Ottawa commuter rail is not the right battle

Canadian cities have limited funding options.

Modern planning takes years, both in preparation before the project and to complete the project.

Completed, funded plans based on years of analysis can be stopped, overturned based on a single election, even a single elected official.

Amalgamated cities mix the interests of suburban and rural, which are mostly about NOT doing things other than roads (and which prefer to not even be taxed enough to fund that), with the interests of the city core.

You want a problem?  That’s the actual problem.  We had a completed, funded, signed North-South LRT plan.  Well, really more a “shape of backwards Zed east-west north-south then east-west again” LRT plan.  You can read beautifully detailed reports built on years of pre-planning:

The quality of a city’s transportation network has a major impact on citizens’ quality of life and on the local economy, and having a well-run, well-designed public transit system that meets the needs of residents is critical to building a more sustainable city. High quality public transit reduces or defers the need to build more roads and offers significant side benefits, such as less air and water pollution, less traffic congestion, more compact and efficient development and the creation of high quality community living. With rising fuel and insurance costs, it is expected that more and more residents will want to be able to choose comfortable and reliable public transit to move around their city.

from Report to Council, 12 June 2006, “North-South Corridor Light Rail Transit Project Contract Award for Design, Construction and 15-Year Maintenance” (Ref N°: ACS2006-PGM-ECO-0014) by Kent Kirkpatrick, City Manager

And then.  The suburbs elected O’Brien.  Who had no plan, except an anti-plan.  To NOT do North-South.  What did the Report to Council say about that approach?

Option 3 – City Council does not approve the Contract Award for this Project

Some of the key anticipated outcomes from a failure to develop the North-South LRT project are (beginning in 2011):

  • The failure to meet Council’s 30% transit modal split target
  • The need to redo the South Nepean Town Centre and Riverside South Community Design Plans, which were based on a ‘transit first’ development model with the North-South LRT as the backbone of each community
  • The following north-south arterials, which are already at capacity, will fail:
    1. River Road
    2. Limebank
    3. Hawthorne
    4. Airport Parkway
    5. Albion
    6. Bank
    7. Conroy
    8. potentially those on the Barrhaven side
  • Connecting east-west roads in this section of the city will also suffer, such as Lester and Hunt Club
  • About 2,000 extra vehicles per peak hour will be on N/S roads
  • Most of the above roads are already operating at capacity today
  • Any additional demand on these roads will increase congestion significantly because demand would be in excess of capacity
  • Peak hour travel times will almost double by 2021, for example, 75 minutes from Barrhaven or Riverside South to downtown

If the City was to maintain the existing level of service, then the following roads will need to be widened in place of constructing the N-S LRT (although the construction of additional roads in place of transit is not in line with the 20/20 vision and the Official Plan)

  • 3 additional lanes per direction (in addition to what has already been identified in the TMP) for these roads –

§         Limebank – Riverside

§         Bank Street

§         Albion – Lester – Airport Parkway

§         (other combination of roads instead of the above would be possible)

  • Also some east-west widenings would be required to reach the north-south roads

In other words what it says is the obvious: in the absence of new transit, the car.  Now since O’Brien had no actual alternative plan, it took years more to get to a new plan, whose priority was: do not challenge the car.  That means:

  1. Wherever transit is in the way of the car, move it (in this case, underground).
  2. Only make changes elsewhere if it won’t interfere with the car (which means alter the existing car-free Transitway).
  3. Where capacity from the Transitway might temporarily interfere with the car, widen the highways and roads, because you must never take capacity from the car.

It is not so much a plan as a set of ideological preferences made physical.  Which is how we get an East-West “plan” that changes nothing except moving downtown transit out of the way of the car.  A mix of suburban and rural dependence on the car, and a childish “I hate what you like” ideology in which if the left likes transit, the right decides it must HATE transit.

This would seem like a one-off, if not for the fact that Mayor Ford came to Toronto in exactly the same way, except with even stronger rhetoric.  Funded transit plan in the trash, alternative: no actual plan.  In place of alternative plan, some jumbled together underground magic fantasies guided by a single vision: do not challenge the car.

Toronto’s councillors eventually woke up to the stupendous non-existence of a plan, to the obvious non-funding of an underground fantasy compared to a real funded surface-rail plan.  Ottawa’s councillors did not recover.  It didn’t help that Ottawa’s council had done a spectacularly bad job of explaining the original plan.  (To the extent that, even in trying to follow the plan, I had only a vague picture of an oddly-shaped route plus trains through the downtown.  Never once did I understand that they were proposing a surface tram network like in many European cities.)

Ottawa’s council failed to communicate their plan, Ottawa’s media failed to do a better job explaining the plan, Ottawa’s voters failed to embrace the plan, and Ottawa’s council failed to defend the plan after the election.  Yes it was surface trams.  Yes it was cheaper.  Yes Siemens had agreed to fixed cost.  If we could travel back in time with what we understand now maybe we would have chosen differently.  But we can’t.  THE NORTH-SOUTH PLAN IS NOT COMING BACK.  THE NORTH-SOUTH PLAN WAS SIX YEARS AGO.  Unless someone stole the DeLorean from ComicCon, we can’t fix this problem.

In place of the North-South trams we now have an expensive commuter rail plan.  It’s almost as if the right prefers transit projects that are 1) so stupendously expensive they may not get off the ground at all and 2) serve ONLY their suburban base voters.  Oh wait, that’s exactly what the right prefers, and that’s exactly what we got from O’Brien.

Mayor Watson, in case people have forgotten, was not too keen on the stupendously expensive part.  But he was eventually convinced that he had to accept the plan.  And so he’s going to build it.  But not for a penny more than the original 2.1 billion price tag.  Ottawa is a town full of people with expertise in proposing endless policy options.  What if we did it this way?  What if we changed that?  What if…  What if we endlessly debate the effing east-west plan until in the end we get no new transit AT ALL.

Having killed North-South, people apparently think they can just wish the East-West into being a different system.  No amount of “options” is going to make it a subway.  No amount of options is going to make it a tram (a tram is surface rail with frequent stops).  No amount of options is going to make it a system for tourists.  It is by design a commuter rail replacement for the existing commuter bus Transitway.  Moving a stop or adding a stop will not magically change it into something else.  A commuter rail system delivers commuters to employment nodes at 9 and back home at 5.  The current East-West system will do this.

The most you can do with an East-West commuter rail system is try to build some development around the stations, which I guess is one reason for the spectacularly overdesigned stations in the current plan (although I fear most of that soaring wood and steel will be replaced with concrete and plastic when the realities of a constant-dollar 2.1 billion budget collide with a construction schedule that doesn’t even start until 2013 and runs until 2019).  The mostly likely scenario however given Ottawa’s developers and legal-political development environment is that we will have ugly towers dropped from the sky near transit stations, rather than actually building the walkable mini-village Transit Oriented Development Holy Grail.

There is a strong historical and logical argument for making Union Station a stop on this commuter rail line, what with it 1) actually being a train station and 2) being right on the path of the line.  But apparently that would be far too logical for our multi-layers of government to implement.  In which case the debate about whether commuters should be dumped to the east of the actual train station or to the west of it (or both) is kind of ridiculous.  They will arrive regardless and scurry, gazing at their BlackBerries, to their designated work containers.  The idea that tourists somehow stumble onto this commuter rail system, and that they have an “iconic experience” emerging in a jumble of suited commuters to see the glory of… a War Memorial surrounded by Elgin Street traffic, viewed from narrow lifeless sidewalks… it’s ridiculous.

We’re replacing commuter bus with commuter rail at great expense.  It will be slightly better.  But it’s either that, or just stick with commuter bus.  There is no other alternative.  Watson knows perfectly well if he doesn’t get this thing shovels-in-ground, six years after the last plan died, the alternative is that we NEVER BUILD ANYTHING.

In any case, commuter rail is fine.  Commuter rail is nice.  Endlessly re-fighting a battle around commuter rail is, however, a waste of time.  The problem is not commuter rail.  The problem is the car.

Now let’s put this in context: the car is a great rural technology.  Getting from farm to village in a car on a dirt road is much nicer and more sensible than riding there in a cart.  Webbing the countryside with roads is perfectly fine.  The problem with the car is not the technology itself, it’s a technology mismatch.  The car is a terrible mass transportation solution.  The car is a terrible high-speed transportation solution.  The car is an absolutely incompatible technology with the city.  We didn’t know this at the time.  But we know it now.  Which means the solution is to unwind the presence of the car in the city.  This is actually easy to do in our pre-car cities.  (We used to understand this so well that most of New York and even Los Angeles was designed for rail – rail on the streets, rail across the bridges – rail which incidentally, and obviously when you think about it, carried more people in and around those cities before the single-occupancy car than the street infrastructure can move now, half a century or more later.)

(It is hugely painful to fix the suburbs which were designed for the car, but that’s not my concern.)

We already know that you can move more people, safely and rapidly, with surface rail (and underground rail where densities warrant).  I already wrote an entire post about transportation.  This is a solved problem with proven results worldwide.  It is not currently a solved problem in Ottawa, but it will eventually be.  The main question is how to hasten that solution.  That means instead of endlessly arguing about this imperfect-but-ok commuter rail, fight the car.  Yes I mean War on the Car.  Not on drivers.  Not on people.  On the car.  It’s a ridiculous 2 tonne metal can containing usually a single person.  It’s as if people entered the city on elephants.  It would be a fucking absurd transportation technology for the city even without the pollution, particulates, noise, parking demands and oh yeah CONSTANT KILLING OF PEOPLE.

So please, Ottawa activists, devote your energy as follows:

  1. Many fewer cars in the city
  2. Much slower (30km/h or less) cars in the city.
  3. Public space reclaimed for greenspace, childen playing, pedestrians, cyclists and transit.

Remember, there are no streets, no arterials, there is just public space between buildings.  It belongs to us, for a diversity of purposes.  We surrendered it all to the car.  That is the battle to fight.  Fight the car.

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