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3362How our transit lost its way

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  • Ronald Dawson
    Jun 4, 2001
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      From http://www.ottawacitizen.com/national/010602/5097399.html Dawson

      Saturday 2nd June, 2001

      How our transit lost its way

      Nothing busts city smog and congestion better than a bus. So why are transit
      agencies starved for funds to buy and run them? Paul McKay reports.
      Paul McKay
      The Ottawa Citizen

      Pity the public transit planner.

      Across Canada, 89 transit services share a rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma.
      The rock is riders. The hard place is municipal politicians. Both want more
      buses, streetcars, subway cars or commuter rail systems running more often,
      on more routes.

      The benefits are obvious: Cleaner air and less congestion.

      So is one remedy. A single full commuter bus can replace 40 solo-driven
      cars. An articulated bus, like those used on Ottawa's Queensway, or
      Vancouver's Broadway B-line, can double that.

      At current fleet levels, Ottawa's roads would be choked with about 40,000
      more cars each rush hour if not for OC Transpo. Vancouver would have 60,000
      more rush hour vehicles. Toronto would have an estimated 100,000; Edmonton

      Last year, Ottawans took 80 million trips by bus. In greater Vancouver, 129
      million trips were made by bus, trolley, two light rail lines and ferries
      operated by Translink.

      Yet both cities are facing car-growth trends that could soon add more cars
      to their roads than their peak bus fleets now displace.

      In the area served by B.C.'s Translink, an extra 23,000 vehicles per year
      are projected. By 2005, that will mean an extra 500,000 to 600,000 car trips
      per day.

      In Ottawa, the human population has tripled since 1961 while the car
      population has increased more than five times -- from 100,000 to 560,000

      About 70 per cent of trips in Ottawa are now made by car; 76 per cent are
      made by car in greater Vancouver. Car, truck and bus emissions account for
      almost half the air pollution in the two cities.

      Toronto, Montreal, Windsor, Hamilton, London, Quebec City, Calgary, Saint
      John and Halifax face even worse smog problems because of industrial
      sources, coal power plant pollutants and cross-border emissions from the

      But even with an air quality and congestion crisis looming where 20 million
      Canadians reside, nobody is stepping up to pay the public transit freight:

      - Unlike every other OECD country, including the United States, our federal
      government has put virtually no capital or operating dollars into public
      transit in the past decade.

      - Most provincial governments have downloaded all or most of transit funding
      onto cash-strapped municipal governments.

      - A proposed $75 levy on private vehicles to finance improved public transit
      in greater Vancouver was derailed by intense political opposition.

      - Fare-box revolts are rising as more and more of the annual costs of
      running public transit systems are passed on to riders.

      As if that were not trouble enough, Canada's 14,000 public transit buses use
      about 355 million litres of diesel fuel each year and the price has spiked
      sharply. Subways, trolleys and streetcars use ever more expensive

      Each new city bus typically costs $500,000. Maintenance costs are climbing
      as average fleet ages increase. And, across Canada, 38,000 public transit
      employees, from bus drivers to mechanics, are pressing for wage increases.

      The result is a fiscal and mobility tailspin: As service slides, ridership
      stalls. That leads to increased fare-box prices, then more riders resorting
      to car commutes paid out of the private pocket. That literally brings both
      buses and cars to a halt.

      The 1990s proved that case in spades for Ottawans. A surge

      in provincial funds for new buses and the crosstown Transitway system put OC
      Transpo ridership at 21 per cent of commuter traffic in 1991, when transit's
      market share in U.S. cities like Boston, Detroit and Houston was about eight
      per cent.

      Later, the Harris government reduced, then cut entirely funding for public
      transit (excluding services for the disabled). That left the entire
      financial load on property taxes and fare boxes.

      "What we got into in the 1990s was a downward spiral. There was a recession.
      We lost ridership," says engineer Helen Gault, now OC Transpo's chief

      "Then the province started cutting funding, with at first no replacement at
      the local level. We were trying to keep old buses on the road. Reliability
      suffered. Schedules got tighter and tighter. Then the roads became more
      congested, and the buses we did have took longer to carry commuters

      "All finances now are from the city. Everything comes from property taxes
      (40 per cent) and fare boxes (60 per cent)."

      If there was any fat to cut in OC Transpo operations, there is likely little

      In 1999, OC Transpo buses drove the same annual kilometres and burned the
      same amount of diesel with fewer employees than in 1990. Meanwhile, the
      population increased by 120,000. During that decade, its operating cost
      increased a mere 13 cents per passenger.

      Since 1999, the city government has approved successive three-per-cent
      annual budget increases. Most of the funds were used to buy new buses, which
      helped underpin a 15-per-cent ridership recovery -- 4.5 million extra rides
      last year alone. Yet OC Transpo still only accounts for one in every six
      commuter trips, far less than the share public transit held in the 1960s.

      "We used to be able to plan a transit system for up to 12 years ahead, with
      assured funding," says Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli.

      "In 1995, that was cut -- cold turkey. No more transit subsidies from the
      province. It all fell on property taxes. So the province reduced taxes, and
      reduced transit, on the backs of the municipalities.

      "Both the federal and provincial governments take the fuel taxes out of our
      community, and virtually nothing is put back in. Neither has re-invested any
      money in transit. Their total (tax) take from this city now is about $5
      billion per year. Now we have the responsibility for the infrastructure, yet
      we don't have the (fiscal) resources."

      "It's incredible," says Jack Layton, the president of the Federation of
      Canadian Municipalities. "Buses and streetcar systems don't pay property
      taxes, but we are left to finance our transit systems entirely from property

      "We are being asked to run transit systems in cities across the country
      without being able to use any of the federal tax revenues that are

      The federal government also collects tax on the diesel fuel burned in
      transit buses, and a GST tax on that tax. Last year, OC Transpo paid $1.7
      million in federal fuel-related taxes and $4.4 million in provincial taxes
      for diesel its buses burned.

      The federation and dozens of major city mayors have called on the federal
      government to commit three cents of the current fuel tax (10 cents per
      litre) to cities for transit and infrastructure investments, and to scrap
      entirely its fuel tax on public transit vehicles.

      In Vancouver, the number of cars increased by 150,000 in the 1990s while
      funding for public transit failed to keep pace. That left the region with
      the highest rate of car ownership of eight major Canadian cities, the lowest
      supply of transit per capita and the second lowest (11 per cent) transit use

      While public transit use in Vancouver's core ranks among the best in North
      America, its sprawling, low-density suburbs account for only five per cent
      of peak traffic. There, more than half the households own two cars and both
      are often driven to other suburban workplaces -- not downtown. Most of the
      suburban routes in Richmond, Surrey and Coquitlam are perennial money

      "We've got a scattering of land uses that make it increasingly difficult to
      serve with transit. With office parks all over, people are traveling every
      which way," says Clive Rock, the chief planner for Translink. "Mass transit
      can't service that, it's like trying to unscramble an egg. That's why land
      use planning is so critical."

      "Those routes could be covered by private or non-profit operators -- taxis
      or vanpools. Certainly, they may be able to be very competitive for those
      services as feeders to our main routes. It could actually end up generating
      more work for the regular service -- not taking it away. But it's a
      sensitive (labour relations) issue."

      Few mayors, politicians, traffic planners and commuters doubt that smog and
      congestion are worsening at alarming rates. Transit advocates want more
      buses, subway, or light-rail extensions. Car converts want wider, faster

      Nobody has found a painless way to finance either option, or a ready source
      of funds. But that stalemate underpins a worse prospect: The public paying
      billions for both while ending up with even less mobility, and increased
      medical costs due to polluted air.

      The Ontario Medical Association has calculated that smog costs Ontario
      taxpayers $1 billion annually in hospital admissions, medical treatments and
      lost productivity due to illness. The OMA estimates that 1,900 Ontarians die
      prematurely each year from air pollution. Nationally, Health Canada links
      5,000 deaths annually to smog.

      Many U.S., European and Asian cities have already gone further down that
      dirty road. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Houston. London, Paris,
      Stockholm. Singapore. Tokyo. Beijing. All have been choked with congestion,
      and plagued by increasingly dangerous air quality.

      There, desperation has focused the municipal mind. Individually, these
      cities have come up with an astonishing array of technological innovations,
      taxes, urban planning tactics and regulations:

      - In Denmark, transit buses literally get the green light at key
      intersections, thanks to on-board computer-satellite signal-changing

      - In Beijing, passengers use a state-of-the-art subway system that features
      "smart cards" that store pre-paid transit fees and phone credits.

      - In California, new bus express lanes are partially funded by electronic
      tolling of commuter cars using the same lane to avert congestion.

      - In Denver, a fraction of the municipal sales tax helps finance cheap
      transit passes.

      - In sprawl-plagued Austin, Texas, the city government rewards developers
      with cash and fast planning approvals when they build in the city core to
      reduce costly transit, sewer and water line extensions.

      - In Los Angeles, federal and state funds have helped build a dedicated
      commercial traffic corridor to avert congestion and link the port to major
      road and rail lines.

      Some fast-growing cities, like Portland, Oregon, have combined many of these
      measures with impressive success. But decades of delay has caused others to
      adopt Draconian tactics.

      On heavy smog days, half of the diesel vehicles in Paris are simply
      forbidden to operate. Cars coming into Copenhagen at rush hours pay a
      premium. Some cities use parking fees to buy transit passes for downtown
      employees, freeing the spaces up for shoppers. Dozens of cities have adopted
      punitive parking fees just to keep cars out. (Parking in downtown London,
      England can cost $50 per hour).

      The striking lesson that emerges from all these cities is that paying more
      for public transit is often the cheapest way to reduce smog and congestion,
      and make urban commerce more efficient. When health and lost productivity
      costs are included, it is the least costly solution for taxpayers.

      And when new freeways are built or expanded, increasingly they are no longer
      free: The dominant international trend leaves motorists being tapped for
      pay-as-you-drive tolls and taxes.

      In Canada, there is now a surprising consensus that it is far more
      efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound to move 40 people on
      four publicly-funded wheels than to fund new roads to move 40 sets of
      private wheels that often carry one person.

      Among those supporting increased public transit funding are the Ontario
      Medical Association, the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, the Canadian
      Automobile Association, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian
      Trucking Alliance and dozens of environmental and civic activist groups
      across Canada.

      "We are very strongly supportive of public transit," says Dr. Ted Broadway
      of the Ontario Medical Association. "It is clear that cities in the world
      that have neglected their public transit systems have more smog."

      "The answer is more land-use planning, mass transit, and designing our
      cities differently," says Brian Hunt, president of the Canadian Automobile
      Association. "That is going to take a period of time to do, but that is the

      "It would make me happier if we took all of the (fuel taxes) and put them
      into the transportation infrastructure," Mr. Hunt says. "But we don't have a

      "If we are just going to put some hardtop down, that doesn't solve the
      problem. The problem is complex in terms of land use, mass transit,
      congestion, all of those things. We need a strategy."

      OC Transpo: Ottawa

      Passenger trips: 80 million

      Average weekday riders: 302,000

      Average trip length: 10 km

      Active buses: 878

      Average annual km/bus: 57,000

      Total expenditures: $228.5 million

      Translink: Greater Vancouver

      Passenger trips: 129 million

      Average weekday riders: 431,567

      Average trip length: 11 km

      Active buses: 1,176 (plus Skytrain, Westcoast Express, Seabus)

      Average annual km/bus: 72,500

      Total expenditures: $390 million

      Paul McKay is a Citizen reporter. His e-mail address is: