Second City, Second Metro: The Ottawa Transportation Commission Struggles With Rapid Growth

I was going to share the 1948 map that you’ve all seen, but figured it has been shared more than enough. Here is what the Ottawa Transportation Commission’s system looked like in 1965. Source: Ottawa Transportation Commission. Ottawa Bus Routes, September 1965.

When Ottawa Transportation Commission (OTC) Chairman David McMillan and its General Manager George Brady appeared in front of Murray Jones with their submission, it was clear that there was one thing on their minds: financial sustainability.

It is a common story in the history of public transit. Rapid low-density growth of the municipalities served presented a significant challenge to the ability of operators across North America to deliver the service. Public or private, it didn’t matter: serving low-density areas with inexpensive, reliable, and frequent transit is a recipe for losing money and without some other way to make up the difference, it is not possible. The OTC’s solution was the request an operating subsidy.

The municipally-owned Ottawa Transportation Commission was created from the purchase of the privately-owned and long-ailing Ottawa Electric Railway (OER) in 1948.1For more information about the disappearance of Ottawa’s streetcars and the failure of the OER, see Donald F. Davis. “A Capital Crime? The Long Death of Ottawa’s Electric Railway” in Jeff Keshen and Nicole St-Onge (eds.) Ottawa: Making a Capital (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001): 349-82.

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  When the passenger transport business began to decline from its wartime peak, the private Ottawa Electric Railway Company decided to dispose of the system and the City of Ottawa acquired it as an indispensable public utility in 1948.

  The City's 1950 annexation opened up 22,000 acres to unplanned patchwork developments which the Ottawa Transportation Commission was required to service, much of it at a loss. Although a five cent outer zone fare helps cut the loss, and density in the annexed area will eventually rise, enabling many of these routes to pay, the self-sustaining system must in the meantime make up remaining losses from fares charted in the denser central area. The Ottawa Transportation Commission has suggested that the City should absorb these losses to avoid raising the general fare level which discourages use of the service. 

  If development occurs beyond the greenbelt, providing it with bus service will be even more expensive, particularly if lands within the greenbelt are only partially developed. 

  Creation of satellite towns, largely self-contained and connected to Ottawa by highways free of ribbon development, would make feasible contractual Ottawa Transportation Commission service at cost between them and the City.

  It is hoped that the Regional Traffic and Transportation Study now in process will lead to a better balance between public transportation and the private automobile, this relieving traffic congestion and permitted faster bus service. 


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  The submission was made by Mr. D. McMillan, Chairman, and Mr. G. Brady, General Manager.

  The discussion centred on implications of extending Ottawa Transportation Commission service beyond the present city limits, the present financial situation of the Commission and its future prospects, and possible long term arrangements.

  Extension of service to other municipalities under the present Ottawa Transportation Commission charter would require them to underwrite any losses incurred by the Ottawa Transportation Commission, levying an area charge for this purpose on each area served, which might be equivalent to an extra 10¢ or 15¢ average adult fare on top of the city two-zone fare of 20¢. With regard to adequate service of the Ottawa-Hull area, a system penetrating both cities more effectively, using the new bridges, was foreseen as becoming necessary in the future. 

  While 1964 was the best year, financially, that the Ottawa Transportation Commission has had, labour efficiency has now reached the optimum so that further cost increases cannot be offset by gains in efficiency. With likely cost increases (due to labour and pension legislation as well as wage negotiations) on the horizon, it was stated that financial difficulties are expected in the near future.

  Reduction or removal of fuel taxes, license fees and municipal taxes would provide a short term solution, but in the long run municipal tax support of a basic level of public transportation service appears to be the only feasible answer. This support should cover losses incurred in the operation of necessary routes which do not pay their way (i.e. those which generate fewer than about five passengers per mile under present conditions), and should take the form of a subsidy per passenger-mile operated. Service to satellite

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areas beyond the greenbelt - even if carefully planned and linked to the city by high-speed roads - as well as service to many suburban areas within the greenbelt, would likely require subsidy if fares were to be low enough to attract passengers.

  Overall coordination of public transportation with roads, parking and traffic control will also be essential; it was stated that this could probably be satisfactorily achieved through a coordinating committee of the agencies involved.


If you’re interested in the entire OTC route map brochure, it may be downloaded here (PDF).


1 For more information about the disappearance of Ottawa’s streetcars and the failure of the OER, see Donald F. Davis. “A Capital Crime? The Long Death of Ottawa’s Electric Railway” in Jeff Keshen and Nicole St-Onge (eds.) Ottawa: Making a Capital (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001): 349-82.