Empty trains and buses are the most significant issues now facing OC Transpo

The Ottawa Transit Commission met today to discuss regular topics, including ridership, the launch of the new My Para Transpo website, and the e-bus pilot program.

The transit systems has seen ups and downs and commission members shared their strong views. The bad news is that ridership is still well below the 2019 average. OC Transpo predicted 68 per cent of pre-pandemic ridership for the first three months of 2022. In reality, it has only seen about 50 per cent ridership.

Councillor Riley Brockington grilled OC Transpo Director of Transit Customer Systems and Planning Pat Scrimgeour and OC Transpo boss Renée Amilcar over the low ridership. “Every meeting, I ask about two main cohorts (that are) not in your presentation. Still, after two years, you don’t talk about federal public servants and post-secondary education,” said Brockington, who explained these two groups stayed home during the pandemic and continue to do so, adversely affecting transit ridership. He argued that the city could not budget correctly unless these demographic groups were included.

Councillor Allan Hubley stated that the OC Transpo budget would be a ‘mess’ unless federal government employees headed back to their offices. Trustee Sarah Wright-Gilbert noted that there was no chance of this happening and that reality has changed, and OC Transpo needs to adapt its service to serve people all over Ottawa.

Wright-Gilbert has been a vocal proponent of updating OC Transpo’s mandate. She says that the service was initially designed more than half a century ago to ferry suburban workers into the core and is out of date.

Although not on the agenda for today’s transit meeting, this focus on a shift by Wright-Gilbert is part of a more significant desire by some commission and city council members to push for free citywide transit.

While some councillors, including Brockington and Hubley, appear concerned with the ridership and its effects on OC Transpo’s budget, others want a completely subsidized service.

Wright-Gilbert posted on her Twitter page, “If I hear one more person use the argument of “I don't want to have to pay for free transit on my property taxes! I don't even use it!”…. I am gonna lose it.”

Councillor and mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney has expressed interest in eventually making transit free in Ottawa. Still, the push seems to be coming from Councillor Shawn Menard and trustee Wright-Gilbert. The discussion was also brought to the forefront by chair Allan Hubley’s admission that the city will have hard numbers on how much fare-free service would cost, based on what would be required through property taxes in preparation for the 2022 municipal election.

With the pandemic still affecting ridership, it may be no surprise that OC Transpo will be extending its mask mandate on all vehicles after the provincial mask mandate for transit ends on April 27, 2022. The extension did not raise any contention with board members. OC Transpo head Renée Amilcar said that this policy was at the recommendation of Ottawa Public Health.

Among the good news for the city’s transit systems is the increase in LRT reliability. The system, which has been plagued by breakdowns, recorded a near-perfect 99% during March and April 2022—a service improvement that Ottawa transit riders and taxpayers will be pleased to hear.

The Transit Commission will meet again on May 18, 2022

Photo: OLM Staff