OC Transpo to suspend some suburb-to-downtown routes

·3 min read
OC Transpo bus ridership has hovered around 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and even hit 18 per cent in January during the most recent lockdown. Suspending some bus routes is in the works.  (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)
OC Transpo bus ridership has hovered around 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and even hit 18 per cent in January during the most recent lockdown. Suspending some bus routes is in the works. (Andrew Lee/CBC - image credit)

One year after the pandemic decimated Ottawa's transit ridership, OC Transpo has announced plans to suspend several bus routes or send buses less often, especially on routes meant to carry suburban residents to downtown offices.

Some other routes will be extended, however, to better serve several hospitals and shopping areas like Ottawa Train Yards and Tanger Outlets — destinations not as affected by COVID-19.

The various changes are expected to save the city $5.5 million this year, according to a report going to the transit commission on March 31. The move will also lead to 70 fewer OC Transpo positions, through attrition and redeployment, and no layoff notices will be sent out, according to the chair of the transit commission.

"We've got to keep in mind these are the people who came to work every day during COVID to keep this system running so that people would have a way of getting around, so there's no desire to go in and do deep slashes and big layoffs," said Coun. Allan Hubley.

For months, managers at OC Transpo have insisted on maintaining bus service and routes even though revenues have dropped significantly. Ridership overall has hovered around 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and even hit 18 per cent in January during the most recent lockdown.

The former suburb-to-downtown express routes, now called "connexion," are seeing just five riders on an average trip and 14 per cent of pre-COVID ridership levels, according to the staff report.

Nine will now be suspended, while many other routes will run every 30 minutes.

Public servants, students remain home

OC Transpo staff have now taken the time to analyze where they could make adjustments, said Hubley.

"If we could have had the benefit of hindsight, and known last year at this time that this pandemic would carry on for a year, we could have made different decisions."

The service would be reinstated when ridership ticks back up to normal, but no one knows when that might be.

Federal employees and post-secondary students make up the bulk of Ottawa's ridership, and there's no indication when they might return to offices and campuses, said Hubley, adding the city manager speaks with the federal Privy Council Office about the public service's plans.

Coun. Carol Anne Meehan is grateful staff are "finally starting to respond."

She has been watching nearly empty buses go by for months and has questioned in several meetings why OC Transpo was spending money on routes not needed by riders.

"Of course we didn't know last April how long the pandemic was going to last, but I never really understood why it would take so long for OC Transpo to change up some of its schedules."

More cuts possible

The report before commission March 31 won't be the only one to come out this spring about OC Transpo service, said Hubley.

For many months, city executives have promised a so-called Plan C listing deeper cuts that could address a multimillion-dollar transit shortfall in 2021, should upper levels of government not close the gap with COVID relief funding. The report with those options is due at transit commission in April, said Hubley .

Meehan, meanwhile, has been pushing to use the pandemic upheaval as a chance to re-imagine some parts of the transit system to possibly provide on-demand service in addition to fixed routes.

"I think we could take a look at some other areas that possibly could see a little bit more efficiency and increase the savings, because quite frankly we can't keep going to the government to prop up our transit budget."