Bus Depots are Dead, thankfully

City committees will shortly be discussing a redevelopment proposal for the site of the Voyageur Bus Terminal/Gare d’Ottawa.

Alas, the development will proceed only if Voyageur moves out of the terminal. Bizarrely, some councillors and community activists want the bus station to stay on Catherine Street. They express concern for the price conscious users of the cheapest mode of intercity transport.

I think their concern is misguided thinking that is twenty years out of date.

In the old bus model, Voyageur had to have a terminal building for passengers to arrive early and line up for the bus. Passengers who wanted a good seat had to spend their time in line (cheap in price = expensive in time). But everything was uncertain. What if the line was long — wait in it and get a seat by the washroom… or wait for the next line and maybe be near the front… but no one knew if there would be an extra section added or not, because not even the bus company knew how many people would show up. If less than half a bus, the next section wouldn’t run, and everyone would have to stand and wait hours — even overnight — for the next scheduled bus.

I do not have fond memories of taking my daughter to the Voyageur terminus to make the trip back to university in Toronto. In fact, the whole place leaves me feeling queasy. Despite numerous delays and disappoints, airports don’t leave the same sense of abandonment, in part because there are amenities and pleasant surroundings.

The uncertainty was hard on the bus company too. They had to keep extra buses handy, running them for hours to keep they warm in the winter, and extra drivers had to be on hand just in case another bus had to be dispatched.

Does anyone think the bus terminal is a good neighbor to the adjacent residential areas?

The intercity bus market has been reformed in many markets. Megabus and similar firms run nicer buses than the standard Grayhound. They offer lower cost fares because they avoid the costly urban terminal properties, buildings, and uncertain schedules. Instead, buses are garaged in a suburban industrial park. Buses depart on fixed timetables, making several curbside stops through the city, thus bringing their services closer to the public. All seats are reserved and paid for in advance over the internet or toll free phones. The new firms tend to offer free wi fi, TV, better seats, and minimal waiting. Uncertainty is largely removed. No more need to get to the bus terminal and hour or two before your scheduled bus, not knowing if it would leave early, or late, have a choice of seats, or be crowded.

The new bus services, such as Megabus, have revitalized the intercity bus market in the US and Europe. Cities there are offering incentives to get these services to their centres. They attract a wider range of users, a wider range of income groups, at travel times and reliability comparable to fixed rail services. Win win.

What they don’t have is a decaying downtown terminal. Or its parking lot. Or its noise. And they don’t have the old buses and uncertain schedules. Let’s get rid of the downtown bus terminal now, and get better bus service at the same time. Bus users will bless us for it. Our downtown neighborhoods will be better off.

Bus depots are dead, thankfully.


11 thoughts on “Bus Depots are Dead, thankfully

  1. I haven’t taken the bus in years but I do have fond memories of getting my tickets for Expo games at the terminal and catching the bus to the games. Those days, of course, are long gone. However, when the terminal is gone get ready for an eventual corridor of tall towers.

  2. I lived for a year behind the bus depot, on Arlington. The idling buses in the winter drove me batty, partly because they started up at 4 AM, and partly because I hate to see any vehicles idle for more than a minute or two. I was happy to move out of there.

  3. I think insisting that the bus terminal be in the “the center of city” is missing the point. Either you drive/get dropped off, in which case I’m not sure the Catherine St. location is any more/less of a hassle that the proposed train station location, but more importantly, if you take transit, a location on the transitway/future LRT line would be infinitely more convenient. Do the people who voice these concerns actually take the bus?

  4. Eric, I beg to differ about the bad old days at the Voyager station. Yes you could line up for hours to get a good seat, but when the bus finally loaded, the best seat in the first row, passenger side was invariably given to a deadheading driver or a little old lady. That never impressed me.

  5. This is more of the enlightened thinking that moved passenger rail to the middle of nowhere.

    Mass transit needs to be readily accessible from downtown. That means that downtowns will have buses and trains, and places to meet them – train stations and bus stations.

    That bus is seen as “sniff, sniff” lower class is the underlying reason to exile it from downtown – “We don’t want their kind hereabouts”.

    Buses randomly stopping to pick up and drop off downtown causes traffic congestion and disruption. It imposes a cost on everyone, as opposed to directing the cost to the bus companies to operate and maintain facilities.

    1. I agree moving the train station out of the traditional downtown was a crummy decision. But I fail to see what that has to do with the current discussion. Being that things are as they are, it makes more sense to have the bus station on a rapid transit line – as stated above. All this talk about “class” and “their kind” is a distraction, and I fail to see the point. I would argue that to a majority of Ottawans, particularly those who don’t have a car (like myself), the Catherine St. location is far less accessible than the proposed train station location. Hey, if we want to put an LRT tunnel under Bank, maybe I’ll change my tune…

      1. It’s less than 30 minutes to walk from the bus station to Parliament Hill; it’s extremely accessible from anywhere in the downtown area. Moving it out to Fat Cat heaven makes it less accessible. Indeed, we should revitalize the train station (the real one, that the NCC uses as a poor quality conference centre) and make it a multi-modal hub – commuter rail, intercity rail, intercity bus, and LRT.

        MegaBus and its ilk profit from abusing public space for their loading and unloading instead of paying their own way for their own infrastructure. Every time they illegally stop to load and unload they should be ticketed.

        Complaining about the “noise” of a bus terminal is like complaining about the noise of an airport. If you move in beside one it’s part of the reason the rent is low or the property is cheap.

  6. to David P: you sound like a PR person from the transit drivers union that wants a government monopoly on intercity transportation services. Certainly the providers of such a monopoly service would like it; but I don’t think anyone else – esp. incl. users & taxpayers, would.

    First, private bus services do not abuse the public space, nor do they stop illegally. If they use city owned spaces (eg the transitway) they do it by legal agreement that may include payment. Many megabus-type stops are off -road, on private shopping centre or fast food lots, eg a timmy’s lot. They do so with permission, that may include payment. If they stop along the public street, they do so with city permission and agreement, same as commuter bus services to outlying towns do and city tour buses do (and yes, I have heard the govt unions don’t like that either!).

    As for the noise around transportation facilities, I agree that people who move in should expect the noise. Locator beware! BUT, what we are talking about here is what sort of bus service we want in the future! Do we continue with the 1950’s model, which depends on people putting a low value on certainty, predictability, their time, etc for an inefficient service that blights a downtown neighborhood? OR do we push for a better bus, onboard services, reserved seating service that actually provides a higher level of service for the majority of users at lower cost? And coincidentally frees up a block of downtown land from carbon-spewing to a more carbon favorable dense urban mixed use development?

  7. I suspect that in may respects we are in violent agreement. The current bus station is in need of a complete overhaul, together with some significant intensification. A 7-10 story building (office space) with a terminal on the main floor (much as is being done in Montreal) would do wonders. The business model of “show up and hope” needs refinement; mindless idling should be stopped (regardless of whether we’re talking buses, trucks, cars or any other transportation system), and regardless of whether it’s on Catherine Street or in some suburban bus yard.

    However, transit hubs are still needed. An intermodal terminal (Quebec City is a fine example) are the way Ottawa should go – combining bus, rail and commuter options which permits travellers to easily change from one mode of transportation to another. Imagine if you could hop on the LRT at Blair, ride to the Ottawa Central station, then transfer to a train to Montreal or a bus to Arnprior! Repurposing the Train Station back to a Train Station (I refuse to call the monstrosity that VIA is at today the Ottawa Train Station) would provide this city with such an intermodal terminal – and open up commuter rail to points west and east.

    To accuse the bus terminal of “blighting a downtown neighbourhood” is risible. And to suggest that a MegaBus is any less carbon-spewing than a Greyhound is equally foolish. They merely spew in different locations.

    It’s clear that there is still demand for Greyhound’s service – today’s announcement of a $1M(+/-) investent in upgrading the terminal proves it. While some may not like it, others do – and are willing to pay for it.

  8. Very sympathetic to David P’s intermodal hub – provided it is also place where I can board my reserved seat in my own time, with no more senseless lining-up. Eric is right, it is a 1950s model, un-tolerated by travelers in any other mode.

    But since the trains aren’t coming back downtown anytime soon, and since no one wants to have to go out to the VIA station to catch a bus, I think there is much merit in going to Eric’s “virtual” model in the meanwhile. (As to the union angle, is it not the case that most of the drivers are private contractors now since Paul Martin’s shipping company – owners of Voyageur – broke the back of the union with a prolonged strike/lockout in the mid-90s?)

    Bus depots as we know them in Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto are dreary, smelly places – nearly amenity-free, and a drain on the built form and quality of urban living for a block or more in each direction. I love the Carleton Place bus line – “The Green Line”; comfortable coaches coming downtown on the Transitway, where buses belong, and thus picking up/dropping off where Ottawans can easily reach by the main service of the OC Transpo. That’s the model that we should be working toward for our bus connections.

    One more note: I actaully love our modernist train station, and arrive as early as I can to sit at the cafe and soak up the atmosphere when I am meeting people. It’s just in the wrong place.

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