City Failures Put Transit In Death Throes: BENN

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Is OC Transpo in its death throes?

It is demonstrating most symptoms of a business that cannot survive. Declining market share. Revenues well below operating costs. A management team that is chasing quick cure after quick cure. Cut service levels. Issue public pleas for more funding from the parent. All while wearing blindfolds.

Having said that, public transit is a municipal must have. Not just from the perspective of good public policy. It is a regulatory responsibility. The city cannot just let it die.

So, what should Ottawa do?

Normally, the starting point is laying out the critical elements of what a viable public transit system must accomplish. But Ottawa is not normal. The starting point for Ottawa is to stop lying to itself. That’s right – lying. Actively, willfully, misleading itself. Not just within OC Transpo. Lying to the executive level of Ottawa City Hall. Lying to council. That they are also lying to the public is a given but not relevant to a recovery plan. This isn’t an extension of the dysfunction that led to the underwhelming Confederation Line. No, it is a manifestation of the failed culture that is city hall. It is endemic.


Next, recognize that a viable public transit system is not just an important element of the infrastructure of a city of a million residents. It is a critical element for the success of the much-vaunted, at least in the cliques that like to discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, Official Plan. It is a critical element of the province’s push down planning policies. To be absolutely clear. If the public does not embrace public transit in sufficient numbers, then any and all plans involving or ancillary to intensification will fail. Fail.

What are the critical success factors for public transit? Start with attracting riders. Attracting as in understanding that OC Transpo is competing for customers who have, to varying degrees, a multitude of alternative modes of getting around the city. That’s right. Competing. Not merely offering an alternative. Competing. A business term in the context of a sclerotic government function. No wonder OC Transpo’s management team is confused.

Commission a comprehensive market study. By an independent expert. An organization that has a demonstrated history of preparing studies that are accurate. Accurate, as in the results of the changes made to operations match the findings of the study. Why independent? See above commentary about city hall’s culture.

A key element of a market study is developing an in-depth understanding of why potential customers shun OC Transpo’s service. It involves understanding the critical decision criteria of a geographically disperse, economically diverse customer base. It involves understanding the inter dependencies of the reasons why someone would opt, or not opt to use OC Transpo on a frequent basis. It involves going deeper. Much, much deeper than OC Transpo’s shallow media responses regarding the decision by the federal government to introduce hybrid work environments. Because let’s face it, ridership before the pandemic was anemic.

The market study needs to be modular and flexible. Targeting identifiable demographics. Tailoring the questions to those demographics. Listening to the actual responses. Drill-down questions based on the initial responses. Note that this concept is diametrically opposed to standard city hall consultations. No meaningless questions. No leading questions. No limited multiple choice (but never negative) response alternatives. Actually wanting to understand how the customer base thinks. How the customer makes decisions. Differentiating between nice to have and fundamental needs.

How important is this? Before the pandemic, at least 80 per cent of the more than 2,000 people who reported to work for the city in Centrepointe did not take public transit to and from work. The employees of the owner of OC Transpo chose to drive to work, rather than walk the 200 to 300 metres from Baseline Station to the front door of the office building. Why? Not ‘why’ in an angry pejorative tone? ‘Why’ in an inquisitive tone?

With their office doors less than half the distance that both the city and the province define as a reasonable walking distance from a major transit hub, 80 per cent of the demographic that is expected to use public transit doesn’t. Thus, back to the inquisitive ‘why’.

Next step. Design a solution that takes into account the needs of the customer base. At a detailed level. It is not enough to provide a service that meets 60 per cent of the needs. The service needs to meet well more than 90 per cent of the needs. To ensure that the customers are actually willing to board a bus or the LRT on a recurring frequent basis.

Did you notice that I haven’t touched on any of the constraints? Bus fares. The availability and cost of labour, fuel, maintenance, what portion of the fleet uses diesel or batteries, the climate. None of those matter until you have a robust first draft of a successful operating plan.

Did you notice that I didn’t present a checklist of reasons why people don’t take public transit in Ottawa? It would be presumptuous of me to assume I know why people don’t use public transit in Ottawa. The same applies to the management of OC Transpo and members of the transit committee.

Note that when you hear from OC Transpo or the transit commission, they seldom talk about what they need to do to compete for customers. Note that most of the public rhetoric is not much more than whining about what everyone else needs to do. The federal government must send its employees back to the office. The provincial and federal governments must give OC Transpo a debit card to access someone else’s bank account. They babble on about everything except what they have failed to do.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the first step isn’t to stop lying. Maybe the first step is replacing the senior management at OC Transpo, and on the transit commission. Because we are where we are because of their failures. Their inability to handle a crisis is what has led OC Transpo to its current situation.

Death throes.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association for the better part of three decades.

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3 Responses

  1. John says:

    You know the City reads your columns. The question is: Do they have the intelligence and foresight to implement.

  2. Kosmo says:

    Hey John, easy questions to answer, no and no. No one at the city is smart enough to understand Mr. Benn’s columns so that would make it hard to implement.

  3. C from Kanata says:

    Good post. I was stranded outside a station when the LRT broken downtown once. Around 4 pm. One woman shouted out “anyone from Barrhaven want to share an Uber” – 3 joined at once. All 4 of them had kids in daycare and would face fines if they did not pick-up by 5pm. All 4 of them swore they would be driving from now on. This is just one small sample size, but OC Transpo forever lost those customers – no matter what the incentives, they are never coming back. When the Line 2 to Carleton U finally comes back on line, the city will crow about 10’s of thousands of “new riders”, but these students already pay for a pass through their student union, so there will be no increase in revenue. And they won’t see a major increase until 2025 as parents have already had to make the choice to pay for cars or residences for their kids, rather than risk at2 hour commute, each way, to and from University.

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