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Barrhaven transit customers struggle with unreliable service, stuffed buses

Bus pain in Barrhaven is more than a feeling.

Data monitored by the planners at OC Transpo tell the transit agency that the bus service for the suburb hasn’t been up to snuff, just like customers have observed, and the top-level managers aren’t hiding from it.

“Barrhaven is a busy place,” said Pat Scrimgeour, director of transit customer systems and planning. “We carry thousands of people to Barrhaven every afternoon. People rightly have high expectations of us and right now we’re not always meeting them.”

Transpo can only tell customers, and not just those who live in Barrhaven, the same thing they’ve been telling them for several years: things will get better when the Confederation Line LRT opens and the downtown bus detours go away.

Downtown continues to be the pinch point for the entire bus network and it appears, even by Transpo’s own observations, that Barrhaven, Kanata and Stittsville customers are coping with the heaviest transit grief.

The kicker is, Transpo doesn’t know when it will end. The transit agency is waiting like everyone else for the city’s contractor to finish the $2.1-billion LRT system after two handover deadlines — one last May and another one earlier this month — were missed. The best information the city has suggests LRT will launch by the end of March.

Councillors who represent pieces of Barrhaven have organized transit-specific public forums this year so customers could unload their grievances. At one point, Barrhaven ward Coun. Jan Harder told constituents on her Facebook page that “the news is not good” when it comes to any potential for improved bus service, based on her discussions with Transpo.

Last week, Harder scored a minor victory for her constituents when Transpo agreed to add morning service on Route 277 and extend more Route 95 buses to Cambrian Road in the afternoon. She’s also eyeing better service for customers in her ward who live south of the Jock River and those who take Route 278.

Harder, who started sensing more transit irritation around last Christmas, said the sheer growth of the suburb has outpaced transit resources.

“OC Transpo did what they could, but what they’re doing now is, I think, finally going to provide some relief,” Harder said.

“It doesn’t change anything, though, as far what everybody is facing, what the system is facing: the crunch in the downtown. Staff are doing their best to play around with the light sequence, to look at project start times, to look at different ways they cannot influence the traffic with the work that’s being done.”

Harder said she’s trying to get Barrhaven residents to work and back without their spending three hours on a bus each day.

There are two main frustrations for Barrhaven customers: buses aren’t coming on time, and when they do come they’re full.

Pat Haggart has been a Transpo customer for about 15 years and a Barrhaven resident for four years. A downtown worker, he’s been a Route 270 passenger since last March. The bus is reliable in the morning, but no so much in the afternoon going back to Barrhaven, he said.

One particular bus scheduled to arrive just after 4 p.m. each day is particularly untrustworthy.

“I walk to Metcalfe bus station to try to catch it. It just doesn’t seem to come reliably or at all sometimes,” Haggart said.

Haggart has a unique perspective on transit issues. He was on the receiving end of transit-related complaints as a former political staffer at city hall. He lauds Transpo staff tasked with handling customers’ questions and complaints.

“I get it. OC Transpo is a huge machine. It has so many moving parts and if one trip is delayed or cancelled, on the grand scheme of the evening commute home, it’s barely a blip on their radar. I know it’s not happening intentionally or maliciously,” Haggart said.

“But when it happens, seemingly, at least twice every week, it just makes me wonder if there’s a bigger pattern.”

Haggart said he knows the LRT delay isn’t Transpo’s fault, but he’s curious if the transit agency should be beefing up bus resources if it doesn’t know when the LRT system will start running.

“I still wonder if there’s something that needs to be done,” Haggart said, “or am I just overreacting?”

He’s not.

Scrimgeour said Barrhaven customers who, in particular, are catching buses later in the morning are seeing buses missing their arrival times. Sometimes the buses are so late customers think the trips have been cancelled. The same problem is happening in the afternoon with buses leaving downtown, heading for the southern and western suburbs.

“They’re still coming on time most of the time, or almost all of the time, but not on time more than people are used to, more than we’re used to, or more than people are accepting of,” Scrimgeour said.

Consequently, buses are getting stuffed with passengers. One of the worst-case scenarios for Transpo is seeing customers left behind because they can’t get on a packed bus.

Consider the Barrhaven-bound customers waiting at LeBreton, Bayview and Tunney’s Pasture stations to catch a westbound bus home after the work day. Those buses have already filled with people in the downtown business district. People might start getting off at Lincoln Fields and Baseline stations for connecting routes, but that doesn’t help the people left behind on LeBreton Flats and in Mechanicsville.

“From our side, we’re seeing this happen, that buses are running late and not able to get every bus out at the start point on time, and we’re seeing that it’s happening almost entirely because of heavy traffic congestion on the detour routes,” Scrimgeour said.

“These buses have been on detour now, in some cases three years, in some cases five years. People have been tolerant, patient, understanding of the unreliability the detours bring, but it seems to have got to the busiest point this fall. When we hit September, these detour-related delays were bigger than what we ever experienced before.”

The bus detour is necessary because the Transitway has been converted to LRT. Buses west of downtown have been diverted to Scott Street and often mix with regular traffic, even though they have their own bus-only lanes. When LRT opens, buses coming from Barrhaven will let people off at Tunney’s Pasture and customers can take a train downtown.

As long as buses are travelling on the same roads as other vehicles, Transpo’s bus schedule is at the mercy of the traffic flow. Transpo can’t predict daily traffic snarls caused by broken-down cars, illegally parked delivery trucks in bus lanes or minor construction.

“You just have to be ready to pounce, ready to react,” Scrimgeour said. “Our people in the control centre are watching this all the time and reacting, but there’s a limited amount of bench strength. Maybe you’ve got two or three or four buses standing by ready to fix a problem, but even if you’ve got five things, what do you do when the sixth problem happens? Then, you don’t want to keep too many buses off as backup buses because you want them to be out there doing mainstream service, too.”

September usually brings extra strain on the roads and transit system because people want to travel at specific times, whereas in March and April there tends to be a “compromise” made by people to adjust their travel times, Scrimgeour said.

“In September, it always gets very, very busy for the first two weeks and then people readjust. This time, it seems to have lasted for about six weeks, not two weeks,” he said.

“Things we don’t know are, are the roads busier this year than they were last year? We’re going to be looking at that but we don’t know yet. Is the detour worse this year than last year? The main detours aren’t, but maybe some of the side construction that was pushed off from 2017 to 2018 is having some issues. We’re very, very sensitive downtown.”

Damage to some buses caused by a tornado didn’t help for a week, either. It was just one more thing that hurt Transpo’s efforts.

Scrimgeour said the reliability is stabilizing and getting better. When it comes to Barrhaven, Transpo has added some capacity, switched to larger buses for some trips and added a trip to a busy route, he said.

Customers don’t want to wait for LRT before things get better on their transit commutes.

Amanda St. Dennis, a student at Carleton University, lives in Barrhaven near the end of Route 95 and takes transit daily. St. Dennis said she has disabilities related to muscle fatigue and visual processing and can’t drive. Transpo is her main mode of long-distance travel.

St. Dennis said she has to strategize how to get home from the university so she can get on a Barrhaven-bound bus. Taking a Trillium Line train from the university to Bayview Station and transferring to a Route 95 bus is risky, especially later in the afternoon when workers have already packed buses downtown.

“On my way home, I purposely take a Route 10 from Carleton to downtown so I can get on a Route 95 downtown where I’m a little more guaranteed to get either a seat, which is ideal, or at least able to get on,” St. Dennis said.

Keenan Smith-Soro, a second-year Algonquin College student, takes Route 94 between Barrhaven and the school. Buses have become overcrowded and their schedules aren’t reliable, he said.

“It’s either they’re five minutes late or five minutes early, and sometimes even 20 minutes late, or they just won’t show up,” Smith-Soro said. “I understand the OC Transpo bus schedule is more of an estimate than anything, but at the same time it’s really inconvenient for the large majority of people who rely on the bus to get where they need to get on time.”

If bus reliability is so volatile when buses travel in mixed traffic, why have a bus schedule at all?

Scrimgeour said a schedule keeps Transpo disciplined, and besides, the agency still has to manage a schedule behind the scenes for workers to begin their shifts and buses to begin their routes.

Another frustration for Barrhaven residents: the suburb isn’t on the O-Train map. It isn’t scheduled to get rail service until after 2031.

In comparison, Orléans will get an LRT connection by 2022 and Riverside South will get a Trillium Line connection by 2021. The city has completed a study for Kanata LRT so it’s ready for when upper-government funding becomes available. It was only this past summer that council voted to study LRT for Barrhaven.

Meanwhile, the southern suburb continues attract new families and more transit customers. Just one small example: Minto is asking for council’s permission this month to build the second phase of its Minto Harmony subdivision on Strandherd Drive. It would add 152 more homes to Barrhaven.

Nearly 10,000 more people lived in Barrhaven in 2017 compared with the number who lived their in 2013, according to the city’s annual development report.

Harder, who has chaired council’s planning committee this term, said she’ll be advocating for changes to how revenue collected from development charges is spent. Virtually all that transit-related development charge revenue from suburban growth areas has been poured into LRT, but the next development charge bylaw in 2019 should earmark a portion of the revenue for community transit improvements where the developments happen, she said.

“I think where we err in general as a city is using the same policy for everywhere to maybe make it easier from an operations perspective, but it doesn’t serve the community well,” Harder said.

Just like all transit riders in Ottawa, city councillors and Transpo staff are looking forward to the LRT system opening to reduce the headaches for a beleaguered bus service struggling with downtown construction and detours.

“We appreciate everyone’s tolerance, patience and understanding,” Scrimgeour said. “We share their wish that the O-Train will open safely and soon,”