Our Remarks at the March 31st Transit Commission Meeting

We recently joined other members of the public and advocacy groups like Horizon Ottawa, Ottawa Transit Riders, and ACORN Ottawa to speak against proposed cuts to transit service. OC Transpo’s draft plan addresses lower pandemic ridership by suspending, shortening, and reducing frequency on many routes linking suburbs to downtown, to begin in June.

It’s bad enough they want to reduce service right as many vaccinated people will begin to take the bus again, but it’s yet another a failure to recognize 1) that transit is a public service and should be available regardless of demand, and 2) that we have plenty of money for things like road budgets but act broke when it comes to making the buses run. The reality of cuts is never as clean and efficient as management makes it sound, and leads to people moving away from transit long term. It is neither practical nor safe to have an infrequent or unreliable bus route.

These “service adjustments” therefore take us in the wrong direction. The city needs a plan to fix transit and bring back riders, not cuts and “concerns” about cost savings.

You can see what two of our members had to say about it: Kirstin Pulles and Nick Grover

Québec solidaire’s recovery plan

Toward free public transit

The pandemic has discouraged the use of public transit. Confinement, telework, and fear of catching the coronavirus have made people avoid collective transit options. We cannot allow this decline in popularity to be permanent.

Between 2006 and 2019 the Quebec population of driving age increased by 13%, while the number of cars on the roads increased by 23%. We know that 40% of Quebec’s total emissions are attributable to the transportation sector, so we must aim to decrease the use of individual vehicles. Both ecologically and socially – the hours swallowed up in road congestion increase each year – there must be a profound restructuring of public transportation policies.

We propose the eventual achievement of free public transit, beginning now with a 50% reduction in present fares, at a cost of $559 million.

Public transit should be tantamount to a free public service. Not only is it a way to reduce poverty and social exclusion, there are many studies and examples of cities around the world that have already made the leap, demonstrating that free public transit pays for itself by its positive consequences: greater mobility which increases economic activity, lower health care costs linked to pollution, a decrease in automobile accidents, lower road maintenance costs, elimination of fare collection costs, etc.

For new public transit networks in all regions

Given that any decrease in fares increases ridership, this measure must be accompanied by major investments in the system in order to improve service and expand its scope. The CAQ government has allocated $13.6 billion to public transportation in 2020-2030. We propose that the government double this sum immediately to $27 billion, the amount currently spent on roads.

This ambitious investment would be used to develop public transit systems in all Quebec cities. In Greater Montréal it could be used to extend the Metro while building regional express trains. In Quebec City it would be possible to break the deadlock over the proposed tramway by building new lines to the suburbs effectively immediately. In Gatineau, Sherbrooke and Saguenay, the municipalities could plan systems adapted to their situation.

To fund public transit, the CAQ government should abandon all the proposed superhighways around major cities such as the “third link” between Lévis and Quebec City. These projects are an obstacle to the needed ecological and social transition.

Inter-city transportation is a public service

Interurban bus transportation is at present handled by private monopolies supported by the government.  These carriers, interested only in profitable lines, are unable to provide uninterrupted service throughout the territory, which results in decreased use: between 2000 and 2014, ridership declined by 47%, both a cause and a consequence of reductions in service.

Only 0.67% of the Quebec budget is currently spent on public transportation in the regions. If nothing is done, this downward spiral will accentuate and the decline in services will lead to new declines in ridership, which will reduce revenues and lead in turn to further declines in service, and so on. The pandemic and the restrictions imposed on inter-regional travel have led to a major shortfall for the carriers, which leaves little hope for an improvement in regional routes.

This crisis is an opportunity for a new departure in inter-city transportation. Instead of bailing out the private monopolies and returning to the unsustainable dynamic that prevailed before the pandemic, we must make a transition to making transportation lines functional.

We propose the establishment of an Interurban Transport Agency (ATI), a public inter-city bus transportation system that can provide ongoing widely available service at an affordable price. Inter-city transportation must be considered a public service.

This measure represents an investment of $2 billion for the takeover of the private monopolies and their  licenses, and the construction of the necessary transportation infrastructures. By ensuring a reliable link among Quebec’s regions, this service would offer a means of replacing private cars, contributing to regional economies and promoting local tourism. In short, this transportation system linking Quebec’s regions meets a social need in addition to being indispensable to the ecological transition.

FTO Presentation on Urban Boundary

Urban Boundary Expansion Statement at the Joint Planning Committee/ Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee – May 11, 2020

By Kirstin Pulles on behalf of Free Transit Ottawa

May 11, 2020

As a representative of Free Transit Ottawa, I want to focus on how urban expansion impacts not only the functionality of the city, but also how equitably designed it is. We at Free Transit Ottawa do not support an expansion of the current urban boundary.

On April 24, 2019, the City of Ottawa declared a climate emergency acknowledging the need for massive reductions in carbon admissions.  This can only happen if the city changes many of its policies, above all its approach to urban planning. You are being asked to make a choice here with clear environmental consequences.  Providing for future housing needs by expanding the city’s boundary to allow for new single-family dwellings will only continue with the old policies which are incompatible with the need to massively reduce carbon emissions.  

Transportation is responsible for 40 percent of Ottawa’s greenhouse gases. Cars are the main culprit and these can be reduced by 2/3rds on a per trip basis by using public transit.  Expanding the boundary and single family dwellings works against this reduction. In most suburban neighbourhoods, necessary services are beyond walking distance forcing people to rely on private cars for the vast majority of their transportation needs. Low density development makes good public transit prohibitively expensive. I’m glad to hear many stakeholders focusing on transit in planning, but want to note that the declared intentions do not seem to match with reality. The relationship between urban sprawl and transit ridership have been shown to be inverse in study after study. Sprawl goes up, ridership goes down. I also again want note that we have seen ongoing ridership declines even without the added pressure of expansion. 

Some claim that most people want to live in the suburbs, and that they willing to go afar for their dream home. However, a CHMC study finds that 80 per cent of homebuyers would give up a large house and a yard for a modest or attached dwelling where they could walk to amenities, take transit to work and commute in under 30 minutes. The argument is being made that price is a simple a question of supply and demand and so expanding the boundary will lower costs, but not all supply is equal. The supply of far away, car dependent, isolated single family homes does not meet the demand for housing in liveable communities close to work and vibrant neighbourhoods. 

The city is claiming that the new developments outside of the existing urban boundary will be near rapid transit and key amenities. It will not be on agricultural or other resource oriented lands, or on fragile ecological zones such as the wetlands that protect us from worsened flooding. I want to note that these proposed neighbourhoods are much closer to existence within our urban boundary. There is little to hold developers accountable to the neighbourhoods they are proposing in order to sway us in favour of a plan with unreliable outcomes. 

Others defend the expansion because they reject our current forms of densification. Agreed. These are too often ugly high-rises that offer very limited accommodation for families, or displace existing residents. Zoning laws are applied unevenly, and often without any apparent long term plan. Rent costs increase in the few walkable, livable neighbourhoods in the city as developers build luxury condos rather than affordable housing. But the answer is not to build out the suburbs but to democratize city planning and development. We are being given nightmarish pictures of how intensification may happen, but often these visions are being presented by developers with a vested interest in specific outcomes from this plan. I don’t think that developers should be seen as neutral sources of information in this debate. I don’t think that industry voices should control our urban development. A drive for profit must not have unlimited control over our future. 

Our city has the power to direct development in democratic, community-oriented ways. 

Our city needs to be viewed as a common space, where we make decisions collectively. We have a right to the city, to shape the space we share in order to shape our lives and communities. The city, its government and its people, not developers, need to be at the helm of urban planning. 


Free Transit is in Town, For Now

Free Transit Toronto member Stefan Kipfer has written an important piece about free transit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the article on the Socialst Project’s website here.

“Demands for free transit in Toronto, Oshawa, Edmonton, and Ottawa might generate such demands elsewhere. And calls for fare freedom may yield other calls for freedom, with regards to mobility and much beyond. This is exactly the point! Demanding fare freedom raises the question: why not make other vital services (from public housing to childcare and post-secondary education) free? Also: why not consider public transit a genuine public space free from harassment, from segregation, from racialized policing? Why not put public services such as transit at the centre of economic development strategies that are both egalitarian and ecologically sustainable? Why not introduce free public services to reorganize the way in which we plan our towns, our cities, our lives? Why, in fact, should we pit one just and green demand against another? Why not work together to build a broader vision for a different city, a different world, in which human and other lives are affirmed and enriched? If free transit is one entry point to start building a new world, why not bring mobilizations for transit and mobility into conversation instead of competition with other critical political campaigns?”

Transit Policy and Covid-19

Public transit is an essential service. In the midst of a pandemic it is also a particularly  dangerous one for transit workers and transit users. The City of Ottawa has tried to strike the right balance, but more needs to be done.  Free Transit Ottawa calls on the Mayor and City Council to immediately take the following steps:

1. Formally suspend all fare collection

Many riders are experiencing a severe loss of income but still need to use transit to make essential trips. 16 cities in Canada have already implemented free transit, however, OC Transpo has only announced back door boarding on buses and that drivers won’t accept cash payments. Fare gates on the LRT remain in operation. Due to the closure of OC Transpo Service Centres, seniors are expected to make special trips to Loblaws or Shoppers Drug Mart to renew discount passes. Procedures for renewing the Equipass are unclear at best. This policy is iniquitous. Riders who lack the means to pay should not be made to feel guilty or have to deal with the threat of fines.

2. Ensure the level of service allows for the required physical distancing

While some service reductions are appropriate given the circumstances, the switch to Saturday Service is too crude a response. In particular it ignores the relatively large numbers of people using the bus to get to and from work. The number of buses in service during peak hours needs to be increased so as to meet riders needs while maintaining the necessary physical distancing.

3. Make masks and hand sanitizer available on all buses and trains.

Ottawa Public Health recognizes that public transit is an essential service “that must continue to allow the city to function.” The majority of riders are taking transit because they do not have another option.  Masks and hand sanitizer are necessary in order to make these necessary trips as safe as possible.

4. Ensure that everyone providing OC Transpo and Para Transpo services has access to testing for the Covid-19 virus and is eligible for paid sick leave.

Transit operators are providing an essential service during this time. For their own safety, and to reduce the spread of Covid-19, workers providing essential services should have access to testing as soon as possible, and be eligible for paid leave if exposed to the virus. 

5. Ensure that all operators have regular access to washrooms for bathroom breaks and handwashing prior to meals.

In order to follow the recommendations of public health authorities operators must be able to wash their hands often, especially before eating.

Signed by:

  • Clint Crabtree, President and Business Agent, ATU Local 279
  • CUPE 4600
  • Ecology Ottawa
  • The Energy Mix
  • Free Transit Ottawa 
  • Fair Trade Carleton 
  • Healthy Transportation Coalition
  • Migrante Ottawa
  • Group of 78
  • Ottawa Coalition for a Green New Deal 

Free Public Transit in Canada?

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada has added its voice to discussions about fare-free transit in Canada. This is an important development in the fight for free transit.

Read the ATU’s piece, Free Public Transit in Canada” here.

“ATU Canada advocates for fares to be affordable for all, and advocates for progress toward creating a fare-free transit. Incremental pricing actions (such as fare-freezes and reductions) are realistic in lieu of immediate fare-free transit subsidized by government. In our advocacy, we prioritize efforts to eliminate cost barriers to accessing jobs, education, health care, and other services, through the implementation of low-income passes. A gradual approach to fare reduction is sorely needed in many municipalities across Canada, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that transit is safe, reliable, and affordable for all.”

Trillium Line Extension

SNC-Lavalin’s Trillium Line extension plans failed to meet the minimum technical requirement not once, but twice. That the City could accept SNC-Lavalin’s flawed proposal is down to the use of a secret clause included in the Request for Proposals (RFP) contract which gave senior managers discretion to disregard technical requirements in favour of financial ones.

Putting cost-savings over technical soundness is no way to plan a transit system. Indeed, the problems with Stage 1 show that improper technical requirements can lead to delivery delays and a flawed system. Secretive dealings like this let corporations get away with delivering poor service while charging high costs to the people of our city. The City of Ottawa must stop building our transit system on the cheap and in ways that outsource its responsibility to build and maintain a functioning system to for-profit entities outside of its control.

Read more about the issue here: SNC-Lavalin’s ‘poor’ LRT bid should have been tossed, evaluators found (CBC).

Free transit is just the beginning

Check out this new article by James Wilt in Briarpatch about international movements for free transit!

“Free transit is about much more than transit: an end to austerity, a refusal of police power, and a demand for decommodified and universal public services. We simply can’t build the world we dream of until we confront ruling class power in all its forms.”

Click here to read the article.