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When trust in transit breaks down

Can transit in Ottawa ever have had such a turbulent year as 2008?

Can transit in Ottawa ever have had such a turbulent year as 2008? Protracted debate about the direction of city’s Transportation Master Plan dominated the agenda for most of the last year. Even transit policy fanatics must have tired of the endless discussions about how to get the project moving.

When agreement was reached in late November, we all breathed a sigh of relief. The final vote, 22-2 in favour at city council, represented an end to years of false starts and indecision. The $4.7-billion plan — starting with a downtown tunnel and light rail from Blair Station to Tunney’s Pasture — generated excitement about the future of Ottawa’s transit system.

How quickly things unravel. Thanks to the ongoing strike, the feel-good factor has well and truly vanished. When politicians plan to spend vast amounts on an in­f­r­astructure project, public support is crucial. Coming out of the holiday seas­on, there’s not much public goodwill towards the very idea of transit right now.

This strike has been particularly nasty. The union and the city have exchanged harsh rhetoric, and with a forced vote looming to try to settle the dispute, it’s difficult to envisage them co-operating fruitfully anytime soon. But the breakdown in trust between the transit authorities — both the city and the union — and the public will be most problematic in the long term.

There’s understandable annoyance towards the city, which is perceived as showing a distinct lack of urgency in finding a solution. However, Internet forums and the guerrilla Centretown poster campaigns show the bus drivers are taking the brunt of public anger. I certainly wouldn’t relish being a driver working those first few post-strike shifts. I’ve never underestimated how seriously this strike affects Ottawa’s citizens, but the level of vitriol is often excessive. No less than 98 per cent of union members voted for this strike. That’s not, as has been suggested, the vote of a small minority of troublemakers. These drivers are not at home playing video games and watching Star Trek. They’ve spent weeks protesting outside in sub-zero temperatures.

The longer this dispute lasts, the more jeopardy Ottawa’s future transit plans are in. When the buses start running again, there’s no guarantee riders will return in the same numbers. I’ve met people whose eyes have opened to the possibility of walking journeys they previously only thought possible by bus. Others are carpooling — a comfortable, social and environmentally-friendly alternative. Citizens need to trust public transit in order to support major investment in it as the solution to Ottawa’s traffic problems. The city could spend billions on a transit system. It will be a waste of money if, thanks to a tarnished image, people are reluctant to use it.

 
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