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.