Bank Street and Somerset Street West weekend open streets

Somerset Street West from Bank Street to O’Connor Street (Somerset Village) will be open for pedestrians and cyclists and patios:

  • Fridays 5pm to 11pm
  • Saturday & Sunday 12 noon to 11pm

Bank Street from Queen Street to Catherine Street will be open for pedestrians and cyclists and patios:

  • Saturdays from 9am to midnight

The Saturday walking street will remain in place from July 11th – August 8th [2020], at which time we will reevaluate the program to ensure that our businesses and community are well served. – Bank Street B.I.A.

Open Bank Street and Somerset Street
Green line showing Bank Street open from Queen Street to Catherine Street, and Somerset Street West open from Bank Street to O’Connor Street. Map data ©2020 Google.

So I guess it is possible to open streets in the arterial city.

Opening Streets in the Arterial City

This is the city that was

Greber Plan 1945 Population Ottawa-Hull plate_3
1945 Population, Ottawa-Hull and vicinity, from the 1950 Plan for the National Capital (Gréber Plan) – Plate III. Distribution of Population – captioned: “1945 Population, 1 dot represents 20 persons”

And this is the city they made

DSC07529 - edit - crop

Every red line.  Every red line is an arterial highway.  An arterial highway whose wide, high-speed road surface has a status near sacred.  Want cars to go slower?  Sorry that’s not possible, that’s an Arterial.  In the heart of the downtown.  Effectively, once the “Queensway” highway was built (replacing the rail line that had been there), the entire downtown became an on/off ramp for the highway.

Wikipedia – Ontario Highway 417Queensway

Within Ottawa, the Queensway was built as part of a grand plan for the city [the 1950 Gréber Plan] between 1957 and 1966

This 1960s era highway planning was based on many assumptions, but the foremost amongst them was that city cores were blank slates that should be restructured with highways as the primary design element.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Here’s a screenshot from Form, Design and the City (1962):

Form Design and the City

You see all that blank space?  That’s where people actually lived.  But in this worldview, those people don’t exist.

The detour it would take to describe this “urban renewal” planning would be long, but basically the vision was that all the wealthy people would move to the suburbs, and the city core would be nothing but poor people and office towers for the wealthy men who would commute to work every workday.  And the priority would thus obviously be to make the commute as fast as possible for the commuters.  The local residents, as is evident from the image above, basically might as well not exist.

Think this doesn’t apply to Ottawa?  Here’s the great man Gréber himself pointing from the sky at a resident-free Ottawa.


This was never a good idea.

By 1988, as William H. Whyte documents extensively with evidence in City: Rediscovering the Center, it was already obvious that this didn’t work and didn’t make any sense.  32 years later, with residential towers rising in city centres all over the world, it is even more evident it doesn’t make any sense.  In 2020, with remote working virtually eliminating the commute for almost anyone who can work with a computer and a telephone, it makes even less sense.

And yet we still prioritize the car commuters, going much much faster than the 30km/h that should apply anywhere downtown, or the 10km/h that should apply for residential streets.  And driving on every street, rather than having some streets reserved exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists.

And this prioritization of car commuters is embedded in decisionmaking which locks in this priority at multiple levels.  Not least of which, wards don’t control their own roads.  Why don’t wards (and their residents) get to control the roads where they live?  Well, no reason from a democratic perspective.  But mostly so that wards don’t get to make roads slower.

The evidence about speeding is abundant.

Excess speed and inappropriate speed are very common

Speed limits provide information to the drivers about the safe speed to travel in average conditions. Exceeding the speed limits is very common. Typically, 40 to 50% of the drivers travel faster than the speed limit. Typically, 10 to 20% exceed the speed limit by more than 10 km/h. In addition, drivers adapt their speed insufficiently to local and temporary conditions related to traffic and weather. They often choose a speed that is inappropriate for the prevailing conditions. Speed choice is related to the drivers’ motives, attitudes, risk perception and risk acceptance. Furthermore, speed choice is affected by characteristics of the road and the road environment and by characteristics of the vehicle.

The above quote is from 11 years ago, from 2009 SafetyNet Speeding (PDF).  If you prefer a more recent version, see European Road Safety Observatory (ERSO) Speed and Speed Management 2018 (PDF).

Or for that matter, read Ottawa’s own 2013 Transportation Master Plan, which says all the right things, not that that seems to make much difference in how some of the staff plans or the majority of Councillors vote.

2013 Transportation Master Plan – Chapter 3 – Create a Supportive Built Environment (PDF)

Section 3.1 Use planning processes to support sustainable choices

  • Action 3-1 Enable walking, cycling and transit through community design plans and development review
  • Action 3-2 Reduce the impacts of surface parking

If you want to know why our actions don’t match our words, I recommend Jeffrey Tumlin speaking on What has prevented Walkable Urbanism, and how to fix our cities and in particular his observation that most cities have great plans that describe a walkable city, but budgets for a car commuter city.

UPDATE 2020-07-10: The problem with this kind of red line vital arteries depiction of the city’s streets is it makes it feel like those arterials are the literal lifeblood of the city, and opening them to other uses would kill the downtown.  In reality it is quite the opposite.  Those red lines are not life.  Those red lines are emptiness and cars and danger.  END UPDATE

Bank Street BIA Street Opening Proposal 2020

The Bank Street BIA has proposed

1/3 Downtown Bank has put together a proposal to close Bank Street (Queen – Flora) to motor vehicles to provide greater access for cyclists and pedestrians. This would take place Saturdays (9am – 11:59pm) from July – September [2020]

2/3 Following feedback that insufficient time to vote was provided, the closure of Bank Street (Queen – Flora) has been postponed for one week to allow for more time for businesses to submit their vote

3/3 The City of Ottawa requires a 2/3 approval from businesses for each block impacted by the closure.
We hope to update everyone on the status of this vote by Wednesday, July 8th. We welcome feedback from our community on social media, or via email at

If you’re wondering why it requires a 2/3 approval from businesses for each block impacted by the [opening to pedestrians and cyclists], it’s because the Mayor just conjured this requirement up out of thin air, in an unannounced motion that crushed a planned Glebe Bank Street opening.

(One might also ask a larger question of why the BIA members get a larger voice than the actual residents, but anyway.)

UPDATE 2020-07-10: The Bank Street BIA has been successful and thanks to extra work with the city, the street will be opened from Queen Street to Catherine Street.  END UPDATE

STO presentation to NCC on Gatineau west-end rail June 2020

STO presented to the NCC Public Board of Directors Meeting on June 25, 2020.

The NCC has replied with staff analysis:

including a recommendation that the entire segment in Ottawa, including the crossing of the Portage Bridge and any segment on Wellington, use battery power:

The tramway will have to be battery operated on the bridge to avoid any equipment that diminishes the aesthetic quality of this section of Confederation Boulevard.

In [the Wellington Street] section, the tram would operate on batteries only and no overhead wires or structures would be necessary, in keeping with the aesthetic requirements along Confederation Boulevard.

which would not have been my choice.  Much better to have overhead wires than to introduce more complexity into what is already a very complex transit planning problem.

Plus which, let’s be super generous and say Confederation Boulevard is 35 years old (“Planning began in 1982 and construction in 1985.”)  Ottawa had streetcars with overhead wires from approx. 1891 to 1959.  That’s 68 years.  Overhead wires are way more a part of Ottawa’s built heritage aesthetic history than Confederation Boulevard.

NCC summary:

A presentation was made to the Board of Directors on the Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO) study for a transit system linking Gatineau’s west end with downtown Gatineau and Ottawa.

The study

  • will help to determine the mode (or modes) that would be implemented
  • refine the corridors in the west end of Gatineau (Allumettières and Taché)
  • define the alignment of the future tram / light rail system (which will take the Portage Bridge) into downtown Ottawa (via a tunnel under Sparks Street or a surface route along Wellington Street).

The NCC is in favour of public and active transportation initiatives in the National Capital Region. In evaluating this project, the NCC will have to ensure that the proposed solutions comply with plans governing the use of federal lands.

The sections of the alignment that affect federal lands will be submitted to the Board of Directors for approval in October 2020 or January 2021.


The STO has launched a consultation on how the proposed tramway should arrive on the Ottawa side.  Should it go on the surface on Wellington or in a tunnel under Sparks?


For more information about STO’s proposed transit system, you can see my previous blog post proposed rail transit for Gatineau west end – May 2020 update to City of Ottawa.

STO consultation on options for integrating proposed Gatineau west-end rail transit into Ottawa

STO is proposing a rapid transit system in the west end of Gatineau that would connect to Ottawa by a tramway over the Portage Bridge.

They are consulting on the options for integrating this tram on the Ottawa side.  The options they propose are surface rail on Wellington or a tunnel under Sparks.  The consultation closes July 19, 2020.

There is a really extensive (as in, very long web page) background overview presenting the analysis and options:


The consultation closes July 19, 2020.

For more information, you can see my previous blog post proposed rail transit for Gatineau west end – May 2020 update to City of Ottawa.

The future of the Prince of Wales Bridge

[photo of the Prince of Wales Bridge]

The Prince of Wales Bridge is currently closed.  Wikipedia tells me that it was built in 1880 and last used in 2001.

The disused line runs between Ottawa’s OC Transpo Bayview Station (the Line 1 – Line 2 interchange station), and Gatineau’s STO Rapibus terminus at Station Taché-UQO.

Google Maps Bayview Station to Station Taché-UQO
Above Imagery ©2019 Google

STO and OC Transpo

Although it was initially considered for a proposed rail transit connection to Ottawa from Gatineau, it has now been removed from consideration by STO in favour of the Portage Bridge.  The reasons cited for removing it from consideration included that OC Transpo’s Bayview Station wouldn’t have enough capacity, and that Portage delivers passengers more directly to the Ottawa Central Business District.

It does remain on Ottawa’s proposed Stage 3 rail transit map (look for the short purple line in the centre of the map below, connected to Bayview) but without any indication of how it would be used and how it would connect into the existing rail lines.

Stage 3 purple from Light-Rail-Transit-Project_Tech-Briefing_20190222_EN
from slide 109 of the Stage 2 Light Rail Transit Project: Technical Briefing – February 22, 2019 (PDF, Internet Archive) – Stage 3 extensions to Kanata, Barrhaven and across the Prince of Wales Bridge in purple

The only other faint possibility of it ever being used for rail is an STO speculation that it could be a “Potential future link for a west-south route” (following the completion of the proposed Gatineau west-end transit project).  Note that I have changed the colours in the map below to align with more common Ottawa usage.

STO - 15 May 2020 - Analysis of Current Crossings - slide 11 - colour adjust
From slide 11 in STO’s Complementary Study: Public Transit System in Gatineau’s West End – Technical Briefing to City of Ottawa May 15, 2020 (PDF) on STO webpage Update: Progress of the analysis of options for the integration in Ottawa.

So for any possible rail use of the Prince of Wales Bridge you’re into the 2030s timeframe, a decade or more from now.

Current Plans

The current plan is to adapt it for pedestrians and cycling, but there doesn’t seem to be any money allocated for that purpose.

Joanne Chianello writes for CBC Ottawa:

The city of Ottawa bought the Prince of Wales Bridge for $400,000 from Canadian Pacific Railway about 15 years ago for the express purpose of running trains across it one day, and that’s still in the city’s current Transportation Master Plan.

But last fall, the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau announced that plans for rail over the bridge were off.

“It would congest … Bayview station, and secondly, Gatineau has been pursuing their LRT project and they too have ruled it out as a bridge that would be used for transit,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said last September.

Both Watson and Gatineau Mayor Maxime-Pedneaud Jobin are hoping to use the bridge instead as a pedestrian and bike crossing.

from CBC Ottawa – Gatineau wants to run light rail over Portage Bridge

Also see the Mayors’ joint announcement from September 2019 as reported in CBC Ottawa – Mayors rule out Prince of Wales Bridge for transit link.

UPDATE 2020-05-19: Also see Analysis: Rejection of Prince of Wales Bridge illustrates difficulty of planning Ottawa-Gatineau rail link by Jon Willing in the Ottawa Citizen.

For historical completeness, there was an NCC Interprovincial Transit “Strategy” in 2013 that had trains going from Bayview Station across the Prince of Wales Bridge to connect with STO transit, and also had a rail connection across Alexandra Bridge.  But it was totally unfunded so it is moot.

Ottawa LRT Stage 2 Line 2 in Emojis

Ottawa Line 2 🚆 Stage 2

Bayview 🚉 ↔️ Line 1 🚈 East-West

Gladstone 🚉

Carling 🚉

Carleton 🚉

Mooney’s Bay 🚉

Walkley 🚉

Greenboro 🚉

South Keys 🚉 ↔️ Airport Link 🚆

Leitrim 🚉

Bowesville 🚉

Limebank 🚉

Alternative with washrooms

Ottawa Line 2 🚆 Stage 2

Bayview 🚉🚻 ↔️ Line 1 🚈 East-West

Gladstone 🚉

Carling 🚉

Carleton 🚉

Mooney’s Bay 🚉

Walkley 🚉

Greenboro 🚉

South Keys 🚉 ↔️ Airport Link 🚆

Leitrim 🚉

Bowesville 🚉

Limebank 🚉🚻

Airport Link

The Airport Link is a separate line; you have to change trains at South Keys Station.

Ottawa Line 2 🚆 Stage 2 Airport Link

South Keys 🚉 ↔️ Line 2 🚆

Uplands 🚉

Airport 🚉 ↔️ ✈️

Emojis Used

See Also

November 13, 2018  Ottawa LRT Stage 2 maps

September 10, 2019 Ottawa LRT Stage 1 Line 1 in Emojis

2022 Official Plan for the City of Ottawa

Ottawa has an Official Plan from 2003.  It is the master document describing development in the city.

So the general idea is that the Official Plan shapes and constrains everything that can happen in terms of development in the city.

Engagement is underway for the new 2022 Official Plan

Personal Observations

I have to say in that in my view the idea that the Official Plan manages development hasn’t worked particularly well.

With the suburban-urban divide on council, and with individual wards having basically no say in development or road design within their wards, Council tends to do spot approvals for basically anything that is requested.  Ward residents hate the uncertainty this brings, with what is typically a spot upzoning changing the expected character of the neighbourhood.  Council has promised repeatedly that the layers upon layers of secondary plans are to bring certainty in planning, but so far they haven’t.

About the only meaningful constraint the Official Plan imposes is on the development lands around the city.  But there is always a push to expand the urban boundaries.

So at the core there’s the Official Plan, but the Official Plan has amendments upon amendments, page upon page of amendments in the Annexes to a point where I don’t know how anyone could meaningfully understand it.

In addition to the Official Plan there are other plans, specifically the Infrastructure Master Plan, Transportation Master Plan and the Development Charges By-law.  I don’t know what effect these plans have.  The 2013 Transportation Master Plan is a model of promoting active transportation and transit in its main text, and then lists seven pages of road widenings in its annex (pp. 108-114).  It’s not clear that the Transportation Master Plan has any effect on Council decisions or budgets.  The one thing that is certain is that anything that is not explicitly on the approved urban and rural Cycling Network is generally declined.

This is not to say that the city isn’t slowly improving for active transportation and transit.  The LRT will by a wide margin have the biggest impact on the city, but there are also separated bike lanes (cycle tracks) and road narrowings (road “diets”) including Main and Elgin.  The road changes are almost always a compromise rather than a full transformation, and the arterials like Bronson and Kent remain pretty much untouchable one-way highways in the heart of the city.

Ultimately what matters is the city budget and individual Council votes on specific buildings and road redesigns.  In theory the Official Plan and other plans should guide the budget and votes.

If you’re in the urban core, it can be a challenge to be endlessly consulted about layers upon layers of plans (including NCC plans in addition to the city plans) while having the underlying reality of a suburban-majority council.

How many times can you provide the same feedback?  Anyway, the Council could take some steps that would transform the city’s urban fabric, including:

    • the city should have one or more dedicated pedestrian planners
    • all consultations should include one or more sessions where the Councillor(s), planners (including traffic planners) and citizens walk and cycle the affected area(s)
      • I would add to this that Councillors need to use the infrastructure they approve.  I like the idea of a winter and summer transit challenge, but we also need Councillors to do winter and summer pedestrian and cycling challenges.  The reality is that it is hard to get around this city by any other mode than car, particularly in the winter.
    • Demand again and again that cars be slowed to 30km/h or less in residential zones (which applies to much of downtown Ottawa).  Using road design, not just signs.
    • make sure the experience of getting to and from the LRT on foot and by bicycle is delightful
    • invest in Vision Zero now
    • allocate budget according to target modal share
      • including increasing subsidies for transit, and decreasing subsidies for single-passenger vehicles, in particular parking subsidies

It’s important to understand that this involves reallocating money.  Road redesign costs money.

Vision Zero done properly is an integrated process with road redesign.  Vision Zero isn’t about some sign you stick in your lawn asking people to slow down.  Vision Zero means that every single time there is a death of a vulnerable road user, every single time, there is a detailed investigation of the design of the road involved and an analysis of the design as a risk factor.  Then you spend a bunch of money to redesign the road to make it safer.  And you keep doing that, over and over, until it actually is safe with zero fatalities.  That’s Vision Zero.

The thing is, the 2013 Transportation Master Plan already says the right words:

  1. Create a Supportive Built Environment
  2. Maximize Walkability
  3. Develop a Great Cycling City
  4. Transform Ottawa’s Transit System

I think it’s Jeffrey Tumlin who has observed that in city after city where he consults, they have plans that say all the right things about active transportation and transit, and then they continue to budget for a 1960s single-passenger car city.  You can see a presentation by Tumlin in my blog post What has prevented Walkable Urbanism, and how to fix our cities.

END Personal Observations

By all means, participate in the Official Plan consultations

But remember that ultimately what matters is the yearly budget and the monthly Council votes.

Ottawa streetcar maps 1915-1954

Click on maps for larger images.

Town and Crown – 1915 Report of the Federal Plan Commission on a General Plan for the Cities of Ottawa and Hull – Drawing No. 24B: Diagram showing daily volume and distribution of street cars

Ottawa - daily volume and distribution of street cars - 1915 - drawing24B

Carleton Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MADGIC) – Ottawa transit system map 1929. Red lines are streetcar lines (“car lines”). And yes, you could have gotten (with a change or two) from Grove Ave. in Old Ottawa South out west to the beach at Britannia Bay.


Carleton Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MADGIC) – Ottawa transit system map 1939. Red lines are streetcar lines (“car lines”).


UPDATE 2020-05-07: I think the above 1939 map must be a hand (or computer) edit of an underlying City of Ottawa map; the heading “Ottawa Transportation Commission” can’t be true for 1939 as the Commission wasn’t created until 1948.  END UPDATE

Town and Crown – Greber Plan – Distribution of Street Cars and Buses 1948. Solid lines are street car lines. Numbers in circles are round trips per day. 245 round trips per day for the Bank Street B line.

Distribution of street cars and buses - Ottawa Transportation Commission - 1948 - plate_14

Carleton Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MADGIC) – Ottawa transit system map 1951. City begins to stretch out, as green bus lines extend south, east and west. Red lines are street car routes.


Carleton Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MADGIC) – Ottawa transit system map June 1954. Solid lines are street car routes.


Carleton Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MADGIC) – Ottawa transit system map December 1954. Solid lines are street car routes.


Ottawa LRT design issues

There were 8.4 million New Yorkers and at one point, I thought there were 8.4 million traffic engineers because everyone had really strong opinions. – Janette Sadik-Khan

The east-west double-tracked Ottawa LRT (Confederation Line, Line 1) is well designed.  It has complete grade separation, which means it never intersects with car traffic.  It is electrically-powered.  It uses modern Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), enabling trains to be safely run with low “headways” (trains arrive closely together in time), even though the trains are switching tracks at the end of the line (e.g. the east-bound train arriving at Blair turns into a west-bound train, heading back west for a while on the same track it arrived on).

CBTC means that trains are substantially automated.  The CBTC system keeps track of all of the train locations.  To some extent once you decide on the train spacing, it is CBTC that decides how fast trains go, which rail segments trains are on, and what the settings of the track switches are.

The rail operators are basically in an oversight mode, monitoring things and dealing with exceptions.

This post covers general light-rail transit (LRT) system design considerations and examines the results of Ottawa’s design choices.  It is particularly focused on why a single door failure on a single train could cause a cascade failure across the system (which is now less the case after software changes).

This post does not address other issues with Ottawa’s Line 1 LRT system including build and maintenance issues with the vehicles themselves and with the rails, overhead catenary power, and stations.

I am not an expert in train systems, but what follows is my analysis as someone who has done a lot of computer network system troubleshooting.

This blog post covers a number of aspects of the LRT system design:

Cascade Failure

In the design of complex systems, you want to avoid a cascade failure.  That is, the failure of a single component should not cause the failure of most or all of the entire system.  In the context of a rail system:

failure of a single train should not have a significant impact on the rest of the rail system.

Unfortunately in this area of design, Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) currently fails.  The fundamental issue is not the doors, the issue is

when a train is in door failure mode, it cannot move under control of the CBTC system.

That means a train in door failure mode has to be excluded from CBTC.  But since CBTC controls all the movement of all the trains, in order to safely exclude a train from control you have to remove an entire track from control, and manually drive the train back, slowly, to a safe location or maintenance location.

But you’ve then converted your dual-track system into a single-track system, with trains going both ways on a single track.  As you can imagine, that’s a situation where you have to be incredibly careful, and clearly you can only use the track in one direction at a time.  So that’s why you go from 5-minutes-or-less trains to 15-minutes-or-more, because there is very complex and careful management needed behind the scenes to safely use the single track.

In short, removing a train from CBTC is a serious failure of the system, that causes dramatically reduced system capacity and dramatically longer spacing between trains.  It should have been the case that RTG and OC Transpo and city staff and whomever is involved in making these decisions did a risk matrix, and the risk assessment should have identified situations in which a train would have to be excluded from CBTC control and tried to minimize them.

In this specific example, as long as you can manage the safety issues of a train that has a door failure, you should continue to run that train under CBTC.  And there could be lots of human ways to manage the safety issues, including staff in the train and staff on the platform, as well as station announcements.

UPDATE: Ken Woods saysCBTC no longer needs to be cut out when bypassing doors.”  So this should fix the major cascade issue that leads to big train delays.

Also, for those of you who want to know more about solutions than design problems, I have highlighted OC Transpo’s Plans at the end of this post.  END UPDATE

The Whole Story

Now that we know the end of the story, we need to go back to the beginning.  Every component of the LRT is a design decision.  (In fact, the decision to have light rail rather than heavy rail is a decision in and of itself.)  While the design that won’t let a train travel under CBTC control is a single decision with huge consequences, the design that led to the door issues is a much longer story.

UPDATE 2019-10-16: This blog post is specifically about how door failures were happening, and how door failures could lead to a system failure.  The trains are complex machines running complex software; there are many other ways they can fail that I don’t address below.  END UPDATE

>> Low-floor vs. High-floor

There are basically two kinds of modern train design: low-floor and high-floor.  The difference is basically whether the wheels (the bogies, in train terminology) are within the floor space (low floor) or below the floor space (high floor).  Most metro systems (e.g. New York) have high floor, and you also see this in VIA Rail trains, which is why you have to go up a set of steps from ground level to get into a VIA train.

High-floor means either you need steps to get onto the train (which is no good for modern accessibility) or you need high platforms, with the rails fairly deeply below the platform level (e.g. as you see in New York).  High-floor also means that the space inside the train car is completely unobstructed, it’s just an empty box you can arrange as you want.

Modern trams are designed to work at street level, because in many cases they’re running on regular streets mixed with car traffic.  Since you can’t reasonably design either deep trenches into the street or periodically raise the sidewalk up dramatically for tram stops, modern trams are low-floor.

Since Ottawa has a totally grade separated system with dedicated stations, we could have chosen high-floor, but we didn’t.

Ottawa uses a low-floor tram design, the Citadis Spirit.

That means the wheels reach up into the interior of the train cars, which is why you get those characteristic humps inside the trains, usually with seating on them.  It also means you get a narrow corridor between the humps (which is the spacing between the wheels on either side of the train).

>> Seating

There are basically two kinds of seating design for transit: front and rear-facing seats, like you see on a bus, and side seating (perimeter seating), like you see on a metro system (e.g., again, New York).  You would generally choose side seating for a high-capacity system, which means most people are standing, and front and rear-facing for a more comfortable but lower capacity system.

A critical difference is that you can clear side-seating cars quickly, because most people are standing anyway.  If it’s high-floor side-seating it is even better, because the space itself is completely unobstructed so people can move freely.

I’m not going to link to this article in DailyHive, because it has autoplay video – TransLink considering side seating for new order of 203 SkyTrain cars – but I will quote from it

perimeter seating generally provides more overall carrying capacity within each car with its allowance for greater standing room. This layout also creates more vertical and overhead handrails for standing passengers to hold on to.

With wider corridors between the seats, such a sideways seating layout could make the trains more efficient for quick ingress and egress through the car doors.

Kyoto subway 1117 priority seat area 01
Priority seat area on Kyoto Subway 1117

Ottawa’s trams have a fairly conventional front and rear-facing seat arrangement, which in combination with low-floor means that there are some pinch points within the train.  In the worst case to get off at a station you might have to stand up, walk through a narrow corridor between seats, and then make your way through the people standing next to the doors.

There are lots of human-factor considerations about which kinds of seating people prefer.  See e.g. Chicago magazine – subway seating options.

>> The Overhead Bar

In general you want people equally distributed along the interior of your train car.  But Ottawa’s cars have very high grab bars with no straps hanging down, which means lots of people can’t reach the bars to hold on.  If you’re standing, you really want to have the comfort of a handhold.  Because of this, people are clustering near areas where lower handholds are available.

>> I’ve Got a Door in my Pocket

There are two kinds of door design.  In a metro system (e.g. yes, New York again) you have pocket doors, where the doors slide into the side of the car.  In Ottawa’s trams, the doors instead open out and over, physically moving outside and to the side of the doorway.

I’m no door expert, but doors that run back and forth on a track, doors that are mostly inside the side of the train seem like they would have fewer failure modes than doors that have to go through a complex range of motion to close, and sit fully exposed to manipulation on the outside edges of the doorway.

Be mindful that doors of either design fail on transit systems all the time; it’s the most common failure.  See e.g.

Train Design Summary

So basically the train things under design control are:

  • high-floor vs. low-floor, which determines how much usable space you have inside the train car, and some of the ease of movement within the car
  • front-facing seating vs. side-seating, which determines how much open space you have for standing passengers vs. seated space, and decides to some extent how easy it is to move within the train car
  • grab bar and straphanger design, which will determine where people are comfortable standing
  • door design, which to some extent determines what kind of failure modes your doors may have

>> Dwell Time

The amount of time a train spends at a station is called dwell time.  To minimize the amount of time it takes get from one end of the entire rail line to the other, you need to minimize the amount of time each train spends at a station.  This includes minimizing the amount of time doors are open.  Ottawa’s LRT doors are on automated timings, I believe of less than two minutes per station.

>> The Bus Legacy

The bus is very different from the train.  The bus is an entirely human-driven system.  Everything is under human control.  The driver can decide when to stop, where to stop, when to open and re-open the doors, everything.

The bus is also super-jolty.  In particular if the brakes are jammed on at a stop or due to cars or other roadway dangers, or due to acceleration when departing a stop.

The bus is unpredictable due to cars, so it may arrive at a time different from the planned schedule.

The bus in many cases is infrequent, sometimes running only every half-hour.

These characteristics make for certain very understandable human behaviours on the bus.

First, people will often try to sit down as quickly as possible, in order to avoid being standing when the bus jolts into motion.  Also people will try to stand up as late as possible, in order to avoid being standing when the bus jolts to a halt.  And in general people would rather sit than stand, due to the aforementioned jolting plus added bumpiness of the ride in general.

This means people are quite often late to exit the bus, and just push the bars to hold or reopen the doors, or shout at the bus driver (“back door!”) to get the doors open if they’re outside the automatic door cycle.

So: slow to exit the bus.

The unpredictability of the bus means that when people do see a bus, they will run to grab it, often requiring the driver to stop and reopen the doors.

So: in a rush to get on the bus.

The flow of passengers on and off the bus is managed by a combination of bus driver oversight and passenger control, including people stepping off and back onto the bus if it is super crowded, with the passengers inside holding the door.

These behaviours don’t translate at all well to the train, which is nothing like the bus.  The train is smooth, and the doors are entirely on automatic timing, and (outside of major system failure) there is another train coming soon.

>> Platform Human Factors

On a platform, you want people to spread out so that they are using all the doors equally.  But it’s just human nature that people tend to stop as soon as they reach the bottom of the stairs.  It will take some time for people to switch from the bus mindset of basically standing near a single location to automatically moving down the platform.

>> Rush Hour

The Commute as we call it, Rush Hour, is an entirely separate design issue about which I will probably do a separate blog post.  But since we can’t redesign the entire city, and change school and employer expectations and employee behaviour, we’re stuck with this super-peak of demand called Rush Hour.

So you have to design your system for Rush Hour.

Normally what would happen is your system is adapted as Rush Hour grows.  Your system changes as demand changes.  If you do have to switch to a new system once demand reaches a certain level, you switch early, let’s say at 75% to 80% of capacity.

The huge design issue in Ottawa was that we waited until our system was basically at 100% capacity before switching to a new design, before switching from Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to LRT.  (I will set the unfortunate politics of Canadian transit that caused this late shift aside.)

That means we went from a 100% capacity Rush Hour BRT system to an LRT system that would have very heavy peak demand.

Very heavy demand is a transit planner’s dream in some sense.

Unfortunately it would be very hard to simulate this level of real-world demand.  You’d have to have literally thousands of volunteers.

Another option would be to gradually ramp up demand, and adjust step by step.  But with a complex bus system this would have been tricky and confusing, with buses removed gradually over time.

Presumably transit planners thought that by instead running the entire bus system in parallel for three weeks, they were doing the best they could at gradual demand increase, assuming people would slowly transition from bus to train during those weeks, so that by the end they would be running at full train demand.

What seems to have happened though is a step change in demand when the buses were discontinued.

And Now The Deluge

That step change in demand seems to have triggered a cascade failure, which goes something like this:

1. Buses are now dropping off all of their passengers at Blair and Tunney’s, creating peak demand that needs to be quickly cleared.  So there are two big boarding demand sources.

2. People are mostly going to work or to school, which means heavy demand to get off the train at uOttawa and Parliament Stations.

3. With the extra number of people added by the end of the parallel bus service, the design of the trains means that people are not getting to the doors in time.  This is a combination of design factors:

a. low-floor design means there are some narrow corridors in the train cars
b. front and rear-facing seating means there are lots of people seated
c. having lots of seating means people have to navigate their way past the seats
d. high grab bars means that standing passengers cluster in certain areas of the car where they can reach a handhold

Plus which let’s keep in mind that humans don’t like “crush load“.  People will stand together, but they’re not necessarily going to pack themselves together to fill the maximum capacity of the train.

4. The automated door timing that is part of short dwell times at stations means people are not able to get out at their station before the doors close.

For a passenger, not getting off at your station is basically a serious transit failure when you’re on a train.  If you need to get off at uOttawa and you can’t get off, you’re stuck either trying to train back or walk back, when you may have timed things to get to class or an exam.  Train transit systems must be designed so people can get off at their stop.

When people can’t get off at their stop they will understandably panic and try to get the doors open.

5. The automated door timing that is part of short dwell times at stations means people may not be able to get on at their station before the doors close.

This is not a failure in a train transit system with frequent trains.  You wait for the next train.  But keep in mind this is not at all how the bus worked.  So people understandably are trying to rush onto the train, and they are trying to get the doors open to do so.

6. Getting off and on magnified

The next thing that will happen is if people have learned they may not get off and on the train as designed, they will change behaviours in ways that magnify the problem.

People worried about getting off will stand near the doors even if it isn’t their stop, which means they will slow people who need to get off the train.

People worried about getting on will stand near the doors and rush the doors, which means they will slow people who need to get off the train.

So as soon as people lose confidence in the train it gets even worse.

7. Apparently the doors can error out in two ways.  If the door tries to close three times and it can’t, it will error out, which the train operator can reset.  But if the door is physically out of alignment, this is basically an unfixable error until it is realigned.

This is where the real problem comes.

(Note: The door failure described below no longer causes a cascade system failure in most cases.)

Failed doors are to be expected in transit systems.  But the train control (CBTC) system we have (Thales SelTrac™) in combination with the train we have (Alstom Citatis Spirit) has this decision in its risk matrix: a train with failed doors is not allowed to move under automated train control.

My thanks to Ken Woods (@drivesincircles) for explaining the train control issue on Twitter.

This was the eye-opening tweet for me:

He goes on to provide additional detail:

CBTC also enforces train suitability, meaning the CBTC system will not allow a train to move with a safety issue like an open door.  So, bypassing that safeguard requires us to bypass CBTC, making the train itself invisible to the other trains being controlled by CBTC.
— Ken Woods (@drivesincircles) October 9, 2019

Once bypassed, we have to move that invisible train back to the depot, and prevent other trains from getting too close. A bypassed train can only move at 25kph, and for obvious reasons cannot stop at stations.
— Ken Woods (@drivesincircles) October 9, 2019

I blinked too. The train will not authorize traction with an open door and an active VOBC. No idea if this is an Alstom or Thales thing, but the door loop override kills movement until the train is cut out.
— Ken Woods (@drivesincircles) October 9, 2019

(VOBC means Vehicle On-Board Controller or sometimes Vehicle On-Board Computer.)

And this CBTC interaction with the trains is where everything falls apart.

Because the train can’t move under automated control, the entire less-than-5-minutes train system running on dual tracks gets replaced with a single track under automated control and a manual track where the train slowly chugs back to be repaired.

This means trains now arrive at something like 15 minute or longer intervals.

But Rush Hour peak demand means hundreds of people arriving continuously by bus at Blair and Tunney’s, which means they have to be cleared out on packed trains every 5 minutes or less, or the stations become dangerously crowded.

Which is what happened.

We should just be grateful that people managed this massive overcrowding.

UPDATE: Ken Woods saysCBTC no longer needs to be cut out when bypassing doors.”  So this should fix the major cascade issue that leads to big train delays.  END UPDATE

Immediate Fixes

>> Dwell Time

Probably the easiest fix is to change the dwell times for the trains, particularly at busy stations.  This means just change the door times so they are open longer.  This will mean longer end-to-end train rides for everyone, but should greatly reduce the door issues.

>> Boarding Decals

We could also put down boarding decals.  People in Ottawa love following signs.  But this means the doors have to always be at the same position, regardless of train direction or train configuration, and I’m not sure this is the case (you’d have to check with OC Transpo).

TTC platform decals
Decals from TTC expanding boarding decals test to southbound St George platform

>> Straphangers

Install straps so that people can stand safely anywhere in the train.

>> Buses

If we are still having capacity issues, OC Transpo needs to add buses back into the system.  Yes, I know this is a terrible option.  It seems like there are some peak demand points, so these could be e.g. express buses that go only Blair to uOttawa or only Tunney’s to Parliament.

Medium-Term Fixes

>> Change Automated Control Scenarios

The most important fix of all is to examine train failure modes, and re-evaluate when a train should be excluded from automated (CBTC) control.  The goal should be to find mitigations so that exclusion from automated control is minimized.

As long as it is safe to do so, it is way way better to run an empty train with a door fault under automated control, than to shut down an entire track and massively increase the time between trains.

UPDATE: Ken Woods saysCBTC no longer needs to be cut out when bypassing doors.”  So this should fix the major cascade issue that leads to big train delays.  END UPDATE

>> Min Headway

If we can get headways (spacing between trains) even lower, say 3 minutes or less, it will ease platform demand.  But I understand there are risks with pushing the system to tight spacing, and so this is something to set as a goal for the medium term.

However, headway is more complicated than it might initially seem, as the rail operators have to switch from one end of the train to the other at the end stations.

On a 4 minute headway, the train pulls in and leaves again within 240 seconds if it is precisely on time. It takes the operator 120 seconds to change ends. – Ken Woods

Long-Term Fixes

For Stage 2, Ottawa should look at side seating for the trains.

But this is a design decision with consequences too: it means long standing commutes for people coming from the most distant stations, and it means some people having to stand on totally uncrowded trains outside of Rush Hour.

Please feel free to correct me if anything above is wrong.


The thing is, this really is mainly a combination of factors that cascade at Rush Hour.  The system is very pleasant and reliable outside of peak demand.  In a way there are two different systems, which makes for a challenging design problem.  If you’ve only been on the train during peak demand hours, you should try it out during the weekend or in the middle of the day; it’s quite a different experience.

OC Transpo’s Plans

The good news is OC Transpo knows what they are doing, so they are already putting in place some of the key elements above, including:

  • A plan to install strap hangers in trains;
  • Adjusting dwell times (the amount of time a door is kept open) at stations aligning the timing to passenger volume and train frequency times;
  • Installing markings on platforms guiding customers on where to wait, so as to not block customers who are stepping off trains. [So I guess train doors are at consistent locations after all.]

Thanks to Councillor Glen Gower for sharing this information in his blog (found via Twitter).

UPDATE 2020-05-23: OC Transpo did all the things listed above.  END UPDATE

UPDATE 2019-10-16: OC Transpo has posted two letters explaining the situation and giving planned actions, one on October 8, 2019 and one on October 10, 2019.  The October 10 letter is the one extracted above.  As a reminder, this is fairly specific to door faults causing system problems; there are lots of other kinds of problems the trains can have that require them to go back to the maintenance depot.  END UPDATE

UPDATE 2019-10-18: OC Transpo has released a web page called The O-Line with details about train and related transit issues and planned solutions.

The O-Line covers some key topics including O-Train doors, improvements to stations, improvements to bus operations, and Winter Operations.

SIDEBAR: Train terminology

UPDATE 2020-02-19: Corrected explanation of TCMS, VOBC and CBTC below.  I had misunderstood what the difference between TCMS and VOBC was.  END UPDATE

In The O-Line they talk about the Train Control Management System (TCMS).  This is the computer on an individual train.  Like all computers it can have errors and need to be reset.  In addition to the TCMS, each train has a Vehicle On-Board Controller (VOBC), which is the component that communicates with the central system (particularly in relation to position of the trains).  The central control system for all the trains is called Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC).  END SIDEBAR


I have to agree with this Canadian Press article: Despite Ottawa’s LRT woes, experts say don’t judge right away.

Ottawa LRT Stage 1 Line 1 in Emojis

Ottawa Line 1 🚈

Tunney’s Pasture 🚉 ↔️ 🚌 West

Bayview 🚉 ↔️ Line 2 🚆 South

Pimisi 🚉 ↔️ OC Transpo 🚌 Gatineau

Lyon 🚉🚇 ↔️ STO 🚌 Gatineau

Parliament 🚉🚇

Rideau 🚉🚇

uOttawa 🚉

Lees 🚉

Hurdman 🚉 ↔️ 🚌 South

Tremblay 🚉 ↔️ VIA Rail 🚆

St-Laurent 🚉

Cyrville 🚉

Blair 🚉 ↔️ 🚌 East

Alternative with washrooms, retail, and bus stop signs

Ottawa Line 1 🚈

Tunney’s Pasture 🚉🚻🛍️ ↔️ 🚏 🚌 West

Bayview 🚉🚻 ↔️ Line 2 🚆 South

Pimisi 🚉 ↔️ OC Transpo 🚏 🚌 Gatineau

Lyon 🚉🚇 ↔️ STO 🚏 🚌 Gatineau

Parliament 🚉🚇

Rideau 🚉🚇🛍️

uOttawa 🚉

Lees 🚉

Hurdman 🚉🚻🛍️ ↔️ 🚏 🚌 South

Tremblay 🚉 ↔️ VIA Rail 🚆

St-Laurent 🚉

Cyrville 🚉

Blair 🚉🚻🛍️ ↔️ 🚏 🚌 East

Thanks to Doug van den Ham for the idea about adding washrooms.

Emojis Used

I didn’t use the Tram emoji because trams travel in the roadway and typically have stops beside the sidewalk; trams are not the same as (heavy) railways or light rail. For some more info see previous blog posting iOS Travel emoji – railway vs tram.

UPDATE 2019-09-26: The in-station retail has been announced as Happy Goat Coffee, which leads to the inevitable alternative visual

Ottawa Line 1 🚈

Tunney’s Pasture 🚉🚻🐐 ↔️ 🚏 🚌 West

Bayview 🚉🚻 ↔️ Line 2 🚆 South

Pimisi 🚉 ↔️ OC Transpo 🚏 🚌 Gatineau

Lyon 🚉🚇 ↔️ STO 🚏 🚌 Gatineau

Parliament 🚉🚇

Rideau 🚉🚇🐐

uOttawa 🚉

Lees 🚉

Hurdman 🚉🚻🐐 ↔️ 🚏 🚌 South

Tremblay 🚉 ↔️ VIA Rail 🚆

St-Laurent 🚉

Cyrville 🚉

Blair 🚉🚻🐐 ↔️ 🚏 🚌 East


See Also

November 13, 2018  Ottawa LRT Stage 1 maps

May 10, 2020  Ottawa LRT Stage 2 Line 2 in Emojis