major subway station on the right bank, Châtelet-Les Halles, where several métro and commuter rail (RER) lines converge. Notably, this station is on RER lines that bring people into the heart of the city from both Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle airports, and on métro lines bringing people in directly from two major rail stations, Gare du Nord and Gare Montparnasse. The plaza they were redesigning is used on a daily basis by 800,000 people and measures all of 140 m2. That’s like having three-quarters of Ottawa-Gatineau’s population transiting through an area the size of three one-bedroom apartments every day. This station is at a depth of 23 metres. The result is a sense of arrival into the heart of the city that is shared by large crowds and opens into an intimate space that acts as the doorstep to a much larger sequence of open spaces that then blend into the city. And it works. It is the epitome of participatory urban space.

Ottawa’s subway will be modest in length. At most, if the Lebreton section and Scott Street trench were to be covered and/or built-over, and if the O-Train trench were also covered, Ottawa commuters would have the “subway effect” roughly between Westboro and Lees stations, and south to Carleton University, with a break at Bayview. If the trains are allowed to run along the Ottawa River Parkway, we would have the enormous benefit of a scenic route for a good stretch of the line. In fact, this would make us unique in the world in having a clean, quiet, electric transit line providing a spectacular view of the city skyline in its farther approaches to downtown. The rest of the line is planned to be above ground, with a few subway-like stations here and there, at Baseline, St. Laurent and Blair. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find the Transitway trench along Scott Street, or the O-Train corridor along Preston Street, to be scenic experiences.

I have to reiterate, and it bears repeating, that transit needs all the competitive advantages it can get in a North American city like ours where the battle for bums on seats is fought as much against the weather as it is against the car. Subway stations are more comfortable. They can offer services and conveniences on the way to and from the street. They can connect to more buildings. They are heated and air-conditioned. They are social spaces as much as transit spaces. They offer much greater mixed-use potential than elevated stations. Witness the Chicago “L”; its elevated platforms are rickety, single-use and generally desolate spaces, barely redeemed by their vintage charms.

Trying to fit a rapid transit line on surface streets, be it BRT or LRT, means sacrifices. We have narrow, 19th Century streets in downtown Ottawa. Our Transitway shows what happens when you have so many vehicles (transit and private) using those streets. Sidewalks are narrowed. On-street parking is sacrificed, so stores can’t thrive. There’s not enough room for trees. Pedestrians are confronted with crowded surface stations and have to elbow their way through standing throngs of waiting commuters. Those, I submit, are not long-term solutions for a growing city.

Most of all, it has to be remembered that a rail transit line gives a much stronger perception of permanence, because of the sheer scope of the investment needed to build it, than a bus rapid transit line. A rail line is therefore a critical next step for our city, as we move to solidify our urban area and bring more people to live close to stations.

I want to conclude with a comment on Chris’ first paragraph. He states:

“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.”

Again, I beg to differ. Like any large family, the children born later benefit from the experience of their elders. Ottawa, like many other cities, drew up its early subway plans at times when it wasn’t ready for a subway. The genius of the Transitway is that it put the city on the right “track” for rail rapid transit. That Transitway has been a workhorse for us. It built up ridership to levels that are unmatched by any Canadian city without rail transit. For all its perceived “lesser permanence”, some non-downtown BRT stations have in their vicinities spawned significant development, which today provides enough ridership for the next level of transit service. In other words, we’ve worked our way up to a point where we can now fully justify an investment in rail rapid transit. In contrast, Toronto never had any “intensification targets” or “urban design guidelines” for its subway corridors – indeed, it built a subway at the onset of the freeway age!

Growing up is hard to do. Seeing ourselves as something we are not today is difficult. Imagining our city differently can seem far-fetched, unrealistic, and idealistic. I say it is necessary. The alternative is like staying in diapers at the age of 20, and that is a truly tragic prospect.


  1. sir- you are entirley incorrect to point to a lack of “urban design guidelines” or “intensification targets” in the expansion of the ttc subway. Cervero (1998) thoroughly heralds toronto as the “best North american example of rail transit’s city shaping abilities”…he even states clearly that the city of toronto upzoned land early on  allowing plot ratios..as high as 15:1…Performance zoning was also introduced”. Development near TTC stations also favours close proximity to high-rise housing and commercial clusters rather than parking lots.

  2. “It built up ridership to levels that are unmatched by any Canadian city without rail transit.”

    thus Ottawa has higher transit use than Halifax and Quebec City, all the Canada’s 6 largest cities have some rail transit (lest we forget the futile O-train).

  3. Alain,

    As someone who has studied the Transitway extensively for his Master’s project, I have to disagree with a lot of what you’ve written.

    There is a widespread myth that it is traffic lights that are holding up buses downtown and that this would apply equally to light rail. This is simply not the case, for if it was the case then cities like Calgary would suffer from poor rapid transit service in their downtowns – but they do not. The basic problem is the dwell time of the buses at the downtown stations combined with trying to push through too many buses: we’ve got to the point where the dwell time exceeds headways, with queueing being the result (just like queues at the bank or the grocery store or the ski lifts or anywhere else – if a customer arrives on average in a smaller time interval than it takes to serve a customer then a queue forms and it remains until the rate of newly arriving customers drops off and/or the time to process each customer shortens – but it’s simpler to blame the traffic lights because it doesn’t require any thought about the real problem). All the cars of a 3 or 4 car train share the same dwell time (rather than being additive as with buses) and the dwell itself is less than with many buses since there is level boarding and no scurrying about the platforms trying to find “your” bus, nor are there second and third stoppings at a single stop as is frequent with the 90-series routes. If traffic lights were the problem, then the traffic lights at places like LeBreton, Dominion, Lincoln Fields and Iris should be causing the kind of jams and tailbacks that occur downtown, but they do not – because they are not the problem. Those traffic lights easily handle the 3 or 4 buses arriving per minute. The traffic lights downtown just look to be the problem. Even cars are not much of a contributor to the problems because to the average Ottawa motorist the big long bus jams are something to be avoided – so much so that the remaining lanes of Albert and Slater flow surprisingly well even at peak periods.

    There are other myths about the Transitway that need to be dispelled as well. Ridership in Ottawa as measured on a relative basis (either annual transit trips per capita or the percentage of the population using transit to commute to work) has NOT – repeat NOT – increased one iota above where it was when the Transitway began construction in the mid 1980s or when it was conceived in the late 1970s. Even on absolute measures ridership fell for the entire Transitway construction period, not regaining it until 2002. Funnily enough, two years later OC Transpo found it had run out of capacity downtown and had to start cutting down on the number of routes – which basically tells us that had the Transitway actually been a “success” ridership-wise its downtown section would have failed almost immediately, but that sort of failure didn’t come about for two decades because the Transitway itself was a miserable failure in increasing ridership. Similarly, it failed to catch on in the popular imagination – few people other than the Transitway’s highway engineer designers speak of it in the way Calgary’s C-Train, Vancouver’s SkyTrain or Toronto’s streetcars are spoken of in those cities, and virtually no private sector developer bothers to show the Transitway in relation to their projects since the Transitway simply isn’t a marketing feature. Our unmatched ridership levels for a non-rail city are due to factors other than the Transitway.

    The Transitway was not genius. The heavy expenditure for fully-grade separated corridors and wasteful station designs (e.g. dig a 6-lane wide hole (2 for platforms) and then put bridges and walkways over it) could have been put to better use on developing a far ranging at-grade light rail system instead – which would have avoided the unscenic trenches with their upwelling of noise pollution as well – while capitalizing on the synergies of putting light rail in rail corridors (as an aside, if we’re a teenager what does that make Gatineau who’s now repeating our mistakes with their Rapibus system?). The Transitway’s designers didn’t even give a thought to how they would convert the system to rail, and especially without disrupting rapid transit service. Virtually every station will have to be practically rebuilt from scratch because of this lack of foresight. It’s more an indictment of the whole failed Transitway concept rather a sign of genius. Worst of all – we’re still doing it! Talk about not growing up – we keep designing and building transitways according to the same bus-centric standards without regard to their future conversion to rail. Today’s poor decisions are just going to cost us more in the future, just as those of the past are going to cost us today.

  4. There are lots of things about Ottawa’s transit system which I would qualify “fake” or at least not natural. The purpose of a transit system is to move people within a city or to particular destination. I find it odd that all of those hubs are located in the middle of nowhere. Ottawa is king for that. Lebreton, Lees, Hurdman Station, etc… Every time I go by Lebreton, I have a funny feeling when I see all those people waiting for their transfer in the middle of nowhere.

    No to mention the transit way lanes which are a trenches going through area where there is not enough density or simply nothing like in Billings Bridge or along Scott. The stations are so far apart, who wants to walk 15+ minutes to catch a bus?

    Ottawa transit system is strictly made for commuting and has used the highway system as its model: the different hubs have been built in potato fields and the transit way is there to travel the longest distance in the shortest amount of time. The transit way does not serve the neighbourhood in which it goes through: it only goes through it.

    Also not to mention buses are never on time, or (even worst) at the frequency advertized. I live downtown and work at Booth/Queensway, but it has been a long time since I gave up on using transit system in Ottawa: it brings more inconveniences than advantages.

  5. It is beautiful riding the bus along the Ottawa River Parkway, but it is also useless. You are bypassing a large chunk of population and businesses. If the only point is to get from Kanata to downtown and back then that is fine. If the point is to connect the city then this is a failure. The LRT would be much better if it ran down Byron, Carling or some other corridor where people actually live and businesses exist.

  6. As far as getting a train through downtown is concerned, it would be fine with me to lose vehicular access to either Albert or Slater. Dedicate either of those streets to LRT and control the traffic lights in favour of the trains. That would get people through downtown in no time. It wouldn’t be much worse for cars either as you already have to stop at almost every light downtown anyway.

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