Ottawa·ELECTION 2018

CBC Ottawa explains: What would it take to improve rural transit?

People on the rural fringes of the city are demanding bus service to connect to the rest of Ottawa. But the prospect of running buses down rural roads is a surprisingly complicated proposition.

From property tax rates to LRT-induced inequality, there are many challenges

An OC Transpo bus runs along Scott Street west of Ottawa's downtown. People living in the city's rural communities are increasingly calling for better transit service this election. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

There was a period in Ottawa's history when people seemed to accept that the farther you lived from the core, the less bus service you could expect.

For awhile, those living in the city's rural areas seemed relatively happy not to have to pay into the city's transit system.

But this election, that seems to be changing.

People in the suburbs are crying out for light rail, more reliable commuter service and improved local bus routes. Even residents on the city's rural fringes are demanding bus service to connect them to the rest of Ottawa.

People living in Ottawa's rural areas spoke with CBC about the public transit improvements they'd most like to see. 0:41

"We only have one bus that comes out here on Wednesdays once a week," said Ella Rigley, a 17-year-old who lives in the Carp area.

As a teen without a license, Rigley said that makes it difficult to get around.

"It comes kind of in the middle of the day, so nobody who goes to school or has work can really use it to get out to more accessible places like Kanata or downtown."

Seniors who can't drive anymore have similar issues — and that's a problem if they don't want to leave their homes in the country as they age.

"If we have a medical problem, there is no bus that goes here," said Catherine Easton, who lives near the Diefenbunker.

Transit for whom?

The prospect of running buses down rural roads is a complicated proposition, however, as not everyone pays into Ottawa's transit system equally.

Whether you ride the bus or not, the percentage of your property taxes that goes toward OC Transpo depends on where you live.

This map shows the three transit zones in the city. Where you live determines how much money you pay in to the transit system — and how much service you get.

Ottawa's most rural areas only get Para Transpo service, and only for trips to the urban core. Those residents pay about $63 in taxes on a $450,000 home for transit.

Compare that to the urban part of the city, which enjoys a full slate of transit services. For a home of similarly assessed value, urban residents would pay about $735 annually.

But there is a middle ground, known as Rural Transit Area A, where residents get some bus service but not the full package — and that's where the transit battle is heating up.

Balancing act

Right now, residents in that zone pay about $232.20 in taxes on a $450,000 home to get partial service.

In Richmond, that includes a commuter bus that runs from a rural park-and-ride downtown three times per morning and four times in the evening.

While that seems to work well for some residents, it's a balancing act. Everyone in the area pays the same, whether or not they ever set foot on a bus. So while some people would love to see that service expanded, others would prefer to pay nothing.

We have to review the transit boundaries. We have to.- Scott Moffatt

Similar tensions are likely to play out all around the city, especially as the LRT system starts to fundamentally transform the system and create serious inequalities.

"We have to review the transit boundaries. We have to," said Coun. Scott Moffatt, who is running for re-election in Rideau-Goulbourn.

While a large portion of his ward pays the middle rate, people living in Greely pay nothing. Once the second phase of LRT brings the train farther south, the east-end community will be only minutes from a major terminus with a park-and-ride.

At the edges of the city some residents are asking for better transit, but the road to rural bus service may not be so smooth. We get the details from one of our city hall reporters Laura Osman. 5:52

Ridership is key

On the west side, the West Carleton-March ward has no regular transit service at all, aside from that weekly shopping route.

"We need action now," said council candidate Judi Varga-Toth, who has made rural transit part of her platform. "I don't think it's acceptable to wait for years ... people want transit now."

West Carleton-March incumbent Coun. Eli El-Chantiry said the talk about bringing buses to the ward should wait until after more development moves in.

That's the big challenge with levelling the playing field: taxes aren't the only thing that pay for transit. Fares make up about 45 per cent of OC Transpo's budget, so there needs to be a critical mass of riders to make a rural route viable.

The transit service has also stopped charging different rates for different routes. Since 2016, the fare to ride the bus is the same across the city, no matter where you go. 

That inequality is also apparent in the transit service's park-and-rides: there are 10 in the city's rural areas, but while some were at 80 per cent capacity as of last January, the lot in Munster was at only three per cent.

The next city council is expected to crack open the transportation master plan, a major undertaking — but what role rural communities play in the expanded transit system is still to be seen. 

Council could follow the instincts of West Carleton-March candidate James Parsons, who said the number of people  of who would have to pay just to service Carp village isn't palatable. 

"It's country living," Parsons said.