I recently returned from a week-long trip to three of Canada’s great cities, of which two have already been covered by previous Transit Report Cards (Vancouver and Montreal). While I may return to write about the latter, which has since undergone some significant changes in wayfinding, today’s transit report is focused on the third and final stop on my journey: Ottawa, the national capital.
Ottawa’s transit system has some interesting quirks, namely its reliance on an extensive system of dedicated busways (named the Transitway) and its impending switch to light rail in the coming weeks. Some of its quirks are quite familiar to those of us in the Puget Sound region, as shown below, but I think there are some good lessons that can be learned from the system that OCTranspo (the city’s transit operator) has developed.
- Trillium Line (diesel light rail) – Bayview to Greensboro
- Various Transitway routes – Fallowfield to Downtown to Blair
- Route 18 – Downtown to Byward Market
- Route 44 – Downtown to Hull (Gatineau)
- Route 101 – Hurdman to The Glebe
Ottawa’s bus network is quite extensive, with frequent bus routes criss-crossing the city center and the suburbs. Many of these routes have direct connections to the Transitway, which serves as the trunk for the city’s open BRT system and manages to travel between important destinations, including two intercity train stations, the airport, the government complex on Parliament Hill, two colleges, and several shopping centers. The spacing of bus routes in the city center could be a tad better, as some logical trips require backtracking or transferring in inconvenient locations.
I had planned to arrive in Ottawa on an evening train and take a short hop on a local bus to my hostel, but overslept and missed the stop. Luckily, the Transitway picks up from the next (and final) stop at Fallowfield with two routes interlining for a combined frequency of ten minutes at 11 p.m.
Much of the Transitway has high levels of bus service, so those needing to hop between destinations are never more than a few minutes away from a convenient bus, some of which are double-deckers like those that can be found in Snohomish County. The drivers in Ottawa are more lenient about accelerating away from the stop while people climb the stairs and settle into their seat, which helps reduce dwell times.
Fare payments are handled using the Presto smart card, an ORCA-like system that is also accepted in Greater Toronto and a few other cities in Ontario, or using a printed QR code on a $10 CAD day pass or transfer. Of note is their ticket vending machines, which have an excellent “video chat” option for those needing help; after being locked out of a turnstile with my day pass, I was able to get a new one printed by an associate within a minute of explaining my issue. The ability to receive customized help is extremely reassuring for bumbling tourists, and is something that would be great to have in lieu of constantly staffing the TVM area of each station in our expanding rail network.
The buses I rode were generally clean and had adequate seating. Much of the fleet is like those that are found plying the streets of Downtown Seattle, even down to the New Flyer Invero, a failed product line that only entered service for less than a dozen agencies in North America. OC Transpo and our own Community Transit are both phasing out their Invero fleet, marking the true end for the first model of bus that I regularly rode as a teenager.
The Transitway network spreads out from the edges of the city center with several branches serving suburban areas and commercial areas along former railroads or current expressways. They are generally separated from traffic by underpasses, overpasses, and dedicated signals where needed. The stations have enclosed waiting areas and grade-separated pedestrian overpasses and underpasses (connected via stairs and elevators). Some are also adjacent to park-and-ride lots and bus bays for local routes, with appropriate signage pointing the way for specific routes.
Several sections of the Transitway, especially on the approaches to the city center, have been re-appropriated for the Confederation Line, the city’s new (and long-delayed) electric light rail line. In the interim, buses have been moved from the busway to adjacent streets with signed shoulder bus lanes, which seem to work well even during peak periods, but were clearly slower and less comfortable than the dedicated busways. I did notice a busway in neighboring Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, but I did not have enough time to visit it. From maps and further review, it seems to meander around the city center and require backtracking on congested streets to reach Hull and Downtown Ottawa, which arguably defeats the purpose of building such a facility.
Ottawa has one existing light rail line, the Trillium Line, which runs single-car diesel multiple-unit trains on a former mainline railroad, requiring a transfer to the Transitway (or the future Confederation Line) to reach downtown. The single-track railroad limits frequency to 15 minutes, though the trains I rode mid-day were delayed with long waits at passing tracks. The stations are well-integrated into the Transitway and local bus systems, with easy connections at all five stations, but are fairly bare-bones. The trains themselves were a narrower European-style model that was comfortable, with four-abreast seating in the upper section and an open low-floor section. The narrower trains require the use of retractable platform extenders at some stations, which are built to accommodate standard-width freight trains on the tracks.
One thing that stood out to me while traveling around Ottawa was the proper use of bilingual English and French signage on board buses and at stops. LED signs were properly fitted to display English and French names for stops and destinations without requiring a scroll or switching back-and-forth, while audio announcements were done clearly in both languages. Having struggled for a few days with Montreal’s Metro (which is signed almost exclusively in French), I was delighted to see an example of bilingualism that was balanced and non-intrusive to good signage.
The future Confederation Line will also benefit from good wayfinding that has already been installed at and around its stations. The red “O” for OCTranspo is marked at the station entrances and on street sign-style blades on adjacent blocks, with a simple train symbol and an arrow pointing towards the nearest entrance with the distance listed. The simplest and easiest forms of wayfinding are also the most effective, and Ottawa has seemingly learned that lesson before it became a problem.