MacKenzie King OC Transpo station: worst public space in Ottawa?

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A few weeks ago the Ottawa Citizen journalist Maria Cook asked me to submit a few lines for a best-of/worst-of public spaces and buildings end-of-year feature she was putting together. I was pleased to be asked but I misread the email and thought Maria was asking for best and worst, period — not limited to this past year. She soon put me right, and I submitted something a little more “2010”, but meanwhile I still had my notes from the original reply to her. I wanted to give her some “quotables” so I had I given them some colour; rereading them the other day I see they may well have come across like an intemperate rant:

Situated between the overhang of the Rideau Centre on the north side and the towers of DND HQ to the south, the location of this transit station seems to have been carefully calculated to trap and store the maximum volume of diesel exhaust. For departing passengers the choking stench exacerbates the sense of claustrophobia; waiting around on the butt-strewn, chewing gum-encrusted sidewalks helps a little more to dispirit people who are waiting for their bus. The sense of entrapment is completed by the knowledge that there really is no where else to go, at least, not safely.

For those arriving at the station, security-conscious DND seems content to welcome them with an escalator to the bridge underpass that is more or less permanently out of order. Most OC passengers arriving on the south side of the bridge don’t even try it anymore; instead, many look for a gap between the buses and then run across the roadway to the centre island where they shimmy along a railing until they get to the signaled pedestrian crossing in front of the Rideau Centre doors. It’s dangerous but a lot faster than pushing through the crush on the south sidewalk.

Still, Rideau-bound walkers are advised to get to the north side of the bridge however they can manage it, even if it means backtracking, as the crossing that awaits them at the bottom of the bridge at Waller and Nicholas is probably the legal definition of attempted suicide; the city’s own signage prohibits it and one wonders why they even run a sidewalk to the spot in the first place.

So last week I went out to take a few snaps to accompany my thoughts; I suppose I wanted to be sure that the way I picture the station is something like what it really is. Looking at them, I think they do show just how dreary and rundown the facilities at Ottawa’s central transit station have become over the past few years. To me, it’s like the three major stakeholders — the City/OCTranspo, DND/Public Works, and the Rideau Centre itself — have each decided that if anyone is going to spend even a dime to make the area more pleasant, it won’t be them.


  1. Compared to most other OC Transpo Transitway stations, the Mackenzie-King station is palatial. It’s got heat. It’s lit at night. It’s got proper doors that close, and you can actually get out of the wind and the rain. It’s closely connected to stores, and OC Transpo ticket vendors. You can even quickly run out of the station and get a newspaper or a coffee in a minute.

    Compare that to the shelters at Bank & Albert. Unlit. No doors. Freezing cold. No place to get out of the wind, because there’s openings on both sides ensuring that every square inch of the shelter is open to drafts. Pity anyone who has to wait there, looking nervously for muggers, late on a winter night.

    But at least the Bank&Albert station is conveniently located. Have you been to Baseline Station recently, Evan? Have you perhaps taken the 118 west on Baseline, and discovered that you’re not even let out in the station proper, but have to hike a considerable distance to the remainder of the stops? Or if you got off an 86 and wanted to go to the Nepean Centrepointe library, you have to hike the entire length of the (very, very, very long for no obvious reason) platform backwards to get to the path to Ben Franklin Place. Or if you want to transfer to a bus going south? You have to walk to the end of that very, very, very long platform just to cross to the other side — the shelters are separated by the busway instead of being in the centre and easily accessible as they were in the old Baseline Station.

    And the new planned station — the underground one — will likely be even more inconvenient.

    And as for bus fumes, the St. Laurent station beats M-K hands-down in terms of unbreathable air.

    And if you’re a fun of brutalist architecture, you can’t do better than the Terry Fox station.

    Honestly, if all OC Transpo’s stations were as decently designed as M-K, most transit passengers would be a lot happier.

  2. There are so many bad public spaces in Ottawa that it’s hard to choose the worst. The Mackenzie King OC Transpo Station is relatively pleasant compared with the extremely inhospitable stretch of Rideau Street between Sussex Drive and King Edward where the truck route turns onto Rideau. In my opinion, the Rideau Street OC Transpo Station is the worst public space in central Ottawa. The noise and fumes from buses, litter and visual pollution easily make it worse than Mackenzie King. The Rideau Centre facade and pedestrian bridges are blackened with residue from diesel exhaust. The bus shelter with the route map and bus schedules on the south side of the street has no light, while the ofher shelter with lighting has no route map or schedule. This section of Rideau Street is also very dangerous for cyclists. The amount of fast food packaging, cigarette ends, and discarded free daily newspapers littering the ground around the bus station is truly a disgrace, particularly considering its proximity to Parliament Hill. For another “worst” place outside the downtown core, I nominate OC Transpo’s St Laurent Station. The bus fumes in the underground portion of the station must make it qualify for having the worst “indoor” air quality in the city. This station is ugly, inhospitable, dirty, littered, and poorly maintained. The Mackenzie King station is nowhere near as bad as either Rideau or St Laurent stations.

  3. Great points Alayne and Ann; looks like I didn’t set the bar high (low?) enough. Was thinking of it as a central station and how in that regard it fails so badly on the “placemaking” score, when it could and should be so much more –but definitely agree there are OC stops that are worse places to be.

  4. It’s time to have a contest(s). No 1: the worst transit stop; No.2: the worst non-transit stop place in the urban city; No 3: the easiest fix that would make a place nicer but is not likely to ever happen. Should be an abundance of entries.

  5. And if you’re a fun of brutalist architecture, you can’t do better than the Terry Fox station.

    Sure you can. Get on the 96, and get off at Lincoln Fields.

  6. How about Hurdman Station?  There is heat and light, but situated in the absolute middle of nowhere,no public washrooms anywhere in the surrounding moonscape, and no apparent logic to the various stops.  Too many lay-ups in the wrong wind alignment so the idling buses fumes blow directly on to the waiting passengers.  I think you should run a contest on this topic Evan. 

  7. Eric’s contest would no doubt confirm that most if not all of the worst public spaces in Ottawa are all designed, engineered and operated by the City of Ottawa. Maybe the contest could include the best (least worst) of the bus stations and bus stops where it is relatively pleasant to wait for a bus. At least there wouldn’t be many entries! I’ve been using OC Transpo buses for 28 years and I cannot come up with a single enjoyable place to wait for a bus. I nominate the O Train stop at Carleton University for the Best Place to Wait prize on any transit route in the city. I’d also give it the Best Route prize.

  8. The O-Train platform at Carleton is woefully undersized for crush loads. Why, after a decade, it is still so small, when it could easily have been enlarged and improved for a modest amount of money, goes to show just how much this city cares about transit users, which is to say, not very much.

    And why in samhain is there a cut-through of the barriers at that dreadful new station in Far Haven, but not at the temporary Baseline monstrosity?

  9. I think you need to define some parameters:

    1) What constitutes a “public space”?

    Does it have to be outdoors? Does it have to be publicly owned? (e.g. would a shopping mall qualify?)

    Does it have to be used or intended for use by pedestrians? (e.g. would a suburban intersection qualify?)

    2) What constitutes “the worst”?

    Should it aim to do something and completely fail to do so (e.g. a public park that nobody uses), or should it accomplish its goals but in an unsightly/uncomfortable/unenjoyable way (like the aforementioned transit stations, which despite their ugliness, still move thousands of people per day)

    Given all that, I’d suggest the worst public space is probably something nobody would ever think of, or has even heard of. Piazza Dante is up for redevelopment soon. Maybe it looked OK when it was built, but nowadays it’s well past its due date. Do you ever see people using it? Do you even know where it is?

    Or how about the Prince of Wales Railway bridge. Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s a publicly-owned space that is inaccessible to the public, but which nevertheless has great potential to serve the public.

    Or the elephant in the room: Lansdowne Park. It also seems trite, but only because everbody keeps talking about it, which they do because it is so desperately in need of help (be it the OSEG plan or something else) The Aberdeen Pavillion is wonderful, but most of the rest of the site is grossly underused. The Horticulture Building is sloughed off for storage, and the stadium doesn’t exactly fill the stands on anywhere near a regular basis. A vast majority of the site is parking.

  10. I agree with Alayne – as a regular transit user MK station is one of the better ones. Protection from elements and connected to services. In fact just this morning (while waiting at the Kent station) I was wondering what how exactly the new downtown Transitway stations are better (or even different) that old ones. They look exactly the same to me, except grey instead of red. As for my personal best public places: Rideau Canal in Winter and Westboro beach in Summer- easy to get to, serviced, nice mix of people, and little to no money needed to enjoy. Public spaces with most potential: Sparks Street and the Main Ottawa Public Library branch. Sparks is a wind tunnel, and the retail mix is largely uninspiring. Dead at night because few people live in the immediate area. But has so much potential as a unique, pedestrian scaled space. OPL branch because it’s a free downtown indoor space all can enjoy (for reading, meeting, free wifi, people watching, aimless wandering) and could be even more valuable if it were in a building hosting other community orgs/ govt and retail services. But the current building is way too small to accommodate multiple uses, and the interior doesn’t offer attractive areas to sit and work (or not work).

  11. They look exactly the same to me, except grey instead of red.

    They have also been removed by removing maps and schedules!

  12. Beth, the new downtown transit stations have drainage underneath so that water doesn’t pool and turn into slush/ice. Subtle, but important–you don’t notice it because you don’t notice puddles that aren’t there!

    I think there are also additional components that will be added in the Spring.

    (I say this based on what I heard/read. I haven’t actually used them)

    Other FYI points: On MK in particular, it was originally proposed to have a fence across the entire median, i.e. no crosswalk. Pedestrian groups (i.e. Gottawalk, IIRC) protested and it was built with a crosswalk in addition to the underground connection. Much better.

    OPL main branch was renovated in the last few years. Used to be much worse, and not the least bit wheelchair accessible. (The current lounge area is where the checkout desks used to be, and you had to go up and down the steps in the vestibule to get in and out). Not to say it isn’t still hideously ugly and awkward to navigate.

    Sparks is still in the third of three phases of renovations of the buildings along it. This has caused the retail to move around a lot, and left lots of spaces vacant as their interiors are renovated. Sparks St authority is planning a big deal to relaunch the street when it’s all done.

    (I say this based on what I heard/read. I haven’t actually used them)

  13. They have also been “improved” by removing maps and schedules!, is what he meant to type.

  14. Thanks for the info Charles! I will now cherish those new drains. I’ve used OPL in it’s older and current incarnations. Besides the layout changes, not much was renovated. Same old carpets, concrete, lighting, lack of electrical outlets and seating, etc. I have a lot of affection for the city, but I do have to say downtown Ottawa can feel pretty place-less. A renewed Sparks retail/Library combo could help pump some life and people into the core after 5pm and on weekends.

  15. That’s incorrect, Beth. I remember being shown around by the City Librarian after the library reopened after the renovation, and she particularly mentioned the new carpet pattern and we agreed it looked much better. The concrete and lack of electrical outlets are, unfortunately, much harder to fix, but there was a lot of rework of the interior and new display units and a better overall organization. The library did the best with what they had.

    I agree with you completely, though, that a new central library is badly needed, somewhere downtown. Sparks Street would be great, but so far there’s no location available.

  16. I was reminded this weekend when I had to go to the Byward Market of how far it falls short of its potential to be a wonderful public space. Although I love outdoor markets, I generally avoid the Byward Market for several reasons. First and foremost, the parked vehicles and cars driving around it half a dozen times in low gear before they find a parking spot make it noisy and fumey, and also pretty ugly. There is nothing attractive about piles of metal, plastic, glass and rubber lining the edges of every street. The idea of the 500 or so contaminants in secondhand smoke from vehicles landing on all that “fresh” produce is not exactly appetizing. People like people-watching in public places, and I have not found a single bench or nice place to sit and watch the world go by in the entire market area. I think of Covent Garden and dozens of other pedestrianized markets in London, and in other cities across Britain, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and even in the USA, and I wonder why we don’t just kick the cars out of the centre of the Byward Market every year for at least six months from the beginning of April until the end of September. A few parking spaces could be permanently removed for planting trees and installing seating. We could have an art-on-the-street scene like Montreal and Quebec City. Restaurants and cafes could spill out onto car-free streets planted with shade trees instead of being trapped in metal cages between traffic and the store fronts. It would be nice to have an least one vibrant outdoor public space in Ottawa that did not look like a parking lot.

  17. Ann, as someone who recently moved to Ottawa from Montreal I can tell you with certainty that one of the main reasons for the success of Montreal’s public outdoor markets is the large availability of cheap underground parking at all of them. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

  18. Ooops! I hit the wrong key. I’ll finish my thought later. Sorry!

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