Tunnel please, no shades of gray

Ottawa skeptics doubt that we need a downtown transit tunnel. It’s all right, they say, just run the rails on the street surface right through the downtown. With some wand waving, we can limit cross traffic, eliminate parking garage entrances, eliminate curbside passenger drop-offs and pick-ups, eliminate curbside deliveries, and other delaying trivia of that ilk. And traffic collisions and grid-lock can simply be banned, so there will be no delays to the trains. And all these restrictions will make the downtown more attractive to users to boot.

Well, we have had the street-level transitway since the 1980’s. We have no parking/no stopping restrictions. New buildings have their garage entrances on other streets rather than Albert/Slater. And how successful has that been? The downtown streets, especially Slater, are an unpleasant wall of buses, usually at rush hour, often at other times of day too. Pleasant sidewalk environment? Not really.

Yes, more restrictions could be piled on automobilists and delivery vehicles. Fines for gridlock could be jacked up. Tourists who wander into the core with their cars could be chased away. But I think the situation is really black and white: the grade-separated transitway works great where it is grade separated. It falls apart where there it hits interference from private motorists: at Booth, and throughout the downtown core. Just look at the pictures of the lined up buses, the droves of passengers abandoning their vehicles to … walk. The blockages and slowdowns occur in the downtown core.

If the transitway was grade-separated through the downtown core, system-wide failure would be rarer. A bus tunnel might work. A subway/LRT tunnel will work. It will work for several reasons:

  • no cross traffic, no unpredictable amateur drivers in cars with a FU attitude at rush hour
  • no interference from delivery vehicles (a highly under-appreciated volume of downtown traffic is deliveries, and no, they cannot all be moved to 1am)
  • fewer delays and more reliable service in all-weathers builds transit user confidence in system reliability, leading to more users …
  • lower costs: the downtown core is the slowest part of the transitway system and daily delays require more buses, more drivers, more maintenance staff than would be required for a grade-separated system

For 21 years I ran my own business. It grew like mad, and was extraordinarily successful. A part of that success was I realized early on that the cost of my product was operating cost plus equipment costs, ie, total cost of sales. Too many of my colleagues and competitors focussed on the capital costs of equipment (I was in a technology intensive industry with huge capital costs for short-lived equipment), rather than the total cost. The analogy here is to the critics of the tunnel who focus on its capital cost rather than the total cost of running the service. The correct comparison is tunnel capital cost plus trainset costs plus labour costs over the lifetime and number of users,  vs the cost of surface roads, surface buses and drivers over the same period. Factors like client satisfaction are harder to know, but can be estimated.

As for the best way to run transit through downtown Ottawa for the next century,  I don’t see any shades of Gray: the tunnel is the obvious choice. Let’s look at that picture of the current surface system again:

15 thoughts on “Tunnel please, no shades of gray

  1. Ha! Great photos. I was thinking the same thing when I was on the bus (luckily heading west) on this evening. Apparently the slowdown was caused by a stalled bus or something, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Ottawa’s surface can’t take more buses. Nor will a bus tunnel work.

    I was hoping someone would have found photos from this. Terrific stuff.

    1. All the congestion was for east bound buses, bell decided to dig up Slater at Elgin for duct work and told the city but the city did not tell octranspo or the police, result, massive congestion and total transitway failure. Apparently only the left-most lane was open Tuesday evening and of course the private cars were already there …

      The congestion photos were just good hooks to the story line and the specific cause of the delay just illustrates the vulnerability of the surface options.

      thanks for reading,

  2. Not sure how much I agree with you that there are no shades of grey. Obviously if you consider only E-W transit and you have a lot of money then DOTT is a good scenario. Particularly if you use the same tunnel for a cross-river loop train.

    In Ottawa, however, pragmatism suggests that you aren’t going to be able to make a major investment like this again for many decades. Is blowing the wad on the tunnel really the best answer to Ottawa transit generally? Shouldn’t we consider a surface route (one that can replace several busses for each train) and route changes (why are all transfer points in the core?) that might ameliorate the situation? If that helped, could we take the rest of the money and solve our crucial north-south problem?

    Yes, it is possible to take pictures of eastbound congestion at Bayview (during Albert St. construction) and make a point. But it’s hard to get a good shot of the exactly ZERO N-S routes for transit that make any sense (congested or otherwise) other than the O-Train which is a pilot route. The city continues to grow south as fast as it grows east-west. In fact some would say faster.

    There are many upset people in Kanata and Orleans because they have been there a long time, but frankly they have quite good (if congested) links in terms of the 417 and the E-W transitway.

    By contrast, once you see the southern developments mature to the age of Kanata and Orleans you will start to hear these southerners complain that they have no queensway, and their transitways are a joke. What will we tell these people? That all the money we could have used for them went into DOTT? If we don’t plan for these people now, they will demand and receive a north-south queensway in the form of the Bronson Expressway. Imagine the West Side Action on that one.

    I am not opposed to DOTT as a project, but rather worry that it will come back to bite us once the dust has settled and people realise it will not address the disaster that Ottawa’s poor urban planning has wrought.

    1. Shades of Gray was a dig at another blogger who seizes upon any criticism of the tunnel, even mutually contradictory ones, but doesn’t create a coherent arugment. Of course, there are variations of a tunnel option and surface options … but I remain skeptical that any surface options will work on our downtown layout.

      I too wish the N/S route had gone ahead, at least as far as Riverside south. I deeply regret that council killed it. It is vitally important to shape growing areas with transit oriented development rather than adding transit after the auto-centric neighborhoods are built, as in Kanata. At the time, I operated a 5500 sq ft groundfloor business downtown on Albert and the lack of planning for deliveries, customer access, etc was terrifying. As a transit advocate, I was really worried about transit killing the downtown to service the transit, much like we killed neighborhood mainstreets to cope with suburban traffic.

      Various people tell me the DOTT cannot be used for loop service to Gatineau or N/S LRT service as it will be filled to capacity with the E/W service. In which case, surface rail might well be on the table again soon. I have inquiries into the city as to whether the DOTT stations are being designed to possibly service four tunnel bores instead of the initial two bore system for the E/W.

      Building carling avenue did not cause us to say “we built an e/w route, that’s all folks…”, rather we built the Qway, then expanded it and expanded it and when we built the initial transitway we later expanded it too, so I dont buy the argument that building one DOTT (the most expensive leg of the system) precludes future transit spending. Shift the new road expenditures to transit and the system can expand for years.

      And yes, I detest the one-bus policy of serving the suburbs with 3/4 empty express buses. Hub and spoke is much more cost effective and with decent stations transfers are not difficult.

  3. What we need is Hub and Spoke.

    While I am saddened and annoyed by the blockage shown here, you might notice — as I have — that almost all the buses are half-full.

    The problem is that too many minor routes — especially the Red Express routes — are coming into City Centre from the outlying suburbs. This is absurd. Most if not all these outlying routes should be ending at outlying stations such as Baseline, Orleans and South Keys, with the passengers transferring to long-haul routes for the run in to City Centre. That would get rid of this jam pronto.

    That change would not require LRT, nor would it require an expensive Tunnel. All it takes is some Political Will.

    I don’t see that Political Will forthcoming from this City Council. OC Transpo is the ONLY transit authority in Canada directly under that kind of political control. In most cities, the local transit authority is run by an “arms-length” transit commission.

    When will we get this fixed? Not till after the next civic election on October 25, it seems. Maybe not even then — unless we the Voter reads the Riot Act to our City Councillors and follows through with our votes on October 25.

    1. Yes, I am all in favour of hub and spoke. It would buy us a few more years of utility for the transitway through the downtown. But not a century’s use. Big changes will be necessary, and our council decided on a grade separated transit system in a tunnel rather than other options some of which deserved better exploration.

      I do recall that in June 2009 when the various LRT suppliers came, one or two actually said LRT was a mistake, we should immediately upgrade to a full subway type system (which they also sold…) which our LRT is designed to be upgradable to …

      However, I dont see much point in continuing to beat dead horses … the old council decided on a LRT in a tunnel, and the new council wont be much different, so rather than re-hash the old options I prefer to go forward with the choice we made and try to get the best stuff for my neighborhood as I can and the best system (which I can happily say the best system is the one that is build according to my wishes… ;).

      1. Well, the city is already moving towards hub-and-spoke. There was a lot of controversy, but a number of express routes were recently cut, and you’ve got to imagine more of them will be cut in the future, too. The problem is finding a way to make transit attractive to riders who have a choice about it, while not making it so that the system is beyond capacity. That’s going to require some sort of expedited hub-and-spoke system, I guess.

  4. Eric,

    If surface LRT is so bad, then why is it Calgary somehow manages to move more passengers per direction than we do on its 7th Ave transit mall without great long queues of trains or delays from cross street traffic? That’s correct, more passengers. A couple of years ago absolute rider volumes in Calgary surpassed Ottawa due to a more rapidly increasing population and increasing transit ridership.

    Oh, and they’re about to increase their capacity by a third, as well.

    I don’t understand this tendency to see Ottawa’s downtown surface BRT system failing and then jumping to the conclusion that the same would apply to light rail.

    Nor do we need to “limit cross traffic, eliminate parking garage entrances, eliminate curbside passenger drop-offs and pick-ups, eliminate curbside deliveries” etc to make it work. It will just require some creativity and an open mind – and exiling the traffic engineers who do transportation planning and who at other times think it a good idea to squeeze out pedestrians to widen the road surface of Bronson and whose commitment to pedestrians is limited to shading them with fake trees.

    As for the current jam that is the subject of your pictures, it’s apparently caused by utility works on Slater near Elgin. One of the things about BRT is that its buses are supposedly “flexible” and can “go around obstacles”. Accordingly, the buses on BRT systems end up having more obstacles to go around. But if there were tracks in the street, no one would even dare contemplate lifting them up and blocking them for utility works.

    1. I wish I knew enough about Calgary’s system and geography and circumstances to comment, but I haven’t been there since the system opened in the early 1980’s.

      One of my peeves is that anyone (and this is not aimed at you, David) can point to another city and say “see, that worked, why dont we do the same” and / or “see, that was a disaster, our project will fail just as badly”. Every city makes it own choices according to its own circumstances. Hindsight, etc etc.

      In this light, I recommend reading the recent post on the Strasbourg surface system, which apparently is the lust objet du jour, I believe it was in Human Transit blog about a week ago. Like cycling nirvana in Portland, or Holland, or whatever, we cannot import solutions, we gotta choose options that are sellable locally and will work locally, and then deal with the next hand of cards rather than the previous hands.

      I do recall with some chagrin that the previous n/w LRT died under a barrage of criticisims that were mutually contradictory but nonetheless the avalanche smothered it. I would hate to the LRT conversion or DOTT die under similar circumstances and face another 30 years of road building and kanata type suburbs.

      I wasn’t involved much at the time the city examined alternative solutions, and for the reasons give here and in other comments, don’t instend to revisit old decisions. I just hope each city makes choices that are best for themselves.

      1. I tend to agree that people can pick other places and point to them as successes or failures without delving deeper.

        But when you do delve into it you find that Calgary is the one place that is comparable to Ottawa. It’s a similar size with a similar focus on its downtown for employment (perhaps even more so than Ottawa, although they also have major industrial employment that we simply do not have). Its ridership levels are similar. The length of downtown Calgary is similar to Ottawa and its block lengths are somewhat shorter (which actually means things are easier for us than for them in that regard). It has no direct freeway access into downtown, just like us. Its downtown is hemmed in on the north and east by rivers – like Ottawa – and on the south by the CPR mainline, unlike us, but our north-south routes are limited by the Rideau Canal and River. It operates a similar restriction on parking provision downtown. The one place where Calgary has a distinct physical advantage downtown is that they have rear lanes for property access so they can exclude all non-transit traffic. That is an issue that would have to be examined here, but our transportation engineers just gave up without trying (sound familiar?). One other major difference is the presence of the +15 system, though its effect on transit is probably minimal other than making things more pleasant in the winter. You’re never going to find perfect comparisons, but as comparisons go, Calgary is very good.

        Ken Gray tends to latch onto any city to suit his purposes without giving it too much thought. For example, he latched onto Buffalo with its tunnel and problems. Well Buffalo is not a valid comparison. It’s a fundamentally different city with different problems that don’t really relate to Ottawa. A more valid comparison would be Edmonton. There’s a government city of similar size that built a tunnel, and it did so before Calgary built its surface light rail system and Ottawa built the Transitway. The tunnel cost a lot, limited the funds for future expansion and because the system was both not very visible and not very extensive it was not well used. Ken also likes to compare to Houston. Well Houston runs all of single-car trains since that is all it needs to run. It hardly proves that surface light rail can function for a city with the ridership of Ottawa. Unfortunately, when one looks around for North American cities with high light rail ridership, there is only the one: Calgary. I wish there were more because more comparable examples makes for a better case. And when one looks around for North American cities with high volume BRT systems, there is also only one: Ottawa. Ottawa and Calgary are in classes by themselves, but fortunately the major difference between them for transit comparison purposes is BRT vs LRT.

        Andy Haydon does the same thing. He loves to compare with Pittsburgh because a report from a decade ago said that LRT costs in Pittsburgh far exceeded those of its BRT system. I looked into more recent data from Pittsburgh and while LRT still cost more than BRT in Pittsburgh, it wasn’t a lot more. The differences between the corridors probably explained much of the difference as well. What was shocking was how high both were compared to either Ottawa or Calgary. BRT advocates generally love to use Ottawa to sell BRT elsewhere without explaining why Ottawa is a valid comparison to any particular city, since any such explanation would quickly cast doubt on the validity of it. If I were advocating LRT for some mid-sized American city, I’d be loathe to use Calgary as an example since Calgary has such high ridership and has had a system for so long as to be incomparable. Comparisons to Minneapolis, Houston and Charlotte N.C. would likely be far better.

  5. Thanks for this.

    I am in complete agreement that, at this point, the building of grade separated transit infrastructure downtown is completely justified given ridership and potential for growth. We’ve already done the “transit on the surface” option and built ridership. Now we upgrade to allow continued growth. That’s how it works.

    However, and perhaps more importantly, having only recently moved to Ottawa I’m started to realize that what colors people view of this debate are comments like c’s:
    “pragmatism suggests that you aren’t going to be able to make a major investment like this again for many decades. Is blowing the wad on the tunnel really the best answer to Ottawa transit generally?”
    Yes, perhaps I’m new and I’m not sufficiently cynical, but good grief! I encounter this attitude all the time around here! Enough already! -Demand- more investment. I’ve never seen such an affluent and relatively “problem-free” city with such a can’t do attitude!

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