*A* to *B* in Canada’s Capital City

By Nicki Papworth

I’m an Ottawan, born and raised. My parents, four siblings, and I have been avid transit users for decades. Now, as a student, I commute daily. Just a few week’s ago, the population of Canada’s capital city hit one million. Now, more than ever, the state of Ottawa’s public transit system is key.

For a long time, I’ve looked a public transit – and the frequent changes being made – from a personal perspective. How will changes affect my commute? How much time will be added? Where will my routes go?

As I begin to explore policies around infrastructure and transportation, I now see that adjustments made in these areas have much greater impacts – not simple changes like two extra minutes on my commute. Here I explore the importance of a robust public transportation system and how it impacts people and the climate.

In short, we need a strong, accessible, city-wide transportation system. Currently, OC Transpo runs hundreds of busses, express routes, Para Transpo routes (an accessible transit option for those with unique accessibility needs), and a train. Over the past few years the city has been building an electric light rail train (LRT) that will eventually connect all major areas of the city. To many this is great news.

The first phase of the LRT is tentatively set to open in September. The benefits to the climate are clear. An electric LRT means fewer diesel-fueled buses on the road. And, as an added environmental benefit, less road salt usage. This means lower emissions, and less ground pollution from the salt. The intention of running an LRT system, of course, is that fewer people will drive their cars, there will be less traffic, fewer vehicles idling, and a quicker commute. It is anticipated that the LRT system will encourage the community to switch to greener transportation.

An LRT system benefits people as well. OC Transpo has worked hard to create accessible stations, buses and trains. The LRT system will make it easier for community members to reach other corners of the city and get there more quickly.

Already, OC Transpo busses have incorporated a number of accessibility measures into both their bus and train fleet:

  • Kneeling feature so bus can lower to the curb
  • Boarding ramp
  • Cooperative or priority seating
  • Slip-resistant floors
  • Adequate lighting
  • The Next Stop Announcement System
  • Accessible entrances at both ends of train platform
  • Handles and grab bars

The crux of the challenge is this: public transit has a vital role to play in reducing emissions (and addressing climate change) by minimizing car commuting, and it needs to effectively serve commuters.

Informed by my observations as a daily user of public transit, I identified three key features:

  1. Physical Accessibility. Some aspects of taking public transportation in Ottawa may present accessibility barriers. With our current transit system, challenges include limited space in full buses, malfunctioning voice and visual stop indicators, tall bars out of reach for many people, and broken elevators in stations. With the transition to the new LRT, issues include long walks from train platforms to bus stations, crowded stations (as the entire west-end will have to take a train from a single station), increased transfers required, and the anticipated continuation of limited space for mobility devices in both trains and stations.These challenges could be addressed by improved communication between transit users and developers thus providing an opportunity to identify user needs, such as increased frequency of routes to create more space on trains and busses, more bars at a reasonable height, and increased response time for elevator maintenance. I believe feedback from commuters is required to make a more accessible system.
  2. The Cost of Public Transit. OC Transpo offers reduced fair options for low-income individuals, seniors, and students. Additionally, seniors ride free on Wednesdays and Sundays. However, even the cheapest monthly bus pass can be out of reach for some service users. Additionally, acquiring a pass can be tricky since one has to submit proof that they are low-income. I believe this is a huge barrier to many people in Ottawa who are unable to access their tax information, do not have access to a computer, are homeless, or those who need assistance with the application. I think a viable option would be to decrease fees overall. I also believe that we need an improved system for providing proof of being low-income, since the process is not accessible to many individuals.
  3. Integrating LRT. The bus route numbers have been changed, changed back, and changed again. This is hard to keep track of, and many people, including myself, are only notified of these changes through social media. The transition has also created construction zones that lead to confusing detours, lengthy routes, or routes that no longer service the areas they used to. Limited park-and-ride and bike-and-ride spaces are also a problem. These challenges prevent commuters from being able to easily access a necessary service. When accessing service becomes difficult, ridership decreases, putting more cars on the road and emissions in the air. This is yet again an issue of communication with commuters. We need greater access to the changes being implemented, but also be able to provide feedback on how the changes impact the public.

This list is not exhaustive but provides a snapshot of the difficulties that commuters often face. These are areas we have to consider when organizing a transit system that is accessible for all community members.

Despite important environmental benefits, we need incentives to choose public transportation. When we move towards greener transportation options, the greener option has to be accessible and easier to use than driving one’s own vehicle. The changes need to be made with meaningful consultations from the public so that the system serves every group. If we do not focus on accessibility, then green options will not be used.

I’m fortunate to observe these challenges from a place of relative privilege, but others may find they create barriers that prevent them from using public transit. I hope for a better system so that others can enjoy the freedom of an accessible transportation system.

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