Gattineau and Ottawa buses crossing the Rideau Canal

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.

Segments ridden:

  • 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
Map of my transit travels in Ottawa

Scope: C+

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.

Service: B

A Transitway station in western Ottawa

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.

Grade/ROW/Routing: B+

A rush hour bunch of buses headed towards the Transitway

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.

Single-car testing on the Confederation Line

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.

Two DMUs on the Trillium Line at Carleton Station

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.

Culture: A

A new light rail station on the Confederation Line

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.

Simple but effective wayfinding

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.

13 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Ottawa”

  1. Wow, tough grading. What do you think Ottawa would have to do to get more than a C+ in scope? There is virtually no place on the Ontario side of the metropolitan area that is more than a 1/4 mile walk to a reasonably frequent bus service. Most parts of the area are kind of suburban in nature so the proper comparison would be the suburban part of King County, not Seattle. Downtown Ottawa is small, especially in comparison with a city like Seattle, and is easily walkable, especially in the summer.

    1. Admittedly, I am pretty harsh in my gradings for various systems. I did see a few dead spots and had trouble finding buses that I could board (since a few were full during rush hour, or came in bunches), hence the lowered grade.

  2. I always like how Canada usually names it’s light rail lines. It’s a hopeless suggestion, but I’d really prefer that Sound Transit not use colors. Between color-blindness, sunlight effects and fading paint, it’s not a good idea for a system of five light rail lines and three STRide lines.

    1. I’m in Toronto right now and the their metro system while uses colors, also uses a number and name system alongside colors. Like the subway system is 1, 2, 3, and 4, but is also yellow, green, blue, purple and the Younge-University, Bloor-Danforth, Scarbrough, and Sheppard respectively. Although tbh, I think the TTC does some good things (albeit not perfectly) that could be implemented on Sound Transit, like better wayfinding, open gangway trains on their busiest line (the Younge-University Line) a much better PA Station Stop system announcer who doesn’t sound overly robotic or too much like a text to speech program (like the current Link PA system) and is very clear in their messaging, like for example “Arriving at Queens Park, Queens Park Station, doors will open on the left” along with the LED Sign on the train car pointing which side the doors will open.

    2. I agree totally, how about ‘Salish’ line instead of blue and ‘Emerald’ line instead of green or red. These would be unique to our city and use unique local character that relates to color as well.

      1. Color use is ok — but shouldn’t be the only identifier. I don’t really care what system is used as long as its not just colors! The branding should be developed with wide user input.

        My ideal is to either use the letter L followed by a number — L1 and L2 and do on, or an alphabetized naming system — Apple, Bear, Cascadia, Duwamish, Eagle — for example.

        The latest items presented by ST show a single letter — R, B, G — inside a ball. With RapidRide B and G already designated and CT having line colors, it’s just plain stupid.

      2. Multiple simultaneous distinctions seems to be the emerging standard. Moscow had named lines when I was there, although they were also different colors, yet the transfer signs had names. Since then the map has added numbers, and Wikipedia distinguishes them by number, so that seems to be the primary convention, although the colors and names are still the same.

        BART famously uses only terminal names as if it has no lines, although the map shows distinct colors.

  3. Are Metro’s NFI square 40′ low floor busses the Invero’s? I think that would be a 36 something series coach. The reason I am asking is because they are considered pretty reliable and cheap to fix compared to anything newer. I would never go as far as saying it was as good as a Gillig, but I would be ashamed if I helped New Flyer build their newer products. Just sayin. They didn’t even use cables on their tires during the last snow storm.

      1. Thank you for clarification. On paragraph 4 after the B+ section it said that we have similar products, “even down to the New Flyer Invero”, with a link. I thought that meant we, (KCM), had them. My mistake.

  4. Great idea! Very comprehensive!
    If you haven’t already, I’d love to see STB reviews of Puget Sound transit systems (from Intercity to Whatcom). If you have done so, having links to what could be a great reference when all “built out” would be fabulous!

    1. That’s a good idea. STB has reported on network changes in most of the state (Skagit Transit, Whatcom Transit, Island, Clallam Transit, Intercity Transit, C-TRAN, Link Transit, Ben Franklin Transit, and Spokane Transit), and such things as Clallam Transit’s route to the Bainbridge ferry and the statewide intercity bus routes in rural areas. It would be good to have a reference page with a link to each agency’s latest article long-term plan. (Except Metro’s/ST’s latest article; there are too many of them.)

      Metro and Community Transit have excellent long-range plans. (CT’s is hard to find on its site.) Pierce Transit’s is better than current. Everett Transit’s is controversial (you said it leaves the southern neighborhoods worse off). Bellevue and Marysville have excellent Transit Master Plans. That’s all I know.

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