Let’s study the matter
The City of Ottawa revealed recently that an environmental study has been approved by its city council to look at bringing light rail transit (LRT) to the growing and bustling Ontario community of Barrhaven, whose population was 82,500 as of 2015. The point is, Barrhaven is growing and it’s growing fast. On the surface, the study is good news. New technology can bring economic benefits to a local economy.
Today, the clogging of its community roadways with gas guzzling cars, buses and trucks is exhausting. And while there is public transit, courtesy of OC Transpo, to and from Barrhaven to downtown and outlying areas, users complain about service and schedules. These sources of irritation often force people to avoid transit entirely, take their cars, or use emerging and competing ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. And they serve as fodder for proponents of LRT who see the LRT study as a key initiative along the path to a more efficient transit future in the area.
Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions
A study is good, but assumptions being made about the benefits of light rail are optimistic and need to be tempered with a bit of caution. And we mustn’t forget that such news is ahead of local elections which occur next month. How much of this is electioneering is subject to the reader’s interpretation. We take a cautiously optimistic view of LRT.
A study, while necessary, is neither exciting nor sexy, but we are hopeful that it will contain enough detail to identify the root causes of Barrhaven’s transportation issues. We mustn’t forget that a similar study was conducted many years ago just before LRT was implemented in the downtown core of Ottawa, a 45-minute trek by bus from Barrhaven on a most recent trip by your correspondent. At time of publication, it is unknown if the old study will be dusted off and used an input into the current study. For the sake of avoiding the reinvention of the wheel, we hope it does get used.
A review of a report by the Barrhaven Business Improvement Area (BIA, Twitter: @BarrhavenBIA) reveals that a business case is being developed to look at the economics of bringing LRT to the region. A case is only as good as the finished environmental study, which won’t conclude until 2020. Based on the results of that study, the economics may change depending on how LRT is going to be implemented in Barrhaven. And the business case, with its estimates, may either be too generously inflated or heavily underestimated. We predict that the estimates will be severely underestimated. The estimates need to be accurate before the city submits a case to the federal government and the Government of Ontario for funding of the initiative. We concur that estimation is a tough task. But with enough insight and the right information, solid estimates can be made.
More questions than answers
Some of our questions right now have no answers. For example, will tunnels be built to connect Fallowfield station, one of Barrhaven’s park and ride locations as well as a key VIA Rail (Twitter: @VIA_Rail) station, with the Nepean Sportsplex? What is the environmental impact on ripping up the roadways to connect Fallowfield to Barrhaven Centre, a growing hodgepodge of shops, stores, health offices and restaurants? How will those who live on the periphery of the main LRT routes be affected in terms of making a decision to take a car or hop on the LRT to get to and fro? Will Barrhaven eventually connect to the LRT extension that is planned to extend out to Ottawa’s international airport? We believe that access to the airport from Barrhaven is woefully inadequate. From our vantage point, taking a train to the airport should take 5 to 10 minutes, not the 30 or more by car using an out-of-the-way configuration.
Another perceived problem is sprawl. How is LRT going to be effective and handle the divergent philosophy applied to governing housing development? Between 2010 and 2014, an intensification program saw housing grow 23% in the area. By the time LRT is available to Barrhaven, housing and other development, in our view, will be at such a level that putting in a train will be almost impossible, or at least the task will require ripping up infrastructure, a costly undertaking, to connect key locations along the LRT line.
The LRT study will no doubt provide answers to these questions. Until then, we can only guess at the benefits and costs, which isn’t conducive to formulating a good business case. And then there is the cultural aspect.
Car pool? Are you kidding me?
In our view, change is sloth-like when it comes to cultural adjustments about transportation. While change is possible, it’s very difficult to effect change, especially ingrained behaviour where everyone firmly believes in their right to choose their mode of transportation. What we observe is that Barrhaven is a culture dependent on the automobile. Cars are an extension of individualism. Cars give people the freedom to go places without adhering to a schedule. According to a neighbourhood study in 2010, 71% of Barrhaven residents drove in a truck, car or van. That number has grown to 74%. In 2010, 17% took transit. Now, only 19% take it. The numbers suggest that the morning commute by non-transit means is outpacing transit. That is an issue.
Whether 2010 or 2015, the numbers show quite a substantial gap between the freedom of taking a car to that of taking a bus. Such a wide difference affects efforts to come up with transit solutions. And is LRT designed to get people out of their cars? Addressing the issue is simple. Motivating people to do so is monumental. Also keep in mind that the rate of passengers in a car, truck or van was a dismal 7% just in 2010 alone. We believe that statistic hasn’t changed much. Just stand at the corner of Fallowfield and Woodroffe and count the number of single passenger cars zipping by. Then do the math. People want their transportation freedom. One car, one person. Freedom. Car pooling? Not evident. LRT has a big task to hurdle if the perceived benefits are to be realized.
Claiming that LRT will have benefits to Barrhaven is no doubt true, but which aspects of LRT will bring the most good? The answer will drive a true benefits analysis. And will LRT solve the persistent problems associated with the use of buses today, like tardiness and overcrowding? We’re not sure. The business case must present real solutions to real, root cause problems before the city is in any position to ask for money from anyone.
Liar, Liar, Rails on Fire
We like LRT and the concept of light rail connecting Barrhaven to the rest of the city. A study is a good start. Whether momentum is sustained after the municipal elections depends on the politicians and the people who put them in power. Let’s hope all stakeholders continue to support LRT after being voted into office.
Only time will tell if the study is shelved and LRT is derailed in the fastest growing community in Ottawa that needs a real solution to its real transportation problems.
Transportation in Barrhaven – A Statistical View
Average commute duration (in minutes): 25 (2010)
Percentage of passengers in a car, truck or van: 7 (2010)
Percentage of drivers in a car, truck or van: 71 (2010)
Percentage of residents who drive to work in their cars: 74 (2015)
Percentage of residents who take transit: 19 (2015)