The Transit Rider Ballet

I’ve been following the woes of Barrhaven transit users for the past few days. Issues have been cropping up for a while (like they have for everywhere else *cough*Vanier*cough*), and it seems like the city has some solutions in store (advisable or not)…but it also seems like no matter what happens, nothing can ever be solved. Every new solution seems to bring new unforeseen (but predictable) issues.

If you want to get a handle on the complaints, you can check out Jan Harder’s Twitter feed; it seems to be a clearing house for such issues.

One tweet stuck out to me. I’m going to quote the text here, rather than linking to it, because I’m not trying to critique the person who tweeted it or put them on blast or anything. I just want to examine what they’ve said:

OMG thank you. The route I need to get home is full of asshats trying to get off at Baseline, H.C., and Nepean Sportsplex. I don’t mind Fallowfield but if I can’t board a bus BECAUSE IT IS FULL to get me to my neighbourhood because you were too lazy to wait for yours, I get mad.

(I’m assuming “H.C.” stands for Hunt Club.)

There is an overwhelming sense of entitlement here. The bus this user wants belongs to them and not to the other transit users because the other transit riders aren’t going to ride it all the way to the end. It’s the only bus that goes to this neighbourhood (it would seem), so they feel it should be reserved for them.

I cannot fathom feeling so very entitled to public transportation and to excluding others from public transportation.

I don’t take the bus all that much, but I do take it occasionally. Routes 6 and 7 go by my house. If I’m taking them I’m generally going no further than the Rideau Centre, going north, or Billings Bridge, going south. So, aside from taking the 7 to Carleton, I’m never taking a bus all the way to the end of the line, nor am I starting at the beginning of the route. Hell, in the mornings, sometimes I’ll grab the 6 or 7 at Fifth and take it to First (to then transfer to the 56 in order to transfer to the 85).

I don’t feel bad or guilty about this at all. I’m a transit user just like everyone else. I’ve paid my fare (and if I’m going a short distance, I’ve paid disproportionately more) and I have just as much right to the bus as you do (and, conversely, you have just as much right to it as I do).

The other day, my daughter and I were coming home from Billings Bridge. We were waiting for the 6, and we’d be taking it to Fifth Avenue. When we got on, there were already people on the bus (though there were others getting off at the mall). As the bus chugged along Bank, people got on and off. Some of the people who were on when we boarded surely got off before our stop.

It can be quite interesting, watching this sort of route if you travel far enough. You can get on and it’ll be almost empty. You’ll watch it fill up. You’ll watch it empty and fill up again. You’ll watch a handful of people get off at a stop, while a handful get on. It’ll ebb and flow, and it’ll (almost) completely turnover its ridership, sometimes multiple times.

No one in their right mind thinks they are more entitled to such a bus as anyone else. No one in their right mind thinks only people who are riding all the way to the end should allow themselves a spot on that bus.

So why can’t those routes to Barrhaven be the same?

If you’ve been reading my posts or my columns with any regularity, you’ve probably encountered me talking about Jane Jacobs’s idea of the street ballet. I lively street has a multitude of uses and sees a multitude of users. Workers heading to their jobs in the morning, school children off to school, workers coming into the area…later, stay-at-home parents run errands or take small kids to the park…business men empty into the streets at lunch hour…school kids come home, workers leave, residents return from work. Later, people are out to restaurants and bars or hitting the theatre. There’s always comings-and-goings.

That’s what life is like on routes like the 6 or the 7. People coming from St. Laurent need to get to the Rideau Centre. People from Lowertown are going to Centretown. Students from the Golden Triangle are busing to classes. People in the Glebe are going to Billings Bridge.

On these buses, there’s a rotation. Each seat may be occupied by five or six different people. The routes take you through places, not just destinations. There are things to do all along the route and people all along the route looking to something somewhere else. It is akin to the street ballet. It is the transit rider ballet.

But on those long commuter routes, you don’t have that. There are spots where a bunch of people will want to get on, and there will be people getting off along the way, at times, but it’s mainly just clumps of commuters hopping from hub to hub (or from hub, leapfroging hubs, to a final hub).

It is absolutely a failure of city design.

These buses may be packed, but that doesn’t mean they carry more people, more “fares”, if you will. A half empty bus that rotates through riders multiple times will end up carrying more people than the same type of bus that takes, primarily, one group of passengers from downtown to a suburban hub. Throw in the fact that these buses are “deadheads” (they don’t do a return trip because there isn’t sufficient ridership to warrant that amount of bus service going the other way), and it’s incredibly expensive to run these routes.

But the aforementioned tweet does highlight something that, I think, too few of our civic leaders think about. We basically need to types of transit service. No, not two separate transit systems, but we need to understand that the suburban commuter model functions inherently differently than an urban commuter system. We can’t try to cram the two together into the same service delivery model and think we’ll be able to serve everyone properly.

This is, in part, what LRT should help address. It is a suburban commuter system. It’s not really going to help people get around downtown that much. But what we can’t do (and what we have done) is assume that LRT solves all our problems, and can replace our urban transit service.

The city is on the verge of ghettoizing bus service, and if they do, they’ll be doing substantial harm to transit, including LRT (not to mention our economy, our environment, our health…). Hopefully, as more and more suburban and exurban communities get fed up with the substandard transit system we’ve been running, there will be serious political will at city hall to make the necessary changes. Hopefully, we won’t simply switch a couple of trips to express routes and consider the problem solved.

Everyone has a right to get on a bus. We need a city council that recognizes that.

Saturday Morning in Stittsville

A couple of weeks ago, my daughters were invited to a birthday party in Kanata. I was tempted to take them, come home, then go back and pick them up, but some issues with the car share made us a bit late and made such driving back and forth untenable (it wasn’t really an ideal solution, regardless). So, being on the west end of Kanata, I decided to pop over to Stittsville, hole up in Quitters and get some work done.

Now, I’ll tell you straight, as I was driving from Kanata to Stittsville (which was basically across the street), I may have vocalized a disapproving “ugh” or two. I was going a past unfinished and just-finished developments, and it was just streaks of blank, carbon-copy homes stretching on indeterminately. This wasn’t a value judgement. It was a reaction to both the aesthetic of bleakness painted across the landscape, as well as a recognition of the sheer unsustainability of so much of our suburban development.

I don’t say all this to rag on sprawl (I do have some other, more nuanced thoughts that I may or may not share in a later post), but to set the scene and give you an idea of where my mind was as I came into Stittsville.

The route I took into The ‘Ville, as they call it, took me past the Goulbourn Rec Centre. Man, that is an impressive looking rec centre. I’ve since learned a bit more about all the issues necessitating its recent rehabilitation, but it seems like it should be a worthwhile community amenity.

I approached Stittsville Main Street from the east along Abbott Street (it’s Abbott Street there, right?). I wasn’t in much of a rush, so I figured I’d just park wherever I could and then take a stroll towards my destination. As I approached, I could see there was much going on. There were cops in the distance at the intersection. I was going to pull over and park right there, but there were no stopping signs everywhere. Curiously, there were also a bunch of cars parked in these no stopping areas. Oh well, I’d keep going.

As I approached Stittsville Main Street (which I’ll just be calling Main Street from here on), I remembered hearing that it was 9runrun that day–a marathon/10k/5k/Something-k. Volunteers and spectators were all over the place. I wondered if I’d get stuck in a massive traffic jam or re-routed away from where I was going. Oh well, whatever, I’d deal.

I was struck with the role-reversal. Regularly, there are major events going on in the Glebe, sometimes (but not often enough) with street closures, leading to much gnashing of teeth and rending of Garmins. I certainly wasn’t inclined to be one of those interlopers, cursing out a community for doing community things.

As it turned out, I was able to easily turn left onto Main Street, and then quickly found a (free) public lot. Super easy. Teeth un-gnashed.

I started walking north up Main. I had a lot of time, so I figured I’d check the place out. It’d been decades since I’d been to this part of Stittsville. And, you know, it’s lovely. The people fighting to keep The ‘Ville in Stittsville are really trying to maintain something worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, Stittsvile will eventually get completely swallowed up in ex- and suburban sprawl, but hopefully the personality of the place won’t get completely chewed up in the process.

I had DMed a few people I knew in Stittsville…well, two people. As I was about a block down Main, I got a message from soon-to-be councillor-elect Glen Gower. I’ve known Glen on Twitter for a few years now, but we’d never actually met. He was heading towards the finish line, a little further west along Abbott.

I quickly turned around and quick-stepped it back to the intersection. I got there just in time to intercept Glen, and we chatted for a block or two, as we wandered down the street.

Abbott is a lovely street, and clearly still holding dearly to the small-town pedigree of Stittsville that is slowly being eroded away. Maybe that’s for the best. If a community isn’t evolving, it’s probably dying. But, still, I feel there has to be a way to maintain the small towns at the edges of greater Ottawa, while we build up within the old city and suburban enclaves. I’m confident we could build a city that preserves the small-town/rural areas while ramping up development just about everywhere else.

Clearly, Abbott Street isn’t about intensification. Large and small houses reside on large, wide lots. At least one sits on a double-lot. There’s tons of room for density here (if desired), and, in a sense, we should probably be seeking some intensification. We do want better transit going to Stittsville, and for that, we need people. But there are ways to do it and ways not to do it.

There’s been some infill, and some of it’s been rather clunky. This seems to be the first stage of infill development. You do it wrong until you figure out how to do it right.

But there’s definitely opportunities to get it right. Nothing (yet) completely sticks out. Some of the houses could have been done better, but nothing’s a monstrosity. Hell, there’s even a triplex (don’t tell some Kitchissippi residents). This sort of thing, and maybe splitting up double lots, is really the way to go. It’s about incremental changes in density, gentle density.

The very nature of The ‘Ville doesn’t have to be trampled on in the name of progress. “Neighbourhood character” is a term regularly deployed by NIMBYs attempting to halt all development and, maybe, keep certain types out of their community. But our neighbourhoods should have character. Our city should have personality…it should be a conglomeration of personalities.

There’s no reason to make sure every different area slowly morphes into the vacuity of sameness. Citybuilding isn’t the borg. There’s no need for assimilation of die. We can be different; we can have different communities with different characteristics, while still ensuring that the city is open for all residents. It’s a tough balancing act, sure, and no one’s going to be 100% satisfied, but that doesn’t mean we just give up.

As the city progresses, we should get better at this. We should be able to find balance no longer elevating neighbourhood character over every other concern, but not elevating every neighbourhood 65 storeys high.

Glen went on to meet with people finishing up the 9runrun race. I turned back and headed towards Main Street. I popped into Quitters, which has quickly  become an important community amenity. I grabbed a coffee and sat down. I pulled out my laptop and got to work on that week’s column for the Sun.

Maybe all our communities aren’t actually that different.