Deachman: OC Transpo needs to get good — and get good fast


What seems abundantly clear is that OC Transpo isn’t going where people want it to.

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Readers of a certain vintage will recall the 1980s TV ads for Midas mufflers, spots that ended with the catchphrase “At Midas, first you get good, then you get fast.”

It may be dated advice, but it’s not outdated. And there could hardly be a more apropos guiding principle these days for OC Transpo, where nothing, it seems, is going right, and where a little getting good, particularly in terms of customer service, would go a long way with frustrated riders.

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The recent announcement that OC Transpo will test an on-demand pilot project in Blackburn Hamlet this fall is encouraging. The community is almost an island community within Ottawa, and the project, which will replace Route 28 on weekends with otherwise idle ParaTranspo buses that will ferry residents within the community and to the Blair station, should encourage more transit use, and at a more reasonable cost for OC Transpo.

What I hope OC Transpo won’t do as it reacts to a massive deficit is steer itself into what Willem Klumpenhouwer, a Toronto-based transit research consultant, describes as a “death spiral,” with lower ridership numbers prompting either cuts to service, also known as death by a thousand cuts, or fare increases.

“I think it’s very true in transit that if you offer more service, people will ride it more,” he told me this week. “The tricky part is that you have to put the service out there first.”

I have some sympathy for the beleaguered transit agency. Momentarily putting aside the catastrophic failures of our light rail “system,” OC Transpo was blindsided by a pandemic that saw ridership plummet as people first avoided congregant settings, then further fall as the work-from-home model, which was already gaining momentum before the arrival of COVID-19, exploded. Riders continued to disappear as the LRT’s disastrous rollout and subsequent breakdowns both eroded public trust and noticeably worsened bus service elsewhere in the city, as oft-needed R1 replacement buses robbed Peter to pay Paul, leaving both riders late for work and dissatisfied. One can easily understand how this week’s news that OC Transpo’s fare revenue is down by more than $100 million a year from what was projected when it launched the Confederation Line four years ago might encourage further service cuts, each one the last straw for riders who hadn’t already traded their last straws in on a Hyundai Ioniq or Gesheng electric bicycle and goggles.

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The system, meanwhile, has always been predicated on the notion of getting people downtown and to other central hubs, a spider web model that increasingly fails to meet the needs of many residents. It’s always been about getting from A to B and back, but the B for people in that equation is increasingly more likely to be somewhere outside the city’s core.

Solutions such as the Blackburn Hamlet pilot, for a variety of reasons, are hard to come by. The city needs to find money to spend, and voters won’t abide by a significant tax hike. Ottawa’s ridership, meanwhile, has some unique considerations. For one, it’s reliant on the federal public service, which in theory occupies much of the downtown core that was historically the middle of the spider web.

The city is also geographically massive. You’ve probably heard variations on this before, but Ottawa’s nearly 2,800 square kilometres could hold Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton and still have a couple hundred square kilometres left over for pickleball courts or whatever. Trying to move people over an area that large is no small feat.

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Federal and provincial governments need to step up more, and not just with infrastructure dollars, but operational ones, too. They greatly benefit by the growth of cities, and transit is a great driver of that growth.

Public transit, of course, isn’t the sole answer. The city has and will need to continue to promote active transportation, as well as options such as car-pooling. Some blue-sky ideas, such as water taxis, would probably be bureaucratic nightmares and prohibitively expensive. In Innisfil, north of Toronto, they partnered with Uber to give residents a $4 discount on rides within the community, as well as to some destinations outside of it (though I can only imagine Blue Line’s reaction if a similar initiative were proposed here).

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the contentious e-scooters, while the temporary closure of Queen Elizabeth Driveway proved a hornet’s nest of divisiveness. I can’t imagine how the city’s phone lines would light up if it tried, as Oslo, Norway did, to keep cars out of the core entirely.

But what seems abundantly clear is that OC Transpo isn’t going where people want it to. That was a complaint heard repeatedly during last year’s municipal election campaign. Folks in Barrhaven want transit that will conveniently take them to places in Barrhaven, not only downtown.

The LRT rails, well, they’re where they are. But the buses can go anywhere, and OC Transpo needs to figure out the As and Bs of where people want to be and get them there. And they should do it fast.

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