Time for some Presto Magic, by Steve Desroches

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Time for some Presto Magic, by Steve Desroches

We all long for a return to normal after this miserable pandemic. The timing of our new normal world remains unpredictable. For many employees, future work arrangements and daily commutes are up in the air. There are increasing concerns in Ottawa and many other large cities about the long term impact of the work-from-home or the hybrid model that contains a mix of home and office workplaces. While peak commuter congestion has greatly diminished, so too has the consumer demand in the downtown core for businesses that have been affected by the scarcity of commuters. The downtown coffee, lunch and retailers have been hit hard by the pandemic. This business decline has been compounded by the dramatic drop in tourists and conference attendees to the nation’s capital who tend to concentrate around downtown attractions and hotels. The Ottawa downtown reaction has been mixed. While some businesses are desperate for the buzz of high volume commuters, other downtown residents enjoy the fact that there is considerably less traffic in the downtown core. Ottawa’s largest employer, the federal government, is actively planning for the return of its workforce in some capacity or another. There is considerable speculation that the federal government will adopt a hybrid model for some departments and agencies. These new work plans could mean that federal workers are not in the office five days a week. The City of Ottawa transit planners need to consider the evolving transit needs of its peak riders who may find it hard to justify the cost of a full time monthly OCTranspo pass. Years ago the Province of Ontario required the City of Ottawa to adopt the Presto transit pass as a prerequisite for provincial transit funding.  At the time, OC Transpo’s General Manager told City Council that the new Presto Pass would open up a range of variable transit fare possibilities. In addition to fare options for riders, the new card could help maximize revenue and ease peak pressures on the transit system. The smart card technology could, in theory, accommodate different pricing options depending on the time of day. For example, there was the Presto possibility of offering lower fares for riders outside of the peak hours to reduce the need to buy new buses and associated labour costs to deal with peak growth. These flexible pricing options would also help lower long-term transit fares and make available more seats for transit riders who need them during the peak commute hours. At that time, we even discussed the possibility of Presto being part of a consumer reward program to help entice and retain ridership given the unavoidable ups and downs that come with operating a vast transit system during challenging winter conditions. These grandiose pricing plans are of course too much for the short term. Nevertheless, OCTranspo and Presto should develop transit pricing options that are financially attractive to a hybrid workforce that will have a limited need for a monthly transit pass. If OCTranspo ignores the new ridership reality, many transit riders will simply drive and park downtown when they are required in the office three days a week or less. These peak commuters are critical to the financial sustainability of the system. Hopefully the Presto card is up to the task. If not, there are surely some technological solutions in Ottawa’s high tech sector. There has also been some loose talk recently about cutting “administration” at OCTranspo. This suggestion is a “penny wise and a pound foolish” if we cut OCTransit transit planners. They need to be hard at work developing smart plans and smart cards.

Steve Desroches is a former City of Ottawa City Councillor.  You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDesroches