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Ottawa, Canada-does it look like Charlotte?
Do Bus Riders in Canada = Bus Riders in Charlotte?

Report from Ottawa--By Robert Bischoff

I have recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Ottawa, Ontario, where I spent several days riding their busway system, gathering information, and meeting with local people familiar with their transit system. For those that may not be aware of the situation, the Ottawa busways are the system we plan to copy here in Charlotte with our four proposed busway corridors.

There are indeed a lot of buses on the streets of Ottawa, and they are well filled with riders. In fact, long lines of buses clog the street curbs of downtown Ottawa during rush hour, extending as far as the eye can see.

Before jumping to the conclusion that this system is a huge success, however, let me hasten to say I have observed similar large numbers of people riding the modern rail systems of such Canadian cities as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Whether it is gas prices, bad winter weather, parking availability, or just a difference in lifestyle, more people seem to use public transportation in Canada. It would be a mistake to regard Ottawa as unique. The question however is this: Will lots of bus riders in Ottawa automatically translate into lots of bus riders in Charlotte? Except for the fact the two cities are of somewhat similar size, they are very different. Ottawa is the seat of the federal government of Canada. It has tens of thousands of government workers. The availability of parking has been limited and public transportation encouraged.

In addition to the fact there is more transit ridership in Canada, there are other things to consider. Do we have an example of a successful busway network in the U.S.? I believe the answer is NO. In fact, there is really only one pure busway system in the U.S.—the Pittsburgh busways. The few other busways around the U.S., such as those in Houston an d Los Angeles run in express or HOV lanes on freeways, non-stop. They are not much different than our Independence Boulevard bus lane, and are therefore not busways in the truest sense of the word.

Therefore, we really have only Pittsburgh to look at as a model for what we plan to do here in Charlotte. People in Pittsburgh were told when the busways were built that they were only temporary, and would be replaced in 15 or 20 years with light rail. Does this sound familiar? However, instead of replacing the busways, they are now planning to extend the East Pittsburgh busway, and there is talk of building more busways. The chances are the transit riders of Pittsburgh will never live to see the day their busways are replaced with light rail. Do you think our chances are any better here in Charlotte—or even as good?

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder! Our Charlotte transit people saw all those people riding buses in Ottawa and visualize them doing the same thing in Charlotte. I saw something very different. I saw two or three buses running bumper to bumper headed for the same destination. I thought to myself, how much cheaper would it have been to run one light rail train with one operator instead of two or three buses using two or three drivers?

Ottawa spent nearly half a billion dollars building this elaborate busway system. If Ottawa saved any money building the busways rather than light rail, it is all behind them now! Now comes the payback. Operating and maintaining an expensive, labor intensive busway network for generations to come.

There is no turning back for Ottawa now, and little likelihood anything will ever change. The taxpayers of Ottawa will be paying for this "money saving" transit system for the next 50 to 100 years. They did make one change in the transit system, however. They fired the head of the transit agency under whose leadership the busway system was built. There might be a valuable lesson for us here in Charlotte from what has happened in Ottawa, if we care to listen and can learn from example.

How about development? That is always a large consideration when spending money on these expensive transit systems. Has the busways in Ottawa caused a construction boom like our small vintage, still incomplete trolley line has done in South End? Have acres of high rise apartments and condo, office buildings and retail centers sprung up similar to what happened in Toronto after they built the subway system? The answer again seems to be NO! There is little evidence of any major building boom near the busway corridors. I did see several high rise apartment buildings near the large Hurdman bus transfer station, however I was told these buildings were completed before the busway was even built.

In conclusion, may I say there is little evidence to support the idea that because a large number of riders are using a busway in Ottawa they will do the same in Charlotte. Even if we accept this as being true, are busways really a success? What is successful about a system that is going to cost far more to operate and maintain throughout its life span?

Charlotte city officials and the public need to wake up and take a closer look at where we are headed before we end up like Ottawa—too far down the road to turn back.