Letters & Opinion

Rideau Street deserves proper bus lanes


Nick Grover


Imagine being able to grab a bus, without delay, and then sailing past traffic down Rideau Street to your destination. No stress, no checking schedules, and no frantic messages to your friends or colleagues explaining you’ll be late.

Unfortunately, this is a rare experience on Rideau Street. Like Ottawa’s other major roads, it is designed for cars, and this makes bus travel difficult. This is especially frustrating given three of OC Transpo’s ten busiest routes use this street throughout the day. As a transit rider myself, I can attest that they are not enjoyable journeys to take.

The 7, the 14, and the 15 are late on average 20% of the time, with the 7 alone being behind schedule 27% of the time. This is what happens when we make buses fight against traffic to get where they’re going. Different modes of transport have different needs and when cars dominate it makes little sense to make us share a road with them. We don’t make people walk in the streets: we provide sidewalks. So why not bus lanes?

Data from cities around the world show dedicated bus lanes are a simple and effective measure. They speed up transit routes by ten to 25 percent on average, boost ridership by up to 17 percent, and improve safety for all road users. By making transit a more attractive option, they also encourage less driving and, by extension, help quell pollution. At a time when carbon emissions and the cost of living are both dangerously high, surely a viable alternative to private vehicles is well overdue.

As it happens, Rideau Street technically has “peak hour” bus lanes already, weekdays from 7:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m-5:30 p.m. Alas, they are abysmally designed. One of the design features of a bus lane, to ensure compliance and deter violations, is painting the lane solid red and clearly printing “BUS LANE” on the road so people understand it is not for cars. However, on Rideau Street the city has opted only for overhead signage and barely visible white diamonds on the road. It is little surprise, then, that these lanes are occupied by parked cars even during the rush hours when they are meant to be exclusively for buses. Without obvious indicators, drivers won’t know or won’t care that the lane is for transit.

We ought to scrap the peak hour nonsense, which fails to account for the high midday and weekend congestion that gums up bus routes anyway. Make Rideau’s two outer lanes for buses only so they can be painted properly and serve bus riders all day long. Then, put a few cameras overhead for enforcement.

The biggest objection to this tends to be from shop owners, who would lose street parking, assuming this would impact their business. However, studies show only about 4 to 10 percent of patrons actually drive to small businesses; they mostly walk or take the bus. Surely better bus service that drops dozens of people outside your store each hour is better than parking space for a few cars’ worth of people.

Drivers also tend to object vociferously to losing a lane, claiming it makes traffic worse. This turns out not to be true either. When a street is effectively narrowed for drivers by converting a car lane to enable a more efficient form of transport, overall traffic and congestion are reduced significantly. That’s good for drivers, the planet, and everyone in between.

Our roads change as our needs change. Lest we forget, Rideau Street had a streetcar running down it once upon a time, until the late 1950s when the tracks were torn up for cars. Well, our needs have changed again. Car dependency isn’t working. It’s costing us in road fatalities, air pollution, climate impacts, gruelling commutes, swaths of subsidized parking, and eternal road repairs and widening projects. It’s not even good for drivers: between car payments, gas, insurance, and maintenance it costs about $10,000 a year to own a car, one of the top household expenses. Providing good quality public transit is one of the best things the City of Ottawa could do to make life more affordable.

It’s time to take one of Ottawa’s most innovative concepts — the Transitway, which shuttles outlying commuters quickly downtown — and apply it to the core, where buses often struggle to compete with car traffic. When people see their bus never showing-up, they have little choice but to hop in a car and join traffic, perpetuating the cycle.

Enter our next road chapter: Remake the road; free the bus!