making commuting delightful

On November 26, Ottawa City Council unanimously passed the Official Plan, Infrastructure Master Plan, Transportation Master Plan, Ottawa Cycling Plan and Ottawa Pedestrian Plan.

Some of the highlights of the plans include:

• Investing $3 billion in public transit to build on the Confederation Line by extending rail further East, West and South of the City
• Bringing 270,000 more residents within five kilometres of LRT and ensuring that close to 700,000 residents (67 per cent of the population) will have ease of access to rapid transit


So that’s ~$2 billion for the Confederation Line from Tunney’s to Blair, plus $3 billion for LRT from Bayshore to Place d’Orleans, plus existing double-tracking of the O-train and new O-trains, plus extending the O-train.  Plus BRT to Kanata.  $5 billion.  To 2025.


This is not a tram.  It is grade-separated commuter rail.  “Grade-separated” is a fancy way of saying the train never intersects with road traffic – it always goes beside, above, or under a road.  It never has to wait for cars and cars never have to wait for it.  (I think all of the LRT is grade-separated, I’m not sure if all of the O-train is.)  During the commuting peak, this train will run very frequently and very reliably.

This, in other words, is five billion dollars of being delightful to commuters.  This is a choice.

Ottawa and the NCC have had world-leading urban and transportation planners come and speak, including Jan Gehl, Ken Greenberg and Jeffrey Tumlin.

They all, without exception, said that we should be delightful… to pedestrians.  To pedestrians first, and then if we can, to cyclists.  (This is Tumlin’s terminology.  Gehl would say something like “invite pedestrians to walk and linger in the city and disinvite the car; you get what you invite” but it amounts to the same thing.)

It is incredibly cheap to be nice to pedestrians.  Flat sidewalks.  Shoveled clear sidewalks and intersections in the winter (not just plowed; the plow leaves a layer of snow on the sidewalk and a giant pile of slush in the intersection).  Pedestrian priority for crosswalks.  Traffic enforcement (particularly left and right turns on red, which should be banned at busy intersections).  Speed  enforcement, through road design (to 30km/h anywhere in the city, and 10km/h anywhere residential).  Interesting things to see, shops at ground level.  This costs, seriously, nothing compared to roads and rail.  A few tens of millions of dollars for delight.

This is not crazy.  This is Copenhagen, Paris, London, New York, … this is every city that wants to attract a creative workforce, with high wages and high property values.

Instead, after listening to expert after expert, Ottawa is bowing to the suburban ring outside the city core, and making the commute delightful.

This does almost nothing for the city life itself, because the commute is a weird twice daily peak event.  From roughly 8 to 9, hundreds of thousands of people try to jam themselves as quickly as possible from their homes in the suburbs to their offices.

Note I didn’t say to the city.  This 1950s model of commuting is basically a teleporter fantasy we try to implement using cars and trains.  Ideally you step into your car inside your home garage, and minutes later, preferably without paying much attention, you “appear” inside your work garage.    In the evening, reverse.  This is not anything to do with city life.  This could be taking people from anywhere to anywhere.  This is basically a giant piston, shoving people in in the morning and out at night.

For commuters, the train must be frequent, fast and reliable.  Say every 5-10 minutes.  With minimal and very fast changes.  So we have to scale the system to handle the peak of the peak.  Hundreds of thousands.  You don’t need to spend time on the waiting area, because no one will be waiting long.

But outside the peak, this is a ridiculous system.  You have a commuter rail system designed to push hundreds of thousands in an hour, that then has almost nothing to do for the rest of the day.  A trickle of some thousands throughout the rest of the day.  Hardly worth running it very often.

So basically it’s $5 billion dollars for 10 hours a week (8-9, 5-6, M-F).  This is not counting billions more for highway widening and extension, for the commuters you don’t shift to rail.

So the people during the day who are actually moving around the city get to stand in the uncovered stations by the tracks in the middle of winter and wait, because they’re not commuters, so the train won’t be running very often.  And mostly the rail takes you to malls and schools and employment nodes, not interesting neighbourhoods with local shops.  And if you want to move around downtown – well it’s the bus for you, and an unheated shelter, if you’re lucky.

You can use Transit-Oriented Design to make the commuter train look less ridiculous, to give people a reason to use the train to get around from station to station during the day.  But unless you do it well, you’re just going to get a vertical suburb at the station, not what TOD is supposed to be, which is a walkable village around the station.

What you actually do in a real city is have commuter rail AND local rail (trams and if necessary subways) AND bus AND cycling AND most importantly of all, delightful walking.  What people remember of Paris is walking around.  Most people never touch the commuter rail, the RER.  If they do, they find it empty and often a bit dismal (a lot of graffiti and neglect).  What Ottawa is choosing is to build a city with RER and basically nothing else, for decades.  No trams (a tram is rail that runs on the street, with stops at the edge of the sidewalk).  No delightful walking.  No (also incredibly cheap) separated bike lanes, just painted lines that protect no one from tonnes of speeding steel.

This is council’s choice to make.  As a commuter rail system, it will be pretty good.  It will do nothing to transform the life of the city though.  It is a suburb-sustaining project, not a city-building project.  It is much, much better than spending the money on roads.  But a tiny fraction of it, 10% of it, would build some of the best pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in the entire world.  Council chooses again and again not to do this.  The winter pedestrian experience tells you, day after day, month after month: you are not important, you are not valued, only cars are important.  The cycling experience tells you: your safety is not important, you are not valued, only cars are important.

Here’s the thing: you can’t solve the commute.  Can’t.  No billions, no design, no transportation in the world can solve moving a giant peak load of people tens of kilometres in two one-hour windows.  If I were writing this in 1950 you could scoff.  But you can see the lanes widen year after year, and yet the commute doesn’t get solved.  Because you can’t solve it.  You can only eliminate the factors that cause it, of which the main one is people living a long way away from work.  The solution to the commute is to replace the commute with an actual liveable city where people walk and cycle short distances for work and shopping and friends, and ride the rails for very rare long distance excursions.

Instead commuter rail is a choice that will sustain a grey generic suburban city.  That’s our future.  That’s the will of council.