Is Ottawa’s Light Rail Obsolete?

The first stages of Vancouver’s mass-transit system were completed in 1985, Montreal’s 1966, Calgary’s 1982, Toronto’s 1954 and Edmonton’s 1978.

Ottawa’s first stage of light rail, a very short line and tunnel, is expected to be completed in late 2018 at a cost of more than $2.1 billion. Phase 2, which will not get to Kanata or Barrhaven, is planned to be completed in 2023. Combined the two phases of Ottawa light rail will probably cost about $6 billion upon completion.


Toronto’s rail mass-transit system 64 years before the Confederation Line in Ottawa is to be completed.


So to put this in perspective, rail mass transit is a very old technology and Ottawa is just starting to adopt it.

Something new is on the way.

Out in Kanata, which won’t get light rail in the foreseeable future, QNX, a subsidiary of Blackberry, is developing the self-driving car. We know this, among other publicity, because Mayor Jim Watson had a photo-op there.

Watson is pushing our very expensive and luxurious light-rail system. Yet even Watson, after his self-driving car PR extravaganza, must know the self-driving car is coming very quickly. Given how fast Blackberry’s smartphone was adopted by the public and other giant tech companies, the self-driving car is coming very fast.

Are you prepared to bet against Google, Uber, Blackberry and the 18 companies developing the self-driving car? Good luck. They have a long and illustrious record of success.

Would you put money on OC Transpo, the LRT office and the City of Ottawa’s planning department being smarter than the companies developing the self-driving car?

Already amazing technology appears in your garden-variety car. My year-old plain-Jane Corolla has GPS lane-departure alert and steering assist, collision avoidance, pedestrian warning, ecology-mode operation, an amazing Bluetooth entertainment and communication system and much more … as standard equipment. Me, as the driver, is starting to feel a tad superfluous.

So the age of the self-driving car is almost upon us. Watson already has that technology. It’s called a chauffeur.

The age of 5G is almost upon us making controlling city traffic a snap and non-commuting work environments much more efficient. Imagine how easy it would have been to have controlled surface light rail and surrounding traffic with current 4G technology. And then putting the dangerous Laurier Avenue bike lanes on the safe sides of LRT on a downtown street. Cyclists would no longer be bowling pins waiting to be struck in front of Ottawa City Hall.

Meanwhile, OC Transpo ridership is flat and transit honcho John Manconi is counting on an uplift in users due to the gold-encrusted, short, light-rail first phase. Unheated stations and an extra transfer plus home-working environments and an aging, non-commuting public mean he might be wrong. The advent of self-driving cars? Look out.

However, Manconi and Watson, more than most, will find a way to make the rail line sound successful even if it is not.

Ottawa’s light-rail project is the largest municipal undertaking in modern history. By being usurped by on-rushing technology, it might also be the biggest white elephant in city history.


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3 thoughts on “Is Ottawa’s Light Rail Obsolete?

  1. This is a tough one Ken and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you.

    I think this might be more a case of history correcting itself. Ottawa used to have a wonderful streetcar system which, for some reason, the city decided to rip out long ago. I’m not saying that we could, or should, have built around that system but if you’re comparing wrinkled apples … Having lived in Vancouver for a minute or two, I know the Skytrain system there is amazing and used by a few people here and there. The costs to add lines to that system are pretty much on par with the costs to built our LRT (a 12km buried line to UBC was pegged at $2.9B in 2012 while our LRT is $3.1B for 12.5km).

    While I do appreciate the advent of self-driving cars and such, I’m going to assume the argument you’re making is a technological one and I don’t think it really applies here. Yes, we have some pretty amazing tech coming in the very near future but how much of that is really going to revolve around moving people from A to B en masse. We need to be finding better ways to move cattle, not shuttle two or three at a time. I see the taxi industry being turned on its head, not mass transit.

    There are a lot of things I disagree with on LRT, and I still say Carling Avenue would have been better, but I do not think it will be the colossal failure everyone expects. It won’t be the best thing since sliced bread either. Most likely something in the mushy middle.


    1. Nicholas:

      Very good comment. Thank you.

      The problem in my mind (and hard to believe but I’ve been a huge advocate of light rail, just not this light rail) is that Ottawa is so late.

      Were this 1982 when Calgary got its first line, no doubt LRT would be valuable. Were this New York where hundreds of thousands of people must be moved by transit, no doubt LRT would be valuable.

      But we have some of the best companies in the world (including one in Kanata) that are on the cusp of revolutionizing transportation.

      I’m throwing out this idea for debate because I fear we are spending billions for something that will not appeal to the public like the self-driving car (it provides privacy rather than the dollop of people on a bus … people like that). The infrastructure for the self-driving car is already in place … at least the roads, GPS and lights are.

      The question is can the self-driving car use the road system better than the car human models?




  2. Nicholas is correct. The problem with automobiles, no matter how sexy their features, is that most of them only carry 4 to 6 people. Mass transit will always be a necessity (back to the debate as to whether or not Ottawa is a big league city). No matter what automobiles become, they’re meant to move, not sit still on congested roadways.

    The biggest frustration to me in this whole LRT debacle has been the on again off again discussions of where it should run, when various portions should be built, and the increasing costs associated with the delay in making decisions. Why can’t intelligent decisions be made and adhered to? Maybe we should let the smart cars and smart phones sit around a boardroom table and figure this out since . . . . .


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