Ottawa·Nowhere Fast

A look back at Ottawa's commuting history

From horse and buggy to buses and streetcar tracks to bike lanes, travelling to work has changed a lot in the past 150 years—and so have we.

Archival photos and video provide insight into how people got to work in decades past

Elgin Street around 1903. The ornate tower seen in the distance is part of Ottawa City Hall which stood on the present site of the National Arts Centre. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1931. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-011826)

From horse and buggy to buses and streetcar tracks to bike lanes, travelling to work has changed a lot in the past 150 years—and so have we.

CBC has been exploring commuting this week through our series Nowhere Fast

As part of that, we've heard from people who love or hate their commute, people who hack the system and people who do what they can to make sure traffic moves smoothly

But to understand where we are and where we're going, it might help to know how far we've come. 

Here's a look back. 

Riding the rails

Streetcars were a common sight in Ottawa in the 1950s. (CBC Archives)

As further delays to the opening of the Confederation Line light rail project fray the nerves of capital commuters, it may be soothing to reflect on a time when people in Ottawa rode the rails downtown. 

It's been nearly 60 years since the last Ottawan used a streetcar to cross the city. 

Back in 1891, the first cars ran the city's four routes, including along Elgin and Bank streets. By the time the last streetcar finished its route, OC Transpo says service had expanded across the city.

Workers at the Ottawa Car Company plant on Slater Street pose with 'Lallah Rookh', one of the first electric streetcars to ply the streets of Ottawa in this 1893 photo. The company would go on to build 1,700 streetcar and rail vehicles before closing in 1947. Electric streetcars operated in the capital from June 1891 until May 1959. (City of Ottawa Archives/CA001508)

More bus riders, more problems?

In 1980, Ottawa considered introducing park-and-rides, rolling out articulated buses and increasing fares. 1:14

It was a time when ridership — and ticket prices — were expected to keep on rising. 

In 1980, transit users were being prepped for some big changes, including a brand new idea: a two-part bus that bends around corners. 

But articulated buses weren't the only innovation up for discussion. 

Business owners were starting to complain that riders were ditching their cars in plaza parking lots before hopping on a bus for their daily commute.

The suggested solution? A new park-and-ride system.

Their way or the highway

The area that is now Confederation Square is unrecognizable in this photo from the 1890s. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-008344)

In the 1960s, more drivers were hitting the road, causing some major congestion. 

Clogged downtown roadways sparked the idea for some new traffic arteries, including a series of freeways. 

At the time, CBC spoke with a consultant who advised the city it needed a three-part system: a downtown distributor for automobiles and buses, a system of radial freeways leading into the region from the outside and a ring road surrounding downtown Ottawa and Hull.

In the 1960s, consultants imagined a series of new freeways to ease traffic in the downtown core — including a ring road around Ottawa and Gatineau. (CBC Archives)

Of course, not everyone thought driving issues could be solved with better infrastructure.

This undated video report debates a question so seemingly out-of-date it offends modern ears: are women drivers safer or less safe than men? 

In this report from the 1960s, driving becomes a battle of the sexes. 0:41

Cycling as the way of the future

In May 1979, Ottawa introduced bike lanes, as a pilot project. The next year, cyclists were relieved to hear city officials wanted to retain the experiment. 

Back in 1979, municipal officials and cyclists made the case for a bike lane system expanded to the suburbs. 1:51

"Bicycling, in fact, has arrived in terms of a legitimate mode of transportation," said one cyclist who showed up to a meeting of the regional transportation committee. 

City officials fell short of recommending an expansion to the suburbs. 

But they made it clear that cycling wasn't going anywhere: "People are turning to the bicycle; they're forced to, due to economics.

"And apart from all that it's darn good exercise."