Convivium’s Rebecca Atkinson finds her old hometown growing up from underground as a brand new light rail commuter train lets Ottawans connect from the far flung ‘burbs almost as if they lived in a real city like Montreal.
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If there’s one thing I know about Ottawans, it’s that we like to complain about our transit system. And rightfully so. Waiting for a bus that never shows up, having buses pass by due to over capacity, cancelling routes so often that the OC Transpo Twitter feed can’t keep up.
A 30-minute commute on the travel planning website may in actuality take over an hour. More often than not, patrons see unpredictable delays and cancellations. A daily commuter myself, I’ve experienced any number of scenarios one might imagine, not limited to the breaking down of a bus on dry pavement and seeing four of the same numbered bus pass by, while waiting half an hour for my apparently-every-five-minutes bus.
The city itself is geographically quite large, however, and the fact that buses reach as far north, south, east and west as the boundaries go, is impressive. The OC Transpo can and will take you anywhere in the city, if you have enough patience and spare time to get there.
Growing up Ottawa’s east most suburb, I never ventured beyond the likes of our congested residential neighbourhood. While the bus connections were present, it would take a minimum of 20 minutes to get as far as the nearest main bus hub, which, if you were lucky, might have a main bus route every 15 minutes to bring you to the downtown core in 30 minutes’ time.
Heading downtown was reserved for an entire day trip to the museum or art gallery or Canada Day festivities, spending well over an hour in transit each way, mapping out connections and (most likely) missing buses along the way. Don’t even get me started on the trip home. Disconnected as we felt from the rest of the city, I never felt I “grew up in Ottawa,” but rather, in a small suburb that no one ever leaves, except to go to work for the good old federal government. Visits to Toronto, Montreal, Québec City – these were my young memories of Big City Life. Surely not Ottawa.
But this week has brought about a change to the city scene, a mark of Ottawa’s transition to being a Big City and the suburbs connecting for the first real time since its amalgamation 20-odd years ago. Ottawa launched its Light Rail Transit (LRT), the long-awaited, 463-days-late, baby train system this week. The train stretches across the downtown core, ending just west and east of the main hub of Ottawa’s government and Parliamentary buildings.
This first phase forces commuters off their buses, onto trains, for increased transfers but apparently shorter or same-length commute times. In the first few weeks of fully serviced trains, the buses will continue to run their routes until commuters are eventually left with no option but to hop off their buses and onto the trains at the beginning of October.
Before I venture any further, some clarification. Doesn’t Ottawa already have a train? Ahem, well, yes. We have the VIA Rail, as well as an existing north-to-south rail train, which you’ll never need to stand on while riding, due to the fact it’s mostly only ever occupied by occasional university students. The new project reaches far beyond the likes of the existing Trillium Line train, breaching (under)grounds that the city has never known and hoping to connect the wards in ways unprecedented.
After the Saturday launch happened without hiccup, I jumped into my new commute Monday morning, with a transfer to the train at its westward station. And the experience was, well, cute.
No one knew where to go. And many pretended to, for fear of looking foolish, but kidded absolutely no one at all. Some walked around, mouths agape as they took in the sights of a project we’ve been talking about for years. Others tried to stall trains to allow them to get on; shoving their feet in the doorways to stop them from closing (please don’t do this). “Train ambassadors” spouted friendly directions to the likes of us who wandered aimlessly through the shiny new stations in search of the correct platform and train.
The fancy-shmancy new LRT feels like a baby TTC or Metro, smaller, cozier and cleaner than the respective Toronto and Montreal subway systems. But there was an excitable feeling in the air akin to a first-day-of-school. Whether commuters were confused about which door to get off, or hiding excitement at the whoosh of the tracks, or whipping out smartphones to FaceTime relatives, all united in a common experience that Ottawa has never seen through a connection the city has never known.
Riding the train in from my now-westerly suburb, my commute time didn’t change much, and it really won’t help anyone access new parts of the city that were previously inaccessible, such as my own humble suburb upbringings. It’s a start, though. This beginning marks an important moment for the city that will, in my humble opinion, unite Ottawa in a way it’s been waiting for since pre-amalgamation. The city’s wards, while generally accessible by loooooonng bus rides to boot, have long been isolated hubs to which the public seldom commutes in or out, except perhaps for work or family visits.
The train will eventually reach every ward in the city, connecting and fusing, bridging gaps of eastern and western suburbs alike, shortening commute times and giving more incentive to come together. The opening itself was a moment of tangible connection, a feeling of we’re-in-this-together as we look for the correct platform or climb five escalators to reach aboveground (yikes).
The process of building Ottawa into a Big City has come with annoyances and incredible amounts of construction. But the result, in effect, may very well bring about the positive change of a connected city. The final phase of the train, long away as it may be (and goodness knows how far past its 2032 deadline it will arrive), will mark an eventual and certain connection for the city as a whole.
In the meantime, we can climb onboard and enjoy a speedy trip through downtown. Complaints about the new system will surely come, but the city has created something new that’s worth celebrating.