Missed the bus to fairness

Signs on the O-Train used to read, “Fare’s fair.” But is it really?

Being a daily transit rider in Ottawa, I’ve experienced the steadily climbing fares. Every year, transit prices become harder on the wallet: regular adult cash tickets went from a reasonable $3 in 2009 to about a 50-cent increase earlier this year. It’s not only standard pass holders that are being hit. Community pass holders, which include Para Transpo users and people on disability, aren’t exempt from the ever-climbing increases. In fact, last year they were hit with a 16-per-cent increase while most fare types only increased 1.9 per cent. Transit users are reaching deeper and deeper into their wallets and it’s finally time to say enough is enough. 

OC Transpo and city council have a serious problem. Riders are disillusioned with the service, lacking faith in a system that is supposed to be the backbone of Ottawa. OC Transpo is losing sight of what it’s supposed to be. 

Charging one of the highest bus fares in the country, compounded by frequent cancellations and full buses that drive by waiting passengers, does not endear the service to its users. In a 2013 survey conducted by OC Transpo, users said reliable and on-time buses were their most pressing concerns, and yet customers ranked the quality of these only 6.7 out of 10. And that’s a problem. 

There are data to back up these poor scores. According to OC Transpo, in the first half of 2014 about one in seven commuter buses were late, with some such as the 66, 68 and 261 late as much as 23 to 31 per cent of the time on a regular basis. For someone who catches packed-to-the-gills student buses such as the 4 Hurdman or 7 Carleton, it’s not unusual to be regularly waiting up to 10 minutes for a late bus in the bitter Ottawa cold; this record-setting winter making it even worse. 

To give some perspective on the cost front, a regular adult monthly pass – the most popular fare type – comes in at about $100. In 2009, the same pass cost $81, and even adjusted for inflation would only be $89.10. If you were to use Montreal’s transit system, a monthly pass that includes not only buses but also the extensive metro system is only $82 . . . and that’s in 2015. 

OC Transpo’s costs are not only shockingly high in Canada, but internationally. Toronto website BlogTO surveyed 29 cities throughout North America in 2014 – including Canadian cities Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton – and Ottawa beat them all for highest cash fares. Edmonton came close, but was still off by 20 cents. Well, at least we’re the best at something. 

As Ottawa slowly lumbers toward becoming one of the priciest cities for public transit in North America, it’s no surprise that ridership is the lowest it’s been since 2009. Only 97.8 million fares were logged in 2013 as compared to 103.5 million in 2011. 

Although gasoline prices are starting to climb again, they have remained remarkably low for months, prompting the lucky transit riders who own cars to take advantage of cheap gas. While it’s good for them, it exacerbates OC Transpo’s many problems, leading to fewer riders – meaning more of a push for increased fares to make up for it – and greater congestion and delays on the city’s busy streets. 

With all these problems, OC Transpo has made a business choice frustrating to me and my fellow commuters: constantly increasing fares in a climate of reduced ridership and eroding service due to LRT construction and the impending closure of the Transitway. If they think that’s the ticket to winning back our dwindling faith, they are sorely mistaken.

It seems that every year city council’s transit commission recommends a new proposal for fare hikes. While I can understand the need for a modest increase over time, the constant cash grab is an ominous sign. The very nature of public transportation is to offer a way to get around for people who can’t otherwise, whether it’s due to bad traffic or unaffordable alternatives.
City council is losing sight of what OC Transpo should really be about: an affordable, well-run system. Sadly, we’re not there quite yet.