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Ottawa's BRT Transitway: Modern Miracle or Mega-Mirage?

Ottawa's BRT Transitway: Modern Miracle or Mega-Mirage?

Light rail specialists and advocates, armed with the truth, will not be caught off guard and will have relevant facts and figures on the Ottawa case from the start.

By Harry W. Gow

(The following article, originally published in the January 1998 issue of Tramways & Urban Transit, has been slightly updated by the author and revised for publication on the Light Rail Progress website.)

This article is an attempt to put on paper an account that we have had to repeat for inquirers in four countries who have come to Transport 2000 Canada for help in the wake of claims advanced by the world-roving advocates of "cloning" Ottawa's busway around the globe.

Since the retirement of the General Manager of OC Transpo (The Ottawa-Carleton Regional Transit Commission ) and his metamorphosis into a worldwide busway consultant, T-2000 Canada has had requests for information from Charlotte, North Carolina; Auckland, New Zealand; Bristol, U.K.; and Brisbane, Queensland. Each time, the plaint is the same: "We thought we had a chance of advancing on a light rail project, but a consultant from Ottawa (John Bonsall) has come here and enchanted our decision-makers with tales of major economies and booming ridership on the Ottawa 'Transitway'. Is this system a modern miracle or are there flaws?" What follows is offered in the hope that, after reading it, light rail specialists and advocates, armed with the truth, will not be caught off guard and will have relevant facts and figures on the Ottawa case from the start.

First, a little history. For nearly a century, Ottawa, Canada's capital from 1867, had an efficient and innovative tramway [streetcar] system - from horsecars to postwar modern electric trams, though, exceptionally, the Ottawa Electric Railway and the successor Ottawa Transportation Commission owned no PCCs [streamlined streetcars], even in the post-World War II era. The track was for the most part well-maintained, as were all the cars, right to the ignominious end, when the cars were mostly sold for scrap to pay for a fleet of 1959 standee-window GM buses. This writer helped a number of museums acquire cars and parts despite the mayor trying to ensure that all the cars went to a scrap merchant. The mayor, soundly defeated in an ensuing election, did get the trams off the streets, making these "safe" for the automobile, preferred by his merchant supporters and the [Canadian] federal planners.

Twenty years later, the Transit Commission and the regional government announced public consultations to determine the shape of future transit: should it be metros, light rail, or busways? It soon became apparent that the dice were loaded: The consulting firm hired was the same outfit that had pulled up the tracks on the lengthy reserved-track Britannia tram line, and the Transit Commission management had little time for the proponents of rail-based systems, calling even professional transport experts "railfans".

In such a context, it was no surprise that the latters' arguments were swept under the magic carpet of dazzling promises of an integrated, speedy, inexpensive far-flung system. Of course, to mollify residual objectors, it was promised that when ridership boomed to new heights, conversion to light rail or metro would be examined. The region, for the moment, had "too small a population" for a revival of rail. (The region, in 1981, had a population of about half-a-million - the Qu