Photo: CC, Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz via Wikimedia Commons.
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Transit groups challenged city staff to take transit for a week

A local transit advocacy group challenged Ottawa city councillors to use public transit for all transportation from Feb. 4 to Feb. 11.  The challenge was promoted by Free Transit Ottawa—a community-organized group who advocate for more accessible, environmentally conscious, and reliable transportation in the City of Ottawa.

Ottawa maintains the third-highest transit usage rate in Canada, after Montreal and Toronto.  However, disruptions caused by the construction of the Confederation Line, a series of high-profile accidents, and deteriorating on-time performance have shaken public trust in the system.  

According to Kirstin Pulles of Free Transit Ottawa, the organization decided to declare the challenge because they believe that decisions are being made about public transportation by people who do not use it.

Pulles says the organization hopes councillors experience the problems of Ottawa’s transit system first hand as “it makes it more real than just hearing it from others.”

The fact that this challenge fell during the announcement of the 2019 city budget is no coincidence. Pulles hopes that having the first-hand experience fresh in their mind will make councillors think critically about transit during budget debates.

A press conference was held at noon on the last day of the challenge as an opportunity for councillors to share their experiences and thoughts with the public. Free Transit Ottawa took the opportunity to reiterate three demands to the city. The group would like an immediate freeze in fares, a pilot free transit program, and a citizen-led unit to provide the city with transit recommendations.

Pulles claims that rising fares unfairly target low-income individuals. She claims they are the result of “conscious choices made by people who lack the willpower or creativity to look more broadly for solutions.”

U-Pass holders account for over 25 per cent of OC Transpo’s overall ridership. This is in addition to the roughly 10 per cent of ridership that comes from high school student passes. Students at the Université du Québec en Outaouais(UQO) and La Cité are not covered under any pass program, but also make heavy use of transit.

Making sure students continue to use transit past graduation is essential to reversing slipping ridership according to a report by OC Transpo.

While Free Transit Ottawa emphasized affordability, not all councillors felt the same way. In an email to the Fulcrum, Riley Brockington of Ward 16 said “(affordability) is an issue for some, but not the main issue for the entire system.” Brockington pointed to what the city can do in the immediate.

“Pinpoint which routes, at which times of the day are experiencing reliability challenges and assess what the root causes are to address.”

Over the week, many councillors took to social media to document their transit journeys.

However, the challenge was not for councillors alone, as 69 citizens also joined in what Pulles said was an invitation to have their voices heard. She noted that citizens have been particularly vocal about transit in the past months and Free Transit Ottawa saw a real push by the public to have their councillors accept the challenge.

Pulles stressed the point that the challenge was unrelated to the ongoing struggles and delays of the Light Rail Transit system.

“It is motivated by much more deeply rooted and ongoing issues. Our system is slow, inefficient, inaccessible, and expensive.”

The challenge comes amid uncertainty around the U-Pass, which will continue to be valid until the stated expiry date but will rely on a new contract being struck between OC Transpo and the newly-elected University of Ottawa Students’ Union for the next year.