This is why people won’t take the bus, Mr. Blais

Last Wednesday, I took my daughters to do some Christmas shopping. I bussed down to the Rideau Centre, and then decided to walk home (I had some stops to make along Bank Street, and it’s not going to kill them to walk).

It was almost 4:00 and I walked down Bank Street from Slater to the Shopper’s Drug Mart just south of Glebe before a #7 bus caught up (actually, it didn’t…it was at Glebe as I was walking into the drug store). I was at about Gloucester when I was passed by a #1 and I got to the drug store without seeing another #1 (one may have passed while I was in the store, who knows?).

So, to be clear, I walked from Gloucester beyond Glebe Avenue before a bus passed me…and I was walking with my four-year-old and my seven-year-old. At a four-year-old pace, I walked from Centretown to the Glebe without a bus passing me.

…during rush hour.

Think what it’s like on the weekend or in the evening. Last winter, I would regular walk down Bank Street with my then three-year-old from Sparks Street to Fifth Avenue without a #1 or #7 passing me. It could be -30 degrees, and it’d be faster to walk 45 minutes down Bank Street than wait for a fucking bus.

This is why OC Transpo is shedding riders like a…well, I can’t think of a polite analogy.

Of course, mention this to a city councillors who also chairs the transit committee (from his ward in Cumberland), and you’ll basically be called a liar:

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(It’s funny–in a horribly not-funny kind of way–but if you were to check out his timeline just after this post, he has a nuanced discussion with a male interloper after yelling at a Darlene.)

So, no Mr. Blais, there is a fucking chance. I just lived it last week during rush hour. Your on the transit committee and you don’t know what you’re talking about. Worse, you’re effectively calling residents liars when they tell you about their actual experience with OC Transpo.

I want Ottawa to have a great, thriving transit system. The people in charge show no such inclination.

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Bus-Fest

Budget drafts and funding schemes were rolled out at City Hall this week (well, sort of, details weren’t always included), and as we already knew, OC Transpo needs to find new ways to increase revenue. Naturally, they’re going with some fare increases (praying they don’t kill off too much of their customer base), but they’ve also got a new plan. They’re looking for $200,000 from Bluesfest.

The rationale is pretty simple. Fares only cover about half of OC Transpo’s costs. OC Transpo provides extra buses for Bluesfest. Bluesfest (and/or their customers) should help cover the tab.

Kitchississippi councillor Jef Leiper does not like this plan. In a thorough blog post, he notes that Bluesfest is a big part of our music and festival scene; that OC Transpo customers expect and deserve a certain level of service; that Bluesfest, in conjunction with the city, does a lot to help out the music scene and kids who want to get into music; and that Bluesfest contributes a lot to our economy.

(To the last point, I’m not persuaded. This sounds like the same rationale for supporting major league sports teams, but study after study shows the economic benefits are never what they are touted to be.)

There are varying degrees of merit to these arguments, however, he puts forward one argument that’s a bit weaker:

The benefits of providing great transit to music events and venues isn’t just economic. It’s critical to ensuring a safe way home for music fans after a night out, greatly reduces the carbon footprint of major events, mitigates residential neighbourhood parking and associated enforcement problems, and reduces congestion.

 

We’re not necessarily talking about cutting service. We’re talking about adding responsibility to pay for the cost of the service to Bluesfest and, most likely, their fans, as it seems reasonable to assume that the bulk of any extra charges will be passed on through ticket prices. This won’t lead to a drop in service, or a drop in ridership (unless some fans eschew the bus out of spite). It will just be shifting the cost onto the event that is necessitating the additional service.

…Except we don’t know if that’s what is happening.

Roughly speaking, we can say that half of all bus rides are paid for by the city…but not all bus trips are created equal. That crammed 95 that can’t fit anyone else on is bringing in a lot more cash than that final run of the 148 that has about five people on it. There must be (again, roughly speaking) a point where bus routes become profitable, but we don’t know when that is.

So here’s the calculus we need: how much more does it cost OC Transpo to run those extra buses to Bluesfest? How much additional revenue are Bluesfest attendees bringing to OC Transpo? How much of that additional revenue is realized because of the additional service? What is the desired service level (in terms of not-crammed-buses) that we should be targeting for buses (regular and additional) to and from Bluesfest?

If Bluesfest service is a net drain on OC Transpo’s coffers, then the festival needs to be charged. Bluesfest might be great, but it’s not so great that it deserves special funding from OC Transpo.

But if the additional buses are paying for themselves, without making the regular buses less profitable (or even bigger costs), then this gambit by OC Transpo is just a cash grab…they’re seeing something successful and trying to find a way to suck some extra cash out of it. They’ll be a leach providing no commensurate value.

OC Tranpso shouldn’t be allowed to charge Bluesfest $200,000 until they can provide an economic case for it. Until then, it’s just extortion.

Don’t Vote For Mike Maguire For Mayor

Ottawa’s mayoral campaign is now officially a two-horse race. Mike Maguire, who finished fifth last time around, launched his campaign on Thursday. So far, he is the only challenger to incumbent Jim Watson.

Maguire has built his campaign on four pillars: debt and taxes, traffic, trash and hydro. These are probably wise topics to focus on (though politicians fetish for ever-cheaper hydro and an increasingly polluted environment irks me), but–despite being intrigued by his candidacy four years ago–his platform would be bad for the city. His impulses may be wise (control spending! ease congestion!), but his actual proposals would be harmful, and his overall platform is incoherent, lacking in vision and self-contradictory. There is also a clear demonstration that he doesn’t fully understand some of the issues upon which he is commenting (plus, perhaps, a tad bit of convenient dishonesty).

Overall, he has a general goal, but he seems to be applying a high-level political philosophy that works well on talk radio (and, to be frank, blogs) but doesn’t translate neatly to the intricacies of municipal governance. It was never my intention to do a point-by-point fisking of his platform, but, well, here we are.

Taxes
This appears to be his fiscal discipline pillar (his main concern, from interviews and reports, appears to be the city’s debt, but he doesn’t have a plank titled “debt”, so everything goes here). Maguire wants to “rein in spending and lower taxes to foster growth”. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s workable. At this point, his site doesn’t have any further specifics, so we don’t know what will get cut.

He has stated that he’s not going to give a specific promise in terms of how much he’ll lower taxes. I respect that. Larry O’Brien got scorched for his “zero means zero”. These sorts of things always lead to a “read my lips” scenario that’s open for easy mockery during and after a campaign (*cough*MillionJobsPlan*cough*).

Unfortunately, he also has an odd definition of taxes:

The City directly taxes residents through property taxes. However, the current City Council has increased indirect taxes by increasing the cost of parking, public transportation and electricity.

Parking prices, transit fares and electricity rates aren’t taxes. They’re prices.

I’m willing to hold off on judgement on this part of his platform until further details arise. All things being equal, lower taxes and more growth would be nice.

Transit
This is a pretty big issue right now, with the LRT, bike infrastructure, Lansdowne and sprawl, there’s a lot to deal with. Unfortunately, despite his (quite true) opening statement, “[g]ridlock in Ottawa has a huge negative impact on our quality of life,” he doesn’t have any sound suggestions for easing congestion.

Further, the very second statement is either dishonest or ignorant. He states:

The Complete Streets Approach to transit, favoured by the current administration, favours pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars and drivers.

While it is true that the Complete Streets model purports to favour pedestrians over cyclists and cyclists over cars, the implementation of this model has done no such thing. Ottawa is just in the process of unveiling our first Complete Street, Churchill Avenue. It is a raised cycle track adjacent to the sidewalk with no buffer from the road. Driveways and pseudo-parking lots still intersect the raised cycle track, and there are clearly instances where everyone just has to learn to get along.

In reality, the Complete Streets approach does not favour pedestrians and bikes over cars (even though we should, as these are both the more vulnerable users of the road, and the ones more likely to be using the surrounding neighbourhood as more than just a cut-through). Ottawa’s Complete Streets seek to favour no one. It’s about creating balance between bikes, walkers, cars and buses.

Further, if he is so worried about economic growth, he should acquaint himself with the literature detailing how walkable neighbourhoods help businesses.

Even though Maguire will claim to not be pro-car, he has this to say about transportation infrastructure:

Mike Maguire will focus on relieving congestion for the average commuter in Ottawa, the car driver with common sense solutions. [sic]

That’s pretty blatantly “pro-car”.

Maguire claims that the Laurier bike lanes have created congestion in the downtown core. This is patently absurd. Expanding Laurier back into a four-lane road will do nothing for congestion. Road expansion just leads to traffic increases. This is pretty basic city planning. Only die-hard conservatives with a culture war axe to grind make claims to contrary. Maguire can increase traffic lanes downtown all he wants, it won’t solve congestion (well, until he makes downtown so undesirable that no one will actually go there).

You see, this is where he demonstrates that he does not have the proper knowledge of municipal governance to be mayor.

Maguire seems a little more bullish on OC Transpo than he does on cycling (even though he likes to bike, he swears!). He doesn’t like the current system, and argues for a “hub-and-spoke” system. I’m ambivalent. Generally, I haven’t been swayed by arguments for hub-and-spoke, but I’m open to being persuaded.

Another suggestion, which is a little worse than hub-and-spoke, is cutting away at our sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Oh, he doesn’t say that, but he wants to create more bus lane “pull-ins”, so that buses aren’t stopping on the street blocking traffic, ie cars. As someone who walks, bikes and buses to work at various times, street stopping for buses isn’t a big deal. It slows Bank Street a tad, but not much. It has no effect on Albert or Slater, because those have dedicated bus lanes. Carling has ample space to get around, as do roads like Innes and Merivale. And, really, the further you get from downtown, the less of an issue this becomes.

I don’t think this is a serious policy; I think it’s a statement: Cars come first, buses second. No need to worry much past that.

However, the absolute worst suggestion Maguire has is to open up bus routes to competition–because having one bus line filling our streets isn’t enough. We need multiple bus companies running amok. I get where Maguire is coming from. Generally, competition is good and the government should get out of the way as much as possible, but the infrastructure demands (not to mention the barriers to entry) in the mass transit industry makes it a slightly different beast.

We don’t want multiple transpo garages. We don’t want to worry about multiple fare types, passes and tickets. We don’t want buses getting cute with their routes or their levels of service. As much as OC Transpo should attempt to cover all its costs through fares and advertising (and it should!), there is still a public service aspect to it, and we grant buses a lot of non-monetary subsidies to operate (the transitway, bus lanes, special road laws). The city is a pretty direct stakeholder in the transit system. A wild west isn’t going to help anyone.

Maguire isn’t a big fan of the LRT, and that’s fair. As he says, “[c]urrent projects do not address gridlock on the Queensway or arterial roads, and will not be completed for years.” He’s absolutely right! And, unfortunately, residents regularly get a sold a bill of goods about how improved mass transit will reduce traffic congestion.

It won’t. Additional mass transit will, in the short term, take some cars off the road, but as the roads become clearer, more people will be encouraged to drive (and move to the middle of nowhere while commuting into and through the city). It’s just like adding additional lanes to a road. Build it, and they will drive.

Of course, the ship has kind of sailed. Chewrocka is already underground. Contracts are signed, and the LRT is being built. Throwing up your hands and saying, we’re done! isn’t truth telling, and it isn’t fiscal responsibility. Also, good luck getting council to agree.

Well, even if his promise to scrap the LRT is pretty worthless, at least he understands that expanding mass transit doesn’t actually address congestion issues.

Wrong!

He wants to build light rail, just different light rail. On tracks that are already there. Because somehow this will magically make no one want to drive into the city.

And, though he’s “not for or against cars”, he wants to make it easier for people to drive everywhere. He would roll back the price increases for parking. Free or under-priced parking is good for nobody. It is an incentive for driving, and, therefore, increases congestion. Make no mistake about it, Maguire is pro-car.

And you can’t be pro-car and anti-congestion. It just doesn’t work that way.

One last thing about transit, he promises to do nothing for pedestrians.

Trash
There seem to be two basic elements to Maguire’s trash pillar (which is great imagery for cynics like me), scrapping the Green Bin program and returning to weekly trash pick-up.

Maguire has some interesting slides with a lot of (seemingly sound) back-of-the-envelope math demonstrating that we’re paying a lot for the Green Bin program, and it’s not really achieving what it is intended to achieve (extending the life of our landfills). His arguments are somewhat compelling, but I’m inclined to think that there’s more to it that what he’s presented. Unfortunately, this issue is outside of my wheelhouse (though I recall there being a lot of issues with the roll-out, which meant higher-than-expected up-front costs, so extending the program won’t re-incur those costs).

One thing I will say in favour of the Green Bin program: it’s not just about a cost-efficient prolonging of a landfill’s useful life. There are other environmental benefits to composting and a city-wide program might get more people thinking in terms of not destroying the environment. That’s a good thing… though not necessarily at the cost of the program.

Maguire also claims that we are currently paying as much for bi-weekly garbage pick-up as we paid for weekly garbage pick-up. I find this hard to believe, but if it’s true, then I’m all for weekly pick-up. At this point, Maguire does not have any further details on this on his website, so I can’t judge the veracity of the claim. The site states that more information will come.

Hydro
Maguire wants cheaper hydro. If I combine with his support of driving, his antipathy towards cycling and walking, and his desire to axe the Green Bin program, I’m inclined to think he doesn’t give a whit about the environment.

Maybe that’s unfair. Still, it’s my impression.

Maguire claims that through some really odd accounting (a $200M promissory note from Hydro Ottawa to the City of Ottawa, the sole owner of Hydro Ottawa), Hydro customers are being overcharged. He has a nifty slide show to back that up.

Personally, I’m unconvinced. His argument against the promissory note (which seems to have been issued for no tangible reason) seems thin. I can imagine a perfectly valid reason why the city would demand $200M from Hydro Ottawa (even though it is wholly-owned by the city): getting to be the monopoly provider to Ottawa hydro customers is a damned sweet deal. The promissory note, I would imagine, ensures that Hydro Ottawa pays significant dividends to the city.

This isn’t just a tax grab like he says (though I understand that argument). This is the city selling something of value–the rights to hydro delivery–while maintaining control over an essential service. Maybe it would be better if the government was out of the electricity game, but if that’s the argument, Maguire should make that case. Currently, he’s merely arguing for the city to establish lower costs–and therefore lower rates–for hydro.

Personally, I don’t think hydro is egregiously expensive. I think people who waste hydro (including through heating, cooling and lighting massive homes) are essentially stealing from the rest of us. Their consumption puts an incredible burden on the rest of us in terms of pollution. Lowering hydro rates is merely rewarding environmental degradation. Further, considering how hydro consumption tends to increase with wealth and income, it’s a giveaway to the rich. Conservation is an issue that addresses inequality, and politicians who don’t recognize that are transferring wealth and utility from the poor to the rich.

Contradictions and Summation
Since I’ve wound up at over 2000 words, I think a bit of a TL;DR recap is in order.

Mike Maguire has as his focus a very worthy goal, fiscal discipline. We should concern ourselves with the city’s debt. As much as Jim Watson hasn’t been some crazy-spending liberal, we have embarked on some pretty expensive projects in the past four years. Now, Maguire doesn’t offer convincing arguments against those projects, but having someone hammer on the fiscal discipline bell is useful.

Unfortunately, for Maguire, his campaign doesn’t actually represent fiscal discipline.

He wants to lower taxes and lower spending. OK, if you lower spending more than taxes, you should be able to get your house in order. However, he’s not just talking about lowering property taxes.

Maguire wants to lower hydro rates and erase the dividend the city receives from Hydro Ottawa. He wants to cut the price of parking, selling this precious city asset at a below-the-market rate. He also thinks the city needs to lower bus fare. That’s a wealth transfer to the rich and a way to increase city spending!

At his campaign launch, Maguire noted the very stale anecdote of an Ontario businessman losing a city contract to someone from Quebec (xenophobia is ugly, even just inter-provincially), so he wants to make sure city contracts go to good ol’ Ontario residents, regardless of price. Protectionism is bad enough, but when you’re running on your fiscal responsibility bona fides, it really undercuts your campaign.

Maguire also rails against congestion and gridlock, but he offers no actual solutions. Do you want to get rid of congestion? You’ve got to attack driving; make it expensive. That means road tolls. It means aggressively pricing parking… that is, when you’re not eliminating parking. The carrot of good public transit (or bike lanes) is all well and good, but you really need a stick.

You also need to abandon the suburban bedroom community dream. You need to create real Garden Cities that are self-sufficient. You need mix-use zoning and intensification to make it work. Not only do you need to deter people from driving, you need to make sure that you have the necessary amenities nearby so that they don’t have to drive.

Maguire does none of that. He just wants different transit expansion.

Make no mistake, Maguire’s platform is bad. His heart may be in the right place (and he certainly seems sincere) but his policies are scattershot. There’s no continuity and there’s no clear method as to how his policies would actually get to his goal. Of all the critiques one can make of Jim Watson, he has displayed a competency that just isn’t present in Maguire.

It would not be good should he become mayor.

A reduction in the increase of additional buses on Scott Street

On Friday, the city released a statement titled, Transitway volume to be reduce on transitway detour. Sadly, this heading is a lie. What the city has done is reduce the planned increase of buses that will be diverted onto Scott Street during LRT construction (which I wrote about here). But a smaller increase is an increase, nonetheless.

Here’s what they said:

OC Transpo will reduce the number of buses operating along the Scott/Albert Transitway detour by up to 18% during peak periods when the detour is in effect from 2016-2018. This detour is required as part of the Confederation Line light rail transit (LRT) project.

The City of Ottawa has analyzed ideas submitted by the community on how to reduce the number of bus trips that need to run along the detour route. These suggestions have helped shape a number of service changes that will see a significant reduction of the total transit volumes along this corridor.

As part of the mitigation measures, OC Transpo will, pending approval from the National Capital Commission, divert out-of-service buses onto the Sir John A Macdonald Parkway. Also, some express routes will end at Bay Street in the morning peak period, rather than at LeBreton Station. These two service adjustments will result in daily peak period reductions of:

  • 267 fewer buses west of City Centre Avenue (14% reduction during peak periods);
  • 348 fewer buses between City Centre Avenue and Preston Street (18% reduction during peak periods); and,
  • 133 fewer buses east of Preston Street (7% reduction during peak periods).

It’s also rather less-than-honest to list only the reduction of the amount of buses that will be added to the street during construction. It’s all an attempt at appeasement rather than education.

Since I don’t have a breakdown of the initial numbers here, I’m going to do a little ‘rithmetic to figure out what those bullet points actually say:

  • 1907 buses west of City Centre Avenure
  • 1933 buses between City Centre Avenue and Preston Street
  • 1900 buses east of Preston Street.

I don’t know if these numbers mean an additional 1900 buses on the street (during peak periods), or if it means the additional buses will bring the numbers up to 1900 buses. I’m inclined to assume the former, as the increase is the cause of public demonstrations, the press release and the preceding sentence frame it in terms of a reduction of  the additional buses, and this would give the city a smaller denominator, plumping up the percentages they offer for each bullet point.

(But, all that being said, I’m not sure it’s much of a difference.)

This is still far more than that road can or should handle, and residents have solid grounds for continued grumbling. Unfortunately, the very need for LRT comes from our over-reliance on transit and commuting. What we really need to do is reduce our overall commuting times and distances. But that would be an even more difficult change.

Did OC Transpo admit that their drives run red lights?

The answer, it appears, is yes.

Last month, a video popped up on Youtube showing various OC Transpo buses running red lights:

John Manconi, the General Manager of Transit Services, reviewed the video and has attempted to get to the bottom of things:

Manconi tried to contact the person who took the video to learn more, but he hasn’t heard back. He even dispatched staff to monitor the intersection but they didn’t find any blatant cases of buses blowing red lights.

The use of the word “blatant” is telling. It appears to be an admission that, yes, buses do run through red lights, and, really, there was no way they could credibly claim otherwise. Anyone who spends much time downtown or around other high-traffic areas will have witnessed multiple instances of buses running reds–either when they fail to stop for yellow or red lights, or when they decide to accelerate from a stop when a light has turned yellow.

It is also clear that the city and OC Transpo don’t consider this law-breaking to be a big deal.

Taxis and Picket Lines

Carleton University staff are on strike. Classes continue, but picket lines are set up. Unfortunately, by the first day, there had been an incident. A couple of picketers were hit by cars. The picketers are okay, thankfully, and I won’t judge whether it was malice or negligence (or a mixture of the two).

Of note to people heading to Carleton, OC Transpo buses are not going on to campus. The O-train and Para-Transpo will, but regular buses will not. I wondered what the reason was behind this decision, as the website gave no explanation. So I tweeted OC Transpo. Quickly, I received this response:

This is a reasonable explanation. It could be convenient cover so that OC Transpo can escape controversy. News reports also stated that some taxis would not cross the picket line, as some drivers are unionized.

Which is also reasonable…almost. Continue reading