The Future of public transit in the Glebe

The number 7 bus in pre-pandemic days was often overcrowded, but now frequently runs with few passengers. What will the post-pandemic future be?   FILE PHOTO

By Stuart MacKay

Watching OC Transpo buses trundle down Bank Street in recent months has been a surreal experience. Once-full buses now carry few passengers. Drivers and riders alike are wearing masks. Stops that used to be crowded with waiting passengers are mostly empty. Due to physical distancing and self-isolation measures as a result of COVID-19, ridership on OC Transpo has plummeted by 70 to 90 per cent. In addition, the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic, an economic recession and changing work patterns all threaten the viability of public transit in Ottawa.

To ensure that public transit has a sustainable future in the Glebe, we must focus on four main goals for transit: making sure that transit is safe to ride; encouraging ridership through better service; developing new methods of integrating transit along the Bank Street corridor; and properly funding public transit in the future.

First, we must ensure that buses and trains are safe and clean. To their credit, maintenance workers at OC Transpo have been doing a good job of enhanced daily cleaning and disinfecting of buses and trains. Furthermore, OC Transpo has been transparent and diligent in their communications about these preventative safety measures. This new cleaning and communications regimen should be the standard practice going forward – it will help restore riders’ confidence that public transit in Ottawa is amongst the cleanest and safest in the country.

Secondly, we need to ensure that public transit maintains a level of service that encourages ridership. Historically, transit ridership has declined during economic downturns, leading public-transit agencies to reduce service while increasing fares. The threat of service reductions could hurt the Glebe most of all. Before the pandemic, bus service through the neighbourhood – particularly routes 6 and 7 – were famous for being perpetually crowded and frequently cancelled. OC Transpo assured riders that they would increase the frequency of these important routes. We must ensure that promise is fulfilled. Ridership numbers along Bank Street may remain low for the foreseeable future, especially since Carleton University has moved to online classes for the coming school year. Riders will not return to public transit if the service continues to be poor.

We must also begin thinking about how to better integrate public transit along the Bank Street corridor. COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink how we move around our neighbourhoods. No one wants see Ottawa’s “main street” once again filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We need to develop a better transportation plan for Bank Street, one that better incorporates pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. Businesses in the Glebe which have suffered due to COVID-19 must also be included in this conversation. Developing multi-model access to Bank Street’s businesses will be a key part in the neighbourhood’s economic recovery. In addition, we should start thinking outside the box about ways to get people in and out of the Glebe. Other cities have incorporated free circulator buses (shuttle buses that run between popular visitor attractions and neighbourhoods) to service popular destinations. A Bank Street circulator, running from Parliament Station to Billings Bridge at regularly scheduled intervals, might reduce traffic and help businesses and services along Bank Street.

Finally, we need to rethink how we fund public transit. Since the downloading of provincial responsibilities to municipalities in the mid-1990s, public transit in Ottawa has relied primarily on funding from two sources: property taxes and fare collection. We need a new deal for public transit funding, one where the federal and provincial governments take an active role in funding the operating costs of transit. We need to elect federal and provincial representatives who understand that municipalities cannot deal with the costs of transit on their own and who will advocate for a greater partnership in public-transit funding. If we want public transit that works for all, it will need the support of all levels of government.

COVID-19 has upended expectations about how we work, live and play. Let’s use this opportunity to make better public-transit decisions and make our neighbourhoods and our city more livable in the future.

Stuart MacKay is a board member of Ottawa Transit Riders, an advocacy group working to make Ottawa’s transit system more affordable, reliable, accessible and safe for users. Find out more at ottawatransitriders.ca.

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