Monday, 8 December 2014

Light Rail and Public Transit in Ottawa

George Nelms and Charlotte Whitton,  Mayors, period 1954-1964

Looking back in how the Capital-City of Ottawa was governed in that period we see many poor decisions taken at a time when the enthusiasm of the final Victory of 1945 did not support the hoped long term results in terms of urban development. There was wild hopes that the years after the war and the long economic depression would bring unparalleled prosperity and growth. Out with the old and in with the new, no matter if the ideas were not fully formed or even wise.

Ottawa saw a complete re-organisation of the infrastructure of the City, dramatic changes took place. The infamous Queensway 417 was built in what was then the Southern border of the old downtown, with further housing development south of the highway in the 1960's to 1980's this road permanently divided the City from East to West without really providing any solution to traffic congestion we know all too well today. No one really wants to cross the City from East to West or vice versa on any day after 3pm if it can be avoided. Had the City fathers and mothers thought about it and invested properly that highway would never have been built and today we know how difficult it is to remedy this problem, so it is being expanded as we speak with further lanes of traffic being added, a band-aid solution we are already regretting despite the millions spent.

The other disaster in poor decision making from City Hall we have to contend with today is the very unwise decision by City Council to remove all public transit within the City and the suburbs with the exception of very poor bus service on congested roads. The thinking back then was that in the very near future, say 1984 everyone would have a car like George Jetson and fly around town. The car was the solution of the future and everyone would have one. In the following decades this is how Ottawa developed, giant shopping malls along Hway 417 and in the 1980's the Rideau Centre in the downtown core. You have to have a car to access those malls. A suburb called Kanata, so far removed from the City that to this day it stand at 35 Km from the city centre, back then everyone was waxing poetic about it, not so much today. Or building a new City Hall on Green Island far removed from the core centre and unconnected to anything else in town. The building was finally abandoned in the 1990's and is now an annex to the Foreign Ministry.

The same was done with the Union Train Station in the heart of Ottawa, it was banished to an isolated area south of the City difficult to access. The City up to 1960 had an extensive system of Street cars and suburban trains, all was done away with by the 1960's, leaving commuters to fend for themselves or drive to work. It is strange to see photos of the time with people taking a suburban train into the City as far as Wakefield on the Quebec side of the river. One such person to do this was Prime Minister Mackenzie King, difficult to imagine today with our current PM Harper fancying himself as the Emperor of Canada with his gigantic motorcade of 15 cars.

In 1960 the population of Ottawa was still relatively small at 328,000 pop. today in 2014 the population is at 1,200,000. But little has changed since the 1960's in terms of public transit, hence the urgency to solve the problem. The current Mayor Jim Watson proposed and his now seeing the implementation of Phase I of the Light Rapid Transit (train) which will go from Tunney's Pasture to Blair Road, it is a first phase but already a great improvement and a plan with a vision. A tunnel under the city is approaching completion and there will now be stations at Rideau Centre and University of Ottawa Campus, the Train Station. It is a system for all users and not just a commuter system as detractors (mostly Conservatives and Reformers). It is hoped that the Phase two which will fan out West, South and East will also cover the Airport and the suburb by 2028.

What you realize when you see this plan is that it had been proposed in 1915 but lack of vision and money saw no action at all. We are doing today what should have been done in 1960 instead of the obtuse decision of a City Council dominated by rich and powerful merchants who did not think much of the people of Ottawa.  This LRT Project is the largest and most expensive since the building of the Rideau Canal in 1820 by Colonel John By at $3.1 Billion dllrs. The project phase I of the LRT with the Stations is to be completed by 2017.

What the Station at St-Laurent shopping mall will look like.

What is to my mind the number of angry and anti-public transit voices. During the last Municipal Election a small but vocal minority of extremist supported by John Baird and other Conservative Ministers of the Harper Cabinet all directed by the Prime Minister's Office came out strongly against the project. Their candidate who was another puppet with a less than credible plan tried to discredit the rapid transit project. Mayor Watson won his re-election with a strong and clear mandate, so his vision is going ahead, we, Ottawans can only win. However the attacks against the plan are still being waged by the National Capital Commission another puppet of the Harper Regime, who will try to block the project and the Federal government has not said they will participate financially to the Phase II. By then hopefully we will have another government in Canada more inclusive and open minded.

Map of Phase I the names of the Stations have been changed since this map was first published.
Downtown East is called Parliament now, Train is now called Tremblay Rd. and LeBreton is called by an Algonquin name PIMISI. 


  1. What a cluster. This sound like something that would happen in the USA.

  2. I agree with rjjs8878's comment above. So ridiculous that these battles are still being fought.

  3. it is fascinating history, aside.