In 2018, Ottawa’s new light rail transit (LRT), the thirteen station Confederation Line, will go into service. Arriving in Ottawa, I was impressed to see the Canadian city making progress on transit, instead of getting mired in debates about what kind to build and wavering between proposals, as has been the case in Toronto. Ottawa’s success comes in part from the decision to upgrade a system that already worked very well: The Transitway.

Display map of Confederation line, Ottawa Canada

The Transitway is a thirty-five km bus rapid transit (BRT) system that spans the entire city, connecting the farthest suburbs to the city’s core. Local buses feed into the Transitway which, running on separated and dedicated rights-of-way, avoids other vehicular traffic and provides reliable service much like a subway or light rail. In fact, rates of transit ridership among work commuters in Ottawa (19.4%) have closely mirrored those of cities with subways like Toronto (22.2%) and Montreal (21.4%).

The Confederation Line was conceived as a response to growing ridership, which BRT will no longer be able to accommodate. It also addresses congestion in the central part of the Transitway, where all BRT lines, as well as express buses, connect and serve the highest number of commuters.

The environmental assessment for the Western LRT, part of the second phase of the project, is already underway. The second phase will replace most of the Transitway, bringing light rail to the suburbs within Ottawa’s Greenbelt, as well as one outside the Greenbelt. At a Western LRT open-house, one of the project’s planners described the LRT as a “game changer for Ottawa.” There was expressed a hope for mixed-use, transit-oriented development around the LRT, increasing density, ridership, and helping fund the project through development charges.

Buses along the Transitway, Ottawa, Canada

It turns out, however, that this unquestionable progress has not been entirely without debate. In contrast to Toronto’s uncertainty about its transit future, Ottawa’s example has raised questions about its transit past. Transitway stations were originally built with convertibility to LRT in mind, suggesting that the inevitability of LRT was on the horizon from the start. The impression was that it would be cheaper to build BRT first, and then convert to LRT. However, the high costs of operating and replacing buses over the years, and of converting the Transitway to light rail ($540 million for the Confederation Line alone) have put this wisdom into question. Today, it seems that building LRT from the start might have saved costs in the long run.

While this serves as a warning to other cities, Ottawa is already looking forward. Ottawa’s next challenge is to capitalize on the arrival of LRT and become a more transit-oriented, less car-dependent city. The LRT should not merely accommodate increasing ridership as, say, adding more buses has done so far. OCTranspo and the City should reach out with public messages about the convenience of rail, backed with promotional offers, to bring ridership to a new level that matches and even exceeds that of Toronto and Montreal.

O-Train, Ottawa, Canada

Whether high-density development comes to the LRT, or whether Ottawa’s suburbs follow a different trajectory of development, I believe there is great hope that the LRT will encourage even more people in Ottawa and its suburbs to use transit. In a few decades, Ottawa’s transit could encourage more young people to move and stay in the city. Perhaps the train will convince suburban commuters to forgo their cars; and maybe in a few decades we can start reducing, rather than adding, lanes on our highways, saving even more money for investment in transit. All of this is possible, and Ottawa’s big investment in LRT deserves to be part of this vision.

What transit challenges does your city face? What are planners doing to address these challenges?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. All data linked to sources.