Ottawa faces a real risk of more cuts to bus service after a recently announced budget shortfall. This was, unfortunately, entirely self inflicted. The mayor left a $39M hole in the 2023 transit budget, ultimately approved by a majority of city councilors, on the assumption it would be covered by provincial or federal contributions. It hasn’t been.
With insufficient funds in the OC Transpo reserve, city council must step up and do what it should have done in the first place: fund transit like the critical public service it is. For decades, city council and transit management have neglected and underfunded our bus service, prioritizing the needs of 9-5 commuters coming into the core. Even here it opted for the cheapest possible system in the LRT, virtually ensuring it would be an unreliable and unappealing option.
While no one could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to remote work that followed, OC Transpo has spent the last three years waiting for federal workers to be forced back to the office rather than making its service more attractive to new riders outside the traditional peak service hours. Anyone who drives is a potential transit user if the service meets their needs, and given the climate crisis and high cost of living, failing to provide a convenient, affordable, low carbon alternative to the car is a glaring abdication of responsibility.
Transit is an equity issue.
If we want to grow bus ridership, we must abandon the go-to approach of fare hikes and service cuts. We must improve and expand service. This means more frequent bus service, a safe and reliable LRT, a Para Transpo service that meets the needs of its riders, dedicated bus lanes on major roads, accessible bus stops, and free transit for low income riders. This requires bold action and upfront investments. People won’t ride until OC Transpo builds a service that meets their needs, until it has earned back a modicum of public trust, until it’s actually worth using.
We are calling on city council to take immediate action by canceling or deferring the over $50M in road widening and expansion projects approved this year, diverting the funds to OC Transpo to prevent service cuts. A full service review is a welcome and long overdue undertaking that will allow us to better understand what ails our transit network and how to make it work for everyone. However, this review should be independent of OC Transpo and directly involve riders, operators, and advocacy groups in the drafting of key recommendations. Service improvements must be the goal rather than “optimization,” which has too often meant route cuts.
We are also calling on the city to explore other possible revenue streams like parking levies and property taxes while pressuring upper levels of government to provide regular operational funding so we are less reliant on unpredictable and regressive fares to fund transit. Property taxes are not even keeping pace with inflation, and a modest increase can save residents money if invested properly in public goods and services.
We are facing a climate emergency and an affordability crisis. A transit death spiral will make both worse, especially for low income families and service workers who depend on the service. A strong transit system, by contrast, is the best way to lower carbon emissions and the high personal and social costs of private vehicle ownership. It is not reasonable to expect people to pay upwards of $10,000 a year to drive because there is no viable alternative to get around the city, to foot the bill for endless road widening, pothole repair, and sprawl, or accept the health impacts of air pollution and traffic collisions.
Car dependency leaves people who do not or cannot drive – namely people with disabilities, residents on fixed incomes, youth, and seniors – stranded. A city for everyone means universally accessible public services and the elimination of both financial and physical barriers to mobility. This is only possible with adequate transit funding, service expansion, and cutting fares not service.
Nick Grover, Free Transit Ottawa email@example.com
Kari Glynes Elliott, Ottawa Transit Riders firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Hersh, Horizon Ottawa email@example.com
Alice Irene Whittaker, Ecology Ottawa firstname.lastname@example.org