Towards Effective Light Rail Transit in Ottawa

Ottawa’s LRT – D. Deby photo

I admit to being excited when Ottawa’s LRT launched. By its second day of operation, I found an excuse opportunity to try it out, and marveled at the efficient ride, gleaming new stations and impressive scenery en route.

There were a few gaps—not least accessibility challenges, minimal space for bikes, and the problem that the switch to LRT didn’t benefit everyone (for many residents, including me, it means longer commuting times and fewer bus options). Still, the LRT marks an important shift to more environmentally sustainable transit in Ottawa. We were offered a big-city, world class system that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel consumption and road salt use, and increase connections to healthy transportation options (biking, walking).

Now, like many other residents, I’m frustrated.

Daily delays and breakdowns, in conjunction with the elimination or adjustment of many bus routes, have eroded confidence in the transit system. Residents are calling for solutions, improved accountability and transparency, and better public communication.

Obviously, Ottawa needs a public transit system that works and is equitable and accessible to everyone—which means not putting all our eggs in one (LRT) basket.

We could draw on (eco-)systems thinking here. Systems thinking is about seeing all the parts of the system and the relationships among them as an integrated, dynamic whole, rather than just the individual parts. Integrating (eco-)systems thinking into design can improve a system’s capacity to handle pressures and disruptions. Fundamental to complex systems is the existence of alternatives, so the system is maintained even when something goes wrong somewhere. Redundancy, diversity and resilience are features of systems approaches.

That means a problem with one train car door doesn’t shut down the entire train/transit system. It means that bus options remain, so people have alternatives to get to where they need to go, at least through a period of transition from buses/transitway to LRT if not beyond. It means investing in improving ParaTranspo, and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, as seamless parts of an integrated system.

It’s good that the City has announced some attention to and investment in solutions. Let’s make sure they’re comprehensive ones.

All Roads Lead to Tunney’s Pasture – D. Deby photo

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