‘I am done’: Amid rider woes, is Ottawa’s transit system a victim of its own success?

By Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — It didn’t feel like the glory days at the time, climbing onto a crowded bus and pushing into the crush of bodies, riders sweating into their wool coats and parkas.

But despite the cramped rides and the occasional backpack to the face, April Lesnick said those days in the early 2000s were the ones when she felt she could most rely on the transit system in Canada’s capital city.

These days, she often finds herself alone in a snowbank next to a stop, bundled up against the cold wind, waiting for a bus that never comes at all. 

“Sometimes it shows, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s notifications on the app, sometimes there’s not,” Lesnick said. 

She started taking the bus at just nine years old, but this year, at age 45, the lifelong transit user said she’s had enough and is planning to buy a car for the first time.

“I am done,” she said. 

For years, students, public servants and other workers boarded packed buses that would rumble along corridors separated from the rest of Ottawa’s log-jammed traffic.

Cities from all over North America once looked to Canada’s capital as a beacon of transit success and innovation, and ridership climbed steadily for the first 10 years of the millennium.

That came crashing down when the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on Ottawa’s bus service, as it did for countless others across the world. 

But transit advocates and critics in Ottawa say the problems didn’t start with COVID-19, and some even argue the system may have become the victim of its own success. 

“Ottawa’s system was so successful, it started running into those capacity issues where buses were bumper to bumper,” said Ottawa transit advocate Peter Raaymakers.

“That’s what necessitated the transition toward trains.”

These days, after a massive $6.8-billion investment to replace much of that dedicated corridor with a new cross-city LRT service, the transit system serves as something of a cautionary tale.

Ottawa was the first city in the world to transition from a bus rapid transit system to light rail in response to bumper-to-bumper buses, the transit service’s acting general manager Richard Holder said in a statement. It was a move that was contemplated during the initial design of the bus transitway over 50 years ago. 

Brian Taylor, the director of the institute of transportation studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, remembers attending a lecture about Ottawa’s innovative transit ideas in the 1980s as a student at Berkeley. Now he teaches a similar course at UCLA. 

“Ottawa and Adelaide, Australia, were sort of the poster children for looking at a more cost-effective way to provide the metro-like service, but with less-expensive buses,” Taylor said. 

The key was the transitway, which allowed buses to run on designated roads without having to contend with traffic.

In Ottawa, it worked particularly well because so many people work and study in a concentrated area downtown.

When Taylor Googled Ottawa’s system in December, the headlines were far less flattering than his old syllabus. 

This year, a dearth of riders left Ottawa’s transit service, OC Transpo, with a $50-million budget gap. The city plans to fill that by raising fares, cutting service, laying off staff and dipping into reserves.

The change started in 2011, when ridership hit a peak with 103.5 million rides in a year. The following year, the city voted to replace much of the transitway with trains, starting with a tunnel through the downtown core. 

Ridership began to slide downward after that, a trend that city staff at the time blamed largely on changes to downtown employment. Raaymakers said temporary detours and other effects of LRT construction likely also played a role. 

Things derailed somewhat from there. 

During construction, a sinkhole opened up on one of Ottawa’s busiest downtown streets near the historic ByWard Market, swallowing three lanes of traffic and a minivan. 

The rollout was delayed a year and a half after test drives revealed some issues. 

And when the line opened for service in 2019, riders quickly began to see the kinks. 

Door jams caused the entire line to shut down, sometimes for hours. Snow and salt spray from the roads frazzled the electrical system. The wheels developed flat spots. In 2021, one of the trains jumped the tracks. 

The issues have left the line out of service for weeks at a time.

But the effects have been felt throughout the transit system, as buses are taken off their usual routes and onto heavily trafficked roads to compensate for faulty trains and construction on the old transitway.

“It ends up being a full decade and counting of where they’re building new construction, new transit infrastructure and that is having a major impact on the reliability of the system and the amount of time it takes to get from the start of your trip to the finish of it,” Raaymakers said. 

The poor reliability since the launch of the train has undeniably shaken the public’s confidence in the transit system, Holder agreed, though he defended the role buses and trains played in providing essential service during the pandemic.

Despite continued LRT breakdowns and construction detours, riders are slowly returning to the system. In November, ridership was at 71 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

But the work-from-home culture that developed since the pandemic means the number of public servants and other workers commuting downtown may never be the same as before.

Holder said Ottawa’s knowledge-based workforce has meant the city’s ridership recovery is lower than cities whose economy is geared to manufacturing, industrial or commercial sectors. 

Globally, the systems that have rebounded well from the pandemic tend to be ones that cater to communities rather than commuters, Taylor said. 

“The spatial and temporal characteristics of demand for transit are changing. It’s less downtown-centred, and more sort of moving from place to place,” explained the UCLA professor. 

The work to reroute transit to community hubs is already underway in Ottawa, but the fact the city has put down tracks may make it more difficult to pivot. Still, Raaymakers said he feels confident people will eventually return to transit if the system is reliable. 

“If the system works, people will use it,” he said. 

Holder said regaining rider’s trust is a priority, but Lesnick said her days of waiting to find out if the bus will show up or not are over. 

“Heck no, and that’s putting it politely,” Lesnick said. “I am done until … the day I cannot drive. I’m 100 per cent done. They’re not getting any more money out of me. It’s not worth it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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