Transit Stations to Insult and Dampen, or, Stop Making Me Walk in the Rain

Ottawa’s transit stations have a problem.

I know, I know, the many trials and tribulations of the O-Train have been documented within an inch of their lives and, with little doubt, the opening of the Phase 2 lines later this year will reveal a few more. But today, I want to focus on what might be the most emblematic yet least discussed aspect of Ottawa’s failure to truly attempt a transit-oriented city: making me walk in the rain.

Many of Ottawa’s transit stations are associated with a specific landmark or destination. Tremblay Station exists almost exclusively to connect Ottawa’s intercity rail station to its municipal transit; uOttawa station serves the University of Ottawa; Rideau Station anchors the Byward Market neighbourhood in general and the Rideau Centre shopping mall in particular; the under-construction Airport station connects, as one might expect, Ottawa’s international airport. But in many cases, those connections seem incidental to the stations themselves.

The path from Bayshore Station to the Bayshore Shopping Centre that is its primary raison d’être has two versions. One is a ground-level walk between and across the bus platforms to the mall, and the other is an aboveground enclosed walkway that ends abruptly at the mall’s parking garage, where its roof ends early and leaves a short gap for precipitation to get through and where outdoor weather again prevails until the mall entrance proper elsewhere in the parking garage.

Getting from Tremblay Station to the VIA-Rail station that is the entire reason it exists involves exiting Tremblay Station and walking across the entrance of its rear parking lot and the taxi stand to get to the VIA Rail station’s front door from the outside, on a path that isn’t fully roofed.

Even now, as Uplands Station takes shape near the enormous EY Centre, home of giant conventions (sometimes more than one at a time), it takes shape as a station next to this gargantuan building, and the path between involves exiting the station and walking outdoors to the convention centre’s main entrance.

Ottawa's O-Train network construction 'advancing smoothly', committee hears  - Ontario Construction News
Pictured: Uplands Station under construction next to the EY Centre. Not pictured: A way for people to get from Uplands Station to the EY Centre without getting wet on a rainy day.

The pattern is as obvious as it is frustrating: Ottawa does not like to connect its transit stations to the buildings they serve, even when the stations obviously and specifically exist to serve those buildings. But why?

The planners would say, it’s too much of a hassle. Municipal transit corridors are city property, trip generators usually aren’t, and whatever easements and meetings and cheques back and forth are needed to make the two play nicely together are more trouble than they’re worth. Any transit is better than shooting for the best and getting nothing, and what we’re getting is the largest simultaneous rail expansion of any city in North America. Surely, we can lay off?

No. No, we can’t and no, we won’t.

This is happening the way it is because public transit is an afterthought here, and not even the kind of afterthought that gets enthusiastic retrofits on a system built otherwise. Transit here is shoved into a mold built for motorists and transit improvements in Ottawa are, to this day, making only token attempts to reduce the primacy this city hands to motorists at every step. Ottawa will turn Sparks Street into a pedestrian mall, will talk of making the vicinity of Parliament Hill another pedestrian mall, will carve the occasional bike lane out of downtown mid-tier streets, but it won’t make public transit supreme anywhere or inconvenience drivers anywhere else in the city enough to change their minds. Most of Ottawa’s trip generators are surrounded by oceans of parking that it won’t give the transit system license to touch, and that means transit users must walk past their socially designated betters.

We could tell the EY Centre that, actually, we will take some of their parking lot, or dig a tunnel under it, or build a pathway over it, or whatever, to keep the rain off of transit users while they head from the station to the building they’re obviously here to access. We could connect Bayshore Station directly to the mall, with coverage the entire way, instead of making the mall’s parking garage, of all things, sacrosanct. We could make the O-Train the obvious best way to access Ottawa’s VIA Rail station, instead of marching O-Train users past the parking lot and the taxi stand like the goal was to remind us we could have been “normal,” car-driving people instead.

But we’d rather make people accessing the Billings Bridge Shopping Centre from its bus station endure Jehovah’s Witnesses in an underpass, cross two internal streets full of bus traffic, and then cross an overpass over the parking lot before they get to the mall. We’d rather make patrons of the South Keys Shopping Centre and its nearby movie theatre have to remember which out-of-the-way twist in the parking lot leads to either of the two stations that serve it. We’d rather make visitors to the Place d’Orleans Shopping Centre trudge through an overpass across a parking lot so long that it compares to the path across the highway to the adjacent park-and-ride, and ask them to be thankful that this one at least connects directly to the mall instead of dumping people outside in the rain, wind, and snow in the world’s most seasonal capital city.

We’d rather include nonsensical meters-long gaps in the roofing of Hurdman Station, one of the largest transit hubs of the entire city, because…what? The transit users might get used to the basic comfort of not getting rained on between the stairs and the benches?

That’s the reality of Ottawa’s transit system: not only is it layered atop a city that did most of its growing in the age of car-centric planning, but it insists, at every step, on making sure that transit users know we’re second-class citizens of our own home. Motorists might be able to drive directly to the entrances of every mall in the city or even into an underground garage and never have to acknowledge the endless wet muck falling out of the sky, but not us. We must traverse the lot between in a purgatorial trek not unlike the walk through the first-class section of every commercial aircraft on the way to the economy section and count ourselves lucky if our destination bothered to keep the snow off us on the whole path instead of just most of it.

If this city truly wanted public transit to be a default way to get around, it would do a lot of things differently, and one of them is this: every station serving a mall or other obvious trip generator would let people get all the way from the transit vehicle to the inside of the destination building without having to care what the sky is doing.  And if it really cared, it would go so far as to embrace complete platform-screen doors and climate-control the platforms, too, the way so many stations elsewhere in the world do.

The worst part is Ottawa knows this and it has two stations to prove it. At both Rideau and St-Laurent Stations, the path from the train station to the associated shopping mall is entirely enclosed without the interminable cross-highway walks of later stations, and both are, by far, the most comfortable destinations to access by public transit in the entire city when the weather is unpleasant.

But the rest of the city makes clear that these are accidents. Anywhere else in Ottawa, even at some of the other downtown stations that have no excuse to not get the Rideau Centre treatment, there is an obligatory open-air stretch between the station and whatever is near it, to make sure the rest of us know that transit is a patch layered clumsily onto a grid that, if suburban motorists have their druthers, will never adapt to a better, more climate-friendly, more human-friendly cityscape. It’s not enough that we must parade penitently across parking lots that benefit only them; we have to suffer.

Ottawa’s transit users deserve better than even the most central rides having an obligatory bath in winter sleet or summer thunder at each end. And if we manage to tell enough suburban NIMBY’s to eat glass, we’ll get it.


Transit Stations to Insult and Dampen, or, Stop Making Me Walk in the Rain