Despite Ottawa’s LRT woes, experts say don’t judge right away

OTTAWA — The sleek red-and-white train sat beside a platform at the western end of Ottawa’s new light rail line on Friday morning, shadowed from the autumn sun as riders walked aboard.

And then the train on the $2.1-billion line did something it hadn’t done in a morning rush hour in days: It ran smoothly.

The commuter chaos — thousands of riders stranded on platforms, emergency buses deployed, people giving up and walking downtown instead of waiting for the city’s transit agency to take them there — dominated newscasts and talk radio, but experts say commuters should not to throw the train under the bus.

It’s quite common for there to be a long learning curve for the people running a new transit line, said Shoshanna Saxe, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. Think of it like renovating your home: Even after you do the work, which may include having to repair that unforeseen crack in the wall, you still might have to do some more work.

The issue, Saxe said, is we tend to want to judge new infrastructure immediately, even though major projects have been built for the long-term — years if not decades.

“If we build infrastructure to be at its peak performance six months after it opens, we would have really under-designed and would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on something that would immediately be too small,” said Saxe, an expert on transit infrastructure.

“We’re building for the long-term if we’re doing it well, so we need to give the infrastructure a bit of time. Obviously, ideally, everyone wants it to work well right off the bat.”

Likewise, there is a learning curve for the users, said Lawrence Frank , the Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation at the University of British Columbia.

“A brand new, $2-billion system is going to have, (in) the first couple of days of operations, a few things happen. The only way that’s avoided is if it was pre-tested with a lot of passengers,” he said in a telephone interview while riding a train in Denmark.

Things went smoothly Monday when Ottawa transit officials cut the parallel bus service that had been running since the LRT opened last month, trying to give commuters a chance to adjust.

On Tuesday, a rider pried open closing doors at one station and caused disastrous backups. A repeat performance at two stations on Wednesday led to a similar slowdown.

On Thursday, it was an on-board computer that went on the fritz and haywired train traffic, adding to complaints about the marquee project that was delivered more than a year late.

There was hand-wringing at city hall: Mayor Jim Watson demanded municipal staff figure out this door issue, and the head of the Ottawa transit agency, John Manconi, tried to avoid directly blaming riders at a press conference where he pledged to solve the problems. Forced-open doors can get misaligned and refuse to close properly, and a train can’t run with a door that isn’t locked tight.

Frank, the UBC professor, said someone holding open a door is likely to lead to problems with a train that cascade through the system and cautioned against using first-week problems to immediately label a new system a failure.

Instead, he said, watch a new transit system over decades to see how it aligns with a regional growth strategy to spur development around stations and avoid sprawl.

Frank said other things to consider are how a system makes a population more transit-oriented, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially making people more active, reducing health-care costs, he said.

But many of those long-term issues get tossed aside when it comes time to plan new transit routes when politicians go searching for votes, said Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute: “Rather than it being evidence-based transit making, it’s politics-based evidence-making.”

So what should transit planning look like?

Burda offered a few suggestions: having dedicated transit-ways for buses, opt for light rail rather than digging extensive subways, and consider how governments plan to spend taxpayer dollars, particularly in the context of a federal election where parties promise billions for cities to reduce commute times.

“Perhaps one way forward is looking at more short-term, intermediate and long-term (projects) because if all the funding goes towards long-term lines, we are going to be adding population to our cities and entrenching car dependency, which is really hard to turn around,” she said.

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