Downtown Moves – Ottawa CBD post-LRT

I will get to what’s going on with the post-LRT planning (Downtown Moves) but first some context.  If you just want to know when the next public meeting is, skip to the end.

I think people are having a hard time understanding the changes Ottawa is making because there isn’t a rich vocabulary of different transportation styles, and people attach a particular style to a vehicle, rather than realising vehicles can be used for many different transportation styles.

Read below for explanation about LRT, or skip to the Downtown Moves section.

The system as it is now – hybrid of local and commuter

Right now in Ottawa we have the bus Transitway. This is often called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) but I don’t think that conveys a lot of meaning. I prefer the term commuter transit.

Commuter transit has long gaps between stops and is designed to move people to and from work in the roughly one-hour window of travel tolerance that extends around their city core. In well-planned (or fortunately-planned) areas its nodes are major neighbourhoods and villages. North America actually has a long history of commuter rail connecting city cores to surrounding areas (although much of this was lost when we moved from rail to the car).

Local transit runs on the surface and has frequent stops (whether bus or tram).

Right now we have an east-west commuter bus system, that becomes a local bus system when it enters the downtown core.
It switches from infrequent stops to multiple stops on its way across the shared streets of downtown.

It’s also not true BRT – there are long buses with back-door boarding for passholders, but you still pay on the bus (which slows down boarding considerably). In true BRT you pay before boarding (as with a subway), and then just step on the bus (usually through access-controlled doors).

Our boarding is actually going to get slower with the Presto cards – instead of experienced passholders only boarding at the back, without having to show their passes, now everyone can board through all three doors of a long bus, and everyone must tap their card. This means the back two doors will be slowed both by the new requirement of everyone tapping their card as they board, and by the inexperienced system users who will now be able to slow things down at the back two doors.

The new commuter-only system (East-West LRT)

We are replacing the hybrid system, that was commuter outside the core and local inside the core, with an all-commuter system. This is a sensible thing to do. We are building the equivalent of the French RER commuter train system in Paris. Well, one short line of a commuter rail system.

The rapid part comes from completely dedicated right-of-way, with no stops for cars.

This does mean however that the Transitway east-west local bus service that used to run on Albert and Slater will be gone. I haven’t heard an explanation of what east-west local buses will continue to run or be added, in what numbers, with what routes. If there is no replacement, the LRT will result in it actually being harder to move locally east-west across the city core.

Extending the commuter rail

This transformation of the mixed system is causing confusion in people’s thinking about planning for extending the system. Remember commuter rail raises up its infrequently-spaced stops, either through connecting existing village cores or (in the case of Ottawa’s plans) transit-oriented development (“TOD”) at the stops. It does not raise up (in terms of urban development) the whole length of its route because the stops are too far apart. This means if you put commuter rail on the surface through a dense urban fabric, most of the time it will have its back turned on the urban environment.

So if you’re designing a path for commuter transit you want:

  • a dedicated right of way (nothing to stop the transit – in particular no unpredictable car traffic)
  • nothing essential to “cities for people” along the stretches between stops (industrial spaces or empty countryside are good candidates to have packed trains roaring past)
  • dense urban fabric villages clustered around the stops

Remember commuter transit is rapid over a medium distance.

It makes no sense to try to use commuter transit to try to lift up an entire transportation corridor.  If you want lots of people walking around and lots of human interactions you want local transit.  For local transit you:

  • stop often – sometimes only a few blocks apart
  • move people within an urban area, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from shop to shop

Local transit is much slower.  And we already have a local transit bus network (basically every bus in the city core that isn’t on the Transitway route).  For better service you replace local transit buses with trams (surface rail).

You can also augment local transit with bikeshare.  People don’t seem to understand the pricing of bike share.  Bike share is priced for many short local trips because it is a local transit addition, it adds local surface transit capacity.

Ottawa language

Ottawa doesn’t seem to have a language to express this distinction between commuter transit and local transit.  The closest appears to be to called commuter transit “rapid” and to call local transit “secondary”.  This is why you will see language about Carleton Carling not being suitable for “rapid” transit (commuter rail) but being a good choice for “secondary” rail (local trams).  This is actually quite a correct analysis, if incredibly unclearly expressed.  Here’s the Mayor doing an ok job of explaining (using “streetcar” instead of tram).

This language is really important because part of what sank North-South rail was the confusion between the mix of modes.  It simply doesn’t make sense to switch between modes of use.  Commuter transit and local transit are different.  Starting as commuter rail outside the city and then turning into whatever it was downtown (I still can’t figure out what their intention was in the core) makes a muddle of it.

Open File Ottawa – Three of four proposed western LRT routes would go along Richmond Road: report

Commuter rail and never local rail

We need a commuter rail network (equivalent of Paris RER) ***AND*** we need a local transit network – a frequent-stopping network that is a combination of bus (for less important routes) and tram (surface rail) in the city core.  Local moves people around their city, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, as the old Ottawa surface rail system used to do.  A reasonable start on local trams would be to bring back the B (Bank) and S (Somerset) lines.

image from the Gréber Plan

So just keep in mind – if you are asking for our current LRT system to run somewhere, you are asking for a WALL OF TRAINS that will stop infrequently, a commuter rail system.  If you want to improve the neighbourhood, you want to ask for a completely separate, frequently-stopping, surface rail (tram) systemThere are currently zero plans for such a system.

Understand what we are doing: we are doing decades of commuter rail (RER) building.  Commuter rail will stretch west, east and south.  It will be great for getting to work (assuming work is actually located at the nodes, which is another issue).  It could be a good city-building project, IF we build walkable neighbourhoods / mini-villages at the transit nodes, but that would be a minor miracle.  Towers with no street life is a much more likely TOD outcome.  And this is it, this is all of the transit money that will be going out for like the next 55 years, all will go into this commuter rail system.

Downtown Moves

All of this gets us to Downtown Moves.  This is about adjusting the CBD (the city core near Parliament) for underground commuter rail replacing the aboveground Transitway-turns-into-local bus.

Right now the Albert-Slater local Transitway corridor handles thousands of buses.  2000 of them will be gone.  It’s not clear what the remaining local bus system will look like (particularly the needed east-west local replacement for the Transitway buses).  Express bus from the suburbs is to go to the east and west nodes of the new LRT commuter rail, rather than ending downtown (although the city really needs to make this absolutely clear, which they currently haven’t).

In any case this will modify the current 9 & 5 pedestrian pattern that is smeared along Albert and Slater to a more focused one at the two main downtown LRT stops.

(To get an idea of the coming LRT system see the official website.)

I honestly don’t know if you can turn that pattern of people very quickly walking to and from work into any kind of functioning street life for the downtown core.  But you can at least use it as an excuse to make the downtown core nicer for people who actually live here.

It’s an opportunity to get wider sidewalks, more trees, and better interaction of buildings with the street-level (in particular more street-level retail).  The current situation in the CBD is pretty dire to be honest – it’s basically a suburb / 1960s urban planning vision where buildings turn their back on the sidewalk – everything is inward-facing, narrow sidewalks, nothing but walls of dead glass or concrete with no storefronts along block after block (and no one walking except at 9, noon and 5, weekdays).

We can’t really blame Ottawa for this – it’s how everyone thought the urban core should be built in that era (William H. Whyte documents this in wonderful detail in City: Rediscovering the Center).  We can blame Ottawa for being at least 20 years late to the urban rediscovery party.  And for still having little plan other than commuter rail (I wouldn’t call letting condo towers drop everywhere into the city core a “plan”).

So basically for Downtown Moves you should be pushing for a city for people – for a city friendly to walking, cycling and transit and unfriendly to cars.  Yes, unfriendly to cars.  Cars are not an appropriate technology for a dense urban core.  (See Jan Gehl’s Cities for People for the elements of a livable city.)

There is a very big danger that what the LRT will actually do is remove buses from downtown streets and replace them with more fast-moving commuter cars.  If you can do a single thing in the Downtown Moves plan, make sure that doesn’t happen.

The city is doing its usual attempt at consulting with Downtown Moves – an approach almost every bureaucracy uses.  Presents information panels, asks for input, disappears for months with a small core planning group, returns and presents almost-final plans and asks for feedback.  I’m not faulting the city – it is hard to do a continuous planning engagement and even when they try (e.g. the Mid-Centretown Tomorrow blog) there is very little feedback – it’s hard to get people to pay attention and people are busy.

If you want a preview of what Downtown Moves is working on, see Eric Darwin’s post Major changes coming to downtown streets (April 30, 2012).  Eric is on the city’s citizen advisory board thing for Downtown Moves.

David Reevely also had two articles in the June 3, 2012 Ottawa Citizen about Downtown Moves (without ever actually mentioning the project by name):

What to do

I think in general Ottawa and its citizens have a hard time navigating all the layers of plans and planning, and implementing the (often quite good) plans once they’re produced.  I think there could be a lot of benefit to focusing on a few core goals, rather than getting buried in details of zoning and design.  I propose in all interactions (Downtown Moves, Centretown CDP, new Official Plan, new Transportation Plan) we aim for a few core goals, by 2020, 2030, 2040, 2050 and 2067.  A few I would recommend are:

  • reduce traffic fatalities to zero (Chicago has set this goal).  UPDATE 2012-06-05: Laura Mueller tells me that Ottawa has also set a goal “Towards Zero – One fatality or serious injury is one too many.”  You can find the goal in the Safer Roads Ottawa council report and in the accompanying Ottawa Strategic Road Safety Action Plan: 2012-Beyond slide deck (PDF).  ENDUPDATE
  • reduce car speed in the downtown core to 30km/h or less (many cities have set this as a goal or a requirement).  Have a year-by-year plan for this transition.  Implement it.  This means not just changing the signs, you have to change the street design (as Eric Darwin ably explains).
  • reduce the number of cars on downtown streets by x% per year (and attach clear FUNDING and IMPLEMENTATION to each percentage decrease)
  • reduce the number of parking spots downtown by x% per year (and attach clear FUNDING AND IMPLEMENTATION).  Copenhagen has been reducing parking spots downtown gradually for decades.  See Transport Canada – Reducing or eliminating parking in support of TDM initiatives.
  • increase the price of parking downtown (using dynamic pricing as in e.g. San Francisco)
  • close the Metcalfe cut-through at the Museum of Nature (you can do this IMMEDIATELY with concrete barriers, and then set a SPECIFIC DATE when it will become permanent)
  • 2-way any high-speed streets in particular the Queensway arterials (O’Connor, Kent, Lyon) – you CANNOT HAVE HIGHWAY ARTERIALS in the heart of your city.  It kills your city.  Set SPECIFIC DATES for pilots.  Set SPECIFIC DATES for full conversions.  These conversions have been in plans for years.  Put money and timelines on these conversions, not rhetoric.
  • Have a long term plan to reduce or eliminate the Queensway through the middle of the city.  A specific, funded, implemented plan.

You see these red lines?


(UPDATE 2012-06-05: If you can’t see the above image on Flickr, it’s the sub-panel “Road Network” from the Transportation Networks slide (PDF) of the first Downtown Moves public meeting.  ENDUPDATE)

The purpose of those red lines is to move cars very quickly.  Unfortunately they are trying to move cars very quickly WHERE PEOPLE LIVE.  Where children live.  Where old people live.  The use of our public transportation space (i.e. streets) in the city core for high-speed cars is simply not compatible with a livable city.

You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about zoning, about heights.  There are some side battles to fight about the street level, about unit size (to get more families into the core) and about greenspace (there is not enough greenspace for a dense city core).  But those are all secondary to actually acting (rather than just talking about) disinviting the car from the city core.  We will NEVER HAVE a thriving city core without addressing the speed and number of cars in the city centre.

The meeting

The next Downtown Moves meeting will be June 13, 2012 at 5pm in the Colonel By Room at City Hall.  It’s not on the website or in the mailing list yet, but it will be.

The hashtag is #dottmo

The planner is Nelson Edwards although Reevely’s articles have quotes from deputy city manager Nancy Schepers.

The contact email is


January 19, 2012 Thoughts on Downtown Moves and Ottawa’s urban future