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Ecology Ottawa was at City Council’s Transit Commission on November 14 as the Commission considered a route view of OC Transpo buses. We’ve provided our delegation below. You can also watch the recording.
Transit Commission - Tuesday, November 14, 2023
Below is the text of Ecology Ottawa's delegation to the City Council’s Transportation Committee on November 14, 2023.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you on behalf of Ecology Ottawa.
We’re concerned about the direction transit funding is going—and the implications to ecological and social well-being in Ottawa. Last budget, $47 million was cut from transit, and an additional $39 million hole was left for other levels of government to fill, and they didn’t. Moreover, 117 buses were taken out of service. Is there any connection between this and the countless stories we heard through 2023 of buses that were 15, 20, 30 minutes late, or simply never showed up? And is there any surprise that ridership levels are still only 70% of pre-pandemic levels, even while other cities across the country are seeing their ridership return, if not surpass earlier levels?
This year, we’re increasing the budget for transit, and that’s good. But this slight increase is not good enough. For one thing, the increase doesn’t yet match the shortfall in Budget 2023. For another, this increase doesn’t keep up with inflation. As such, Budget 2024 continues the neglect that our transit system has seen for years.
This neglect is visible this year in the Route Review before us. This review seeks to adapt bus routes to changing ridership patterns, anticipate the opening of LRT Line 2, and add buses on routes that have higher ridership. That’s good: we should do all this—but not at the expense of other routes. The mayor has complained of “empty buses”; I would invite him to consider all the empty roads and car-parking facilities across the city at different times. It’s normal for a transportation system to have peaks and valleys; if we value a service, we tolerate these. But do we value public transit and the people that rely on it?
I also want to mention the ecological ramifications of these decisions. In our Official Plan, we committed to by 2046, the majority of trips occurring by a sustainable mode, whether walking, biking, rolling, or taking transit. How is our transit system doing in this regard? I can’t imagine we’re anywhere near on track. I was surprised to see in the Transit Review that increasing ridership was not mentioned among the goals of the review; this notion was only mentioned once, at the very end of the report, under a brief section on climate implications. I’m concerned that this reflects this council’s view on climate change and related issues—an afterthought, an addendum when it’s convenient to consider it.
I know Council has made a lot of their investments in electric buses. Electric buses are great: they reduce emissions, they’re easier to maintain, they’re much quieter than diesel buses. But in terms of increasing ridership and our city’s overall emissions outlook, they’re limited. Transportation is a huge source of emissions in our city—44%—but what proportion of those emissions come from city buses? A small fraction, compared with all the private vehicles. What we really need is to improve sustainable transportation in our city—and for transit, this means the baselines of improving reliability and frequency, and keeping fares at a reasonable rate. Once we get these right, we need to make travel times comparable to or better than less-sustainable modes—which of course means more bus priority treatments, among others. Improving transit is climate action.
Finally, we need to keep in mind who is affected by changes to transit—disproportionately low-income people, people of colour, and other equity-seeking groups. Moreover, transit in Ottawa has predominantly been shaped around commutes, which disproportionately affects women. Our Official Plan, however, commits to fighting inequity; why don’t our transportation decisions reflect this? We often say that bad transit means people will take their car instead. What if you can’t afford the $12,000 annually that car ownership entails, on average? What if the only bus near your home will be cut, leaving you isolated from groceries, medical visits, the library, or loved ones?
In short, we need to rethink—and invest in—transit. We need to begin treating it as the essential service it is, as a critical component to our fight against climate change and inequity, a key ingredient in making our city livable for all.