Public transit advocacy in Ottawa

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Kari Glynes Elliott is a board member of the Ottawa Transit Riders. Scott Neigh interviews her about the city's transit system, including its troubled light rail transit (LRT) project, and about her group's advocacy to make public transit in Ottawa more affordable, accessible and reliable.

Glynes Elliott has lived in Ottawa for about 20 years, and in her day job she works as a researcher for the federal Department of Justice. Over that time, she has been quite involved in a range of progressive causes, including education, cycling and the environment. She is also an avid transit user. When she and her husband first moved to the city, they were really impressed with the quality of the OC Transpo bus network and found it to be a great way to get wherever they needed to go.

In the last 10 years, however, transit in Ottawa has been steadily declining. This was showing up, for example, through increasing unreliability -- buses running late, buses just not showing up, and so on. Then things came to a head a couple of years ago when OC Transpo implemented a major reorganization, about a year ahead of an LRT route being incorporated into the system. Bus routes changed in ways that made it trickier to get around the city. In key cases, buses were scheduled to come less frequently. And the reliability issues got even worse.

Glynes Elliott hypothesizes that underfunding and understaffing are key contributors. Moreover, she says that they seem to have "cannibalized the bus routes in order to pay for the LRT."

In response, a group of people who mostly did not know each other beforehand came together via social media. They organized a series of public forums in different neighbourhoods to hear from people about their concerns with transit. Lots of people talked about the reliability and scheduling issues, and lots talked about accessibility concerns, both with the regular bus system and with Ottawa's para-transit system, called Para Transpo. When they had a formal founding meeting for the Ottawa Transit Riders in April 2019, over a hundred people turned up.

In September 2019, the LRT became operational and things got even worse. The transit system redesign put the LRT at the centre, and almost any trip of any distance involves transfering from bus to train and perhaps back to another bus. Which might work in principle, because the train itself is, Glynes Elliott says, pretty great when it's working. Unfortunately, it has been incredibly fragile and it breaks down all the time. There are delays and stoppages. People can't get where they are going, or they get there late. It is not clear why this is happening -- lots of cities have LRT systems that work just fine -- but it is a major problem in Ottawa.

In their work, the Ottawa Transit Riders have not actually been focused on the LRT fiasco. It needs to be fixed, for sure, but they are pushing for a whole-system approach to improving transit. That means not only making sure the trains run reliably, but dramatically improving bus service as well. And in particular, disability advocates among their active membership and beyond have expressed concern that the public focus on the LRT means that accessibility issues are receiving even less attention than usual.

The Ottawa Transit Riders have developed a website and a social media presence. They have run a variety of campaigns. They have had delegations at every transit commission meeting since their founding, and have regularly met with and put pressure on politicians and officials. Though there is a long way to go, they have won some small victories around accessibility, and successfully fended off a proposed fare increase that was supposed to go into effect at the beginning of the year.

The group also holds public events. They've organized a transit challenge, to try to get city politicians to take public transit for a week. They are developing a rider-driven app and database to keep tabs on problems with the system. They are also very keen to develop relationships with the drivers and their union. And they are in talks about launching a lawsuit over the barriers that disabled people are facing when it comes to transit in Ottawa.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

Image: *Youngjin/Wikimedia

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