Gettin’ around in the snow

We’ve all made mistakes. It’s easy to do. We’ve set priorities only to realize they were a tad out-of-whack, or completely inappropriate for the situation. When that happens, there’s no shame in admitting and rectifying it. The city has made just such a mistake, and it needs fixing. Ottawa is a winter city; we can no longer plan our snow clearing—not to mention our transportation system—around prioritizing cars.

When that first blast of snow hits, as it did a couple of weeks ago, we need a transportation network dedicated to moving people quickly, economically and as safely as possible. This means that in much of Ottawa, especially central areas, a focus on clearing sidewalks, bike lanes and bus routes.

Right now, we don’t have that. The city has a charming little infographic telling us that after major streets are cleared, they’ll start working on sidewalks. But intentions and actions are not always aligned, and so it was in that last week of December. City councillors will extoll the successes of the city’s snow removal activities, and to their credit, city crews worked diligently to keep many streets clear, but you only had to walk around our central neighbourhoods to see how the sidewalks were neglected. Or just follow Kitchississippi councillor Jeff Leiper on twitter to see the sad and dangerous state of sidewalks in one of our inner wards.

It seems like petty complaining to grumble about a lack of sidewalk clearing when so many roads were being maintained, but unless you were driving from garage to garage, every one of us is a pedestrian at the beginning or end of a trip.

It’s not good enough to plow Bank Street if a driver has to treacherously climb over a snow bank to get to the sidewalk. It’s not good enough to plow Pinecrest and the transitway if a bus rider has no clear sidewalk whatsoever to access their bus stop.

Here’s where the city needs to go with snow clearing priorities. Major streets, specifically bus routes, should be cleared first, followed by sidewalks and bike lanes. Further, sidewalks need to be maintained as snow clearing activities continue. A sidewalk isn’t really clear if plows clearing cross streets have blocked all intersections.

At the same time, city crews need to be clearing access to bus stops. This means we can’t build huge snow banks in front of bus stops and just leave them there. Sidewalks need to be fully cleared so that people can get on and off the bus safely.

But it’s not enough to simply make buses accessible, we need to make them desirable, too. Over the last four years, OC Transpo ridership is down approximately six million trips. This coming year, we’re facing declining service, whether by construction delays or cost-cutting measures, while increasing prices 2.5%. There’s little reason to believe we can increase ridership under such circumstances.

Currently, bus fares cover 51% of OC Transpo’s costs, and the city wants that to move up to 55%. This is a policy that is crippling our transit system. As comparison, in 2014, gas taxes contributed 23% to road operating costs in the city. Bringing OC Transpo’s subsidy even slightly closer to the subsidy given to drivers would do wonders for ridership and service levels. And it would definitely help more people get around in the snow.

We need to take steps to make bussing a primary option for more residents. We can’t keep starving OC Transpo of funds. A winter city needs a reliable and robust transit system. It’s municipal malpractice to treat bus riders as second class citizens.

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