Jun.12.12 | Blog
Some of my regular readers will remember my recent tangle with Ottawa’s Mayor, Jim Watson. The subject of our skirmish: Ottawa’s transit system. Specifically, the antiquated fare system that still relies on cash fares, paper tickets, or monthly passes which can only be purchased at select retail stores or a small number of [often overcrowded] transit service locations.
But have no fear, the future has arrived in Ottawa!
Some time back, Ottawa’s transit czars started braying about the arrival of PRESTO. PRESTO is a stored-value card system which you can reload online from the convenience of your own home like something right out of the early 2000′s!
Sarcasm aside, this is a significant step forward and I waited as information slowly trickled out about PRESTO’s arrival in Ottawa. Initially we heard May, which unsurprisingly slipped to June in much the same way that our buses seem to arrive late despite their unreliably named schedules. I took interest as I started seeing mounting brackets for the PRESTO card readers adorning bus interiors and eventually a rare reader itself.
The City began to trumpet the rollout of PRESTO with a splashy launch program offering free cards (normally $6) for the first 200,000 people to convert. That this launch release coincided with the announcement of another round of fare increases and the termination of the small but popular ecoPass service (an annual transit pass offered through/subsidized by employer payroll deductions) seemed to run against the fundamental basics of Public Relations logic, but finally date was set: June 10 cards would be released and in July the service would go live.
In the midst of this process Ottawa’s transit service experienced a major (and long overdue) management shakeup: senior managers were swept out and a fresh-faced outsider was installed. But the leaks in OC Transpo’s boat are significant and I do not envy the new team at the helm.
Like Watson they inherited a broken scow of a transit system in a city that bet big on buses in the 50′s (no doubt by many politicians whose pockets were lined by GM’s bus-mongers) and an urban plan (and the NCC shoulders much of the blame here) that deliberately advanced a low-density urban core girdled by bedroom communities within which the car is an essential king. Efforts are underway to reverse this half-Century of poor planning including a second run at Light Rail Transit (after the first one was horribly mismanaged), urban intensification, and even the resurrection and rebuilding an entire urban neighbourhood razed by planners in the 60′s (albeit, whether replacing Lebreton Flat’s once boisterous, low-income, organic diversity with cookie-cutter condos and planned streetscapes is a good thing remains to be seen this early in the project.)
These urban planning woes merely form the set-pieces for the disarray and chaos of Ottawa’s Wagnerian transit system struggles: articulated buses that threatened to snap in half, a laughably underused light rail spur line, a constant march of fare increases matched with never-ending service cuts, even a tragic shooting spree by a crazed employee exacerbated by a poisonous work environment. The cherry on top: the acrimonious labour relations between city managers and bus drivers that wracked it for years ultimately boiled over to a bitter, month-long transit strike in late-2008/early-2009 which stranded many and left a legacy of distrust in a system already vilified for poor service and a disaffected management. In a word, OC Transpo sucks.
But I want to believe. I ditched my car in 2011 and live near the city core adjacent to the heavily-serviced Transitway bus transit corridor that will eventually transform itself [someday] into a light-rail butterfly (if they can ever figure out a route alignment). PRESTO was a ray of light: maybe OC Transpo could reverse course, somehow pull themselves up by the bootstraps, slough off the heavy chains of the past and finally stand upright as a modern, efficient people mover that was customer focused. So I set an alarm on my phone calendar for June 10th so I could be at the vanguard of PRESTO hoping that somehow that shiny plastic card would restore my faith.
There were stumbles, mistakes (including a multi-million dollar contract with no legal review and exit clauses!) and further delays. Despite delays to the general release I managed to get a precious card…not through the original (now delayed) launch but through a much smaller fall-back plan: I am now a PRESTO card holder as part of OC Transpo’s Friends-and-Family pilot, offered to me by a somewhat forlorn PRESTO promoter at a transit station on the original June 10th launch date.
I dutifully registered my card online (paradoxically, there is no mobile PRESTO app despite PRESTO’s parent company Metrolinx’s $250 Million tax-payer-funded development cost and OC Transpo having a maligned iPhone application), loaded $10 onto the card (discovering, in the process, that it takes 24hrs for your balance to update even though the cash is sent instantly) and this morning I went to the bus station.
The bus rumbled up, its doors hissed open. I drew my card and tapped the contact spot below the glowing LCD screen and…nothing. The reader was frozen in a software-induced coma. The driver shrugged sheepishly and waved me on; on my return trip the bus wasn’t even equipped with the necessary hardware.
Somewhere software code is being sweatily debugged and hardware is being frantically deployed. And while engineers are scrambling to fix it, in this failure OC Transpo—and by extension the City of Ottawa—has ironically done something amazing: if ever so briefly, for a small number of citizens, Ottawa joins Portland as a transit utopia with the most public of public transit: free transit. OC Transpo PRESTO change-O!