Ottawa·Analysis

Letting bikes on LRT during peak hours a calculated risk

In a rare occurrence at City Hall, council voted against a staff recommendation to bar bicycles on the new LRT system during rush hours. It's also one of the rare times the city has decided not to take the cautious route. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Staff proposed restricting hours to limit conflict in the transition to light rail

With the O-Train set to open late this year, the city is starting to pay more attention to the details of how it will work, including when riders can take bikes on the train. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

In a rare occurrence at City Hall, council voted 15 to 9 Wednesday against a staff recommendation to ban bicycles on the new LRT system during rush hours.

It was also one of the rare times the city has decided not to take the cautious route.

That's not really the way Ottawa usually rolls.

But something about this issue led council, which followed the lead of the transit commission that started this mini-revolt last week, to actually try something a teeny bit gutsy.

Instead of mimicking other Canadian cities — and a few major U.S. ones like Boston and Chicago — by barring bicycles on the light-rail system during rush hours, council decided to, well, see how it felt to be leading on something.

"Imagine that Ottawa would try something that nobody else has, and show that it can work," said Coun. David Chernushenko, one of this council's cycling advocates.

"Or try it and be the city that was known to be daring, but then realized that they had to restrict things a little bit afterwards. I'm comfortable with that."

Coun. David Chernushenko is pleased to see Ottawa taking something of a leadership role in allowing bikes on the LRT at all times. (CBC)

He points to the experience of riders on the current O-Train, who've been able to take bikes on at all times since its inception without issue. 

"Ottawa doesn't put itself out there very often," he said. 

"On something as minor as this, I think that's a good thing to do."

Fourteen of his colleagues, including the mayor, agreed with him.

But just because this action seems minor — after all, it doesn't cost any money, and we can go back to Plan A if it's all an unmitigated disaster — that doesn't mean there's nothing at stake here. 

The reason that transit staff recommended limiting the hours that bikes can be brought on the trains isn't because they have it in for cyclists.

It's because they have a lot on the line when it comes to making the transition from bus to LRT go as smoothly as possible for tens of thousands of commuters.

Standing room only on new LRT

Now that we appear to have a reasonably firm Confederation Line operating date of late November, staff are amping up their communications plan to prepare riders for what they can expect when they step onto our new $2 billion transit system on Day 1.

One thing commuters may be surprised by, no matter how many times staff is saying it now, is that the trains will be packed during rush hour.

Yes, even on the first day of service.

Transit Commission chair Stephen Blais says transitioning to the light-rail system will be a major change for transit riders and would have preferred limiting the times bikes would be allowed on the train. (CBC)

"It's going to be a vast transition for the majority of our customers," said Coun. Stephen Blais, who chairs the transit commission and was the only member there to vote in favour of the staff recommendations.

If you come in from the suburbs during rush hour, you may get on a bus that you ride all the way to work. And you may be sitting the entire way.

That will change with LRT, where you'll now have to transfer from a bus onto a train at Tunney's Pasture station in the west and Blair station in the east.  

When you get on the train, you might be standing. Which you didn't have to do before.

So transit staff are expecting some cranky commuters. It's no wonder they'd like to minimize complaints and conflicts any way they can.

Because there will be conflicts.

Train every 5 minutes, 2 bikes per train

I remember covering a council meeting years ago where there was a huge dispute about parents bringing big strollers onto the bus

There was even some talk about regulating the size of a stroller that would be allowed on transit. 

Councillors wisely abandoned that plan, but not before there were ugly words thrown around about who has a right to be on a bus.

In New York City, where bikes can be taken on the subway at any time, the transit agency virtually begs riders not to bring their bikes onto the subway during peak periods.

Former mayor Michael Bloomberg once said if he had absolute power, he'd ban bikes on the the trains — and he was a huge cycling lane advocate.

New York City "strongly recommends" against bringing bicycles on its subways during rush hours, but doesn't outright ban them. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

Now, we're not New York. And we'll have stricter rules, too.

Our trains will hold 600 people on two cars, and there will be a designated area in the first car where bicycles will be allowed. About two or three bikes will fit in this area. There are an additional seven "cooperative seating areas" to accommodate riders with strollers and mobility devices.

When the bicycle-designated space is full, riders with bikes will be expected to wait for the next train — which is supposed to arrive a mere five minutes later during rush hour.

With a little luck, it will all work itself out. After all, the old stroller wars settled down. Or maybe the whole matter will have to be revisited later.

In the meantime, though, let's applaud council for making a (somewhat) bold decision.

It's not that transit staff were wrong to propose caution — that's a laudable public-service instinct.

But from elected politicians, a little calculated risk-taking reminds us that a city needs a spirit of innovation, too.  

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.