Thursday, July 05, 2007

OC Transpo: a capital experience

I believe every Canadian should spend at least one Canada Day in Ottawa. This past weekend, I accomplished it along side my closest friends, who truly made the trip memorable.

My day began on Saturday morning at 6:00 AM at the Metro Toronto Coach Terminal. The 6:45 Greyhound departure was oversold, but we managed to get onto an advanced departure. A Voyageur (partially owned by Paul Martin, under contract to Greyhound) MCI D4500 was our coach, and departed closer to 6:30. Our route was the 401 to Belleville, highway 37 through Tweed to Highway 7. Our rest stop was at a small place named The Log Cabin Restaurant in a community named Actinolite (named after the mineral mined nearby, which you might know by its less P.R. friendly name, Asbestos).

Our coach is in the near right, with the second section behind us and a Toronto bound coach on the left. Being a Greyhound agency, this restaurant was able to handle the snack, drink and washroom needs of the coordinated arrival of 165 passengers within 20 minutes. Soon, we were back on our way east on Highway 7, through Perth and Carlton Place before signs of Ottawa's rural annexations came into view. The final leg of the trip along the 417 was smooth, and we pulled into the Ottawa Bus Central station early. Liz, our host for the weekend, picked us up and shuttled us to her apartment in what I can best describe as midtown Ottawa, just across the street from the Transitway station.

More on the Transitway later, but it being Ottawa's rapid transit system, an apartment that close would be coveted and expensive if in Toronto. The first stop on the day was the ByWard Market, an open air market and tourist destination. The Chateau Laurier was next, followed by the Parliament building, where due to Liz and her boyfriend Ben's connections to the government, we got a VIP tour. I had been to Parliament years ago, but never when velvet ropes and pedestrian barriers did not apply to me. At one point, security guards chased us down for entering off-limits areas, only to excuse themselves upon seeing our credentials. As we left, we heard Grégory Charles and Eva Avila rehearsing for the concert the next day - leading to inside jokes that continue to this day. The rest of the day was spent catching up with Liz and Ben, who we hadn't seen since the winter.

The next day, Canada day, we went back to the market to shop for "knick knacks" and "cheesy Canada Day stuff", ate world famous Beaver Tails, and saw the Renoir exhibit at the National Gallery. As darkness approached, Ben, the Ottawa native, led us to an excellent spot to view the fireworks. As the night went on and the crowd became impatient for the light show, I heard faint singing in the distance. A small group was singing "Oh Canada", and just as they sang the final word, the first explosion of the best fireworks display I had ever seen began. It was a moment, never to be duplicated, where I had never felt more Canadian, and which moves me to tears as I write this. Stranger and friend, child and senior, drunk and sober - we were one nation, one people.

The next day, we ate lunch at a 50's style dinner in an area outside downtown, reminding us that Ottawa is more of a tourist destination. We said goodbye to our friends and were dropped off at the coach terminal, where despite a long lineup and annoyances within the line, we boarded a Voyageur Prevost H3-45 for a trip though Actinolite, Havelock & Peterborough. We arrived at the Metro Toronto Coach Terminal on time, and a quick subway ride to a car lest at Kipling brought us home from an unforgettable vacation.

While in Ottawa, OC Transpo, with its red-and-white "Canada Buses" was out chariot. The backbone of the transit system is the Transitway, a network of transit-only roads and lanes radiating in four directions from the downtown core. Three routes provide the base Transitway service, using D60LF and D40i buses, but many other routes use the Transitway at some point in their journey. This fact can create confusion, as novice riders may board a bus on the Transitway, only to discover it is turning off before their stop.

The stops themselves are either large transit terminals, or concrete structures build under overpasses. Downtown stops, where buses operate in mixed traffic, are often simple shelters. However, I found the stops to be poorly signed, and needed to count the stops from a landmark in order to find my way around. An automatic announcement system is being implemented, and this should help those not immediately familiar with their surroundings. The fare structure is simple, with adults, children and express riders using different quantities of a standard ticket. Though the cash fare is much higher than anywhere in the GTA, the price using tickets or monthly passes is a bargain. A 90-minute transfer is time-stamped and issued with each fare.

My exploring of the OC Transpo network began at Lees station, where Jennifer and I took the 95 Orleans to the Ottawa VIA Rail station. Though build in 1966, it is a federally protected heritage railway station - and I wanted to know why. As soon as I stepped inside, it came to us - it felt like an airport terminal. The 1960s was the waning years of passenger rail travel in Canada, and the Ottawa railway station was designed to give passengers the same feel as if they were flying to their destinations.

We took the 95 Barrhaven, doubled back, and headed downtown. Though usually congested, the downtown, mixed-traffic section was quiet on the holiday Monday, and we cruised through to Bayview station, where we got off to transfer to the O-Train, the pilot project for Ottawa's failed LRT plan. Built on inconveniently-placed but existing railway corridors, using barely-modified equipment from Germany, the O-Train seems out of place in the bus-based network, but it offers an experience not seen elsewhere in the city. The route travels from Greenboro, near the airport, to Bayview, just outside of downtown. The line uses Bombardier Talent DMUs - three-car diesel units designed for regional service in Germany. On the outside, they are sleek and stylish, while the inside features VIVA-style seas and not much else. Automated announcements keep track of the stops (all five of them), and interestingly enough, the doors are controlled by passenger on the inside and on the outside. There are three trains in the fleet, though only two are used to provide the 15 minute weekday service, and none are guaranteed to have women as beautiful as those pictured.

The route was through the forest, and unlike Toronto, we were not subjected to the sights of the back of factories. Aside from a bridge over the Rideau River, a tunnel under the canal, and a few level crossings of road and rail, the line was mostly trees and stations. The only sign of a city was passing through Carlton University. Though only a fifteen minute trip to Greenboro, it was relaxing. At the terminus, we boarded a 97 Bayshore for the trip back up to Lees. The longest stretch of Transitway proper we experienced, it was fast and felt fast, allowing us to enjoy the scenery.

It is doubtful that buses in reserved lanes on city streets can ever reach speeds that Transitway buses reach, but Ottawa's experience is clear. BRT is not a poor-man's rapid transit. It is a viable solution to the problems of gridlock that plague cities across the world, and I commend them for their foresight in constructing the network. Though Toronto is my home, I'm glad to know that there are other cities in Ontario where transit is just as fast and frequent.

So here's to our nation's capital - a city where friends, festivals, "Canada buses" and unforgettable memories (including the Bye-Bye Kid, Dionne turning heads, Parliament security, the "cat" colony, and Liz being Liz) come together to make something beautiful.

...and the fish-hat, which I regret not buying...

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At 7/13/2007 6:45 p.m. , Anonymous Jenn said...

hehe why did you put the picture of me wearing the fish hat? ;)

At 7/13/2007 6:46 p.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

That trip was the highlight of the summer... Why did you put the picture of me wearing the fish hat? hehe


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