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: