Transit strike causes commuter chaos in the capital
Published Wednesday, December 10, 2008 6:01PM EST
A transit strike combined with 30 centimetres of snow left behind by a winter storm sent a wave of chaos through the nation's capital Wednesday as many Ottawa commuters scrambled to find ways to get to work, school and other appointments.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 2,100 OC Transpo drivers, dispatchers and maintenance staff, finished their overnight shifts Tuesday and walked off the job early Wednesday morning, crippling the morning and evening commutes.
Although many Ottawa residents tried to plan ahead for heavy traffic, the absence of public transit, combined with school bus cancellations and a blast of winter weather, caused lengthy delays for commuters.
"It's more than usual. I mean things are slower with the snow and on a snow day we see that as well. The one good thing is the Chaudi�re Bridge is now reopened to one lane in each direction," said Philippe Landry, who works for the city's traffic services department.
"Hopefully more people are going to start talking to their neighbours to do the carpool. I mean, we see on average 1.3 people in a car with the buses working, and if we can get that up to two people or three people on average, that will be a big help to everybody."
Pickets add to delays
Picketers striking at several locations across the city made delays even worse for some drivers Wednesday morning.
"It's about walking the picket line, stopping people from coming in like they would on a normal day. Inconveniencing people, what's wrong with that?" said Andr� Cornellier, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Although some motorists showed their support by honking their horns, others who were held for about 10 minutes each at Ottawa City Hall had little sympathy for the striking transit workers.
"I'm obviously late for work, I've been in the car since 7 a.m. coming from Barrhaven, and you've got greedy people who turned down seven per cent. In this economy, it's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," Kim Delaney told CTV Ottawa.
City asks residents to be patient
City officials say they are bracing for a 20 per cent increase in traffic during the strike, which is forcing many Ottawa residents to get back in their cars.
The City of Ottawa's contingency plan for a strike includes asking people to carpool and stagger work hours. Some downtown bus lanes are open to traffic and street parking hours have been extended.
"Give yourself that extra time and use the carpooling tools that we have made available to you and be patient across all fronts," said John Manconi, director of the city's surface operations.
Commuters find alternate ways to travel
Many Ottawa residents are already using those tools as they turn to family members, colleagues and strangers to get rides across the city.
"I couldn't work at home, so I had to decide if I wanted to be paid or not, so I have to go to work," said Francois Pilote, who got a ride to work with a colleague.
Others, however, weren't so fortunate. Patsy Niles relies on public transit and came up short when she tried to find a ride to the hospital to visit her husband, who's being treated for an incurable cancer.
"If something happens and I'm not there, I don't know how I'll live with myself -- it's too hard," said Niles, who later got a ride to the hospital with CTV Ottawa.
"They need to get back on the road. OC Transpo and the city needs to divvy up and get something done," she said.
Judy Long echoes that thought. She relies on the bus to take her everywhere, including two weekly visits to see her disabled son.
"Our visits are very important, he's blind and paralyzed and I can't get to see him," said Long.
"We apologize for not being there, but we don't have a choice."
Employees struggle to make it to work
Retail and grocery stores were also feeling the pinch Wednesday. Fourteen employees failed to show up for work at Hartman's Independent grocery store on Bank Street in Centretown because they had no way to get there. Without public transit, many shoppers also stayed home.
"The economy's already bad, we don't need this. The city doesn't need this and people don't need this," said Robert St-Armour of Hartman's Independent.
Thousands of others took advantage of working from home Wednesday, including Anne Zaborski whose daughter needed to be driven to school for a physics final.
"My daughter was half an hour late for her exam," said Zaborski. "Look at the people you're hurting here, did my daughter deserve that?"
The morning commute forced others to get creative with alternate plans. Carleton University student Justine Robertson and some friends spent the night at the school's library, which is opened 24 hours during exams.
"It seemed like the only viable alternative to make sure that I was on campus this morning," said Robertson.
Picketlines across the city
On the picket line, some OC Transpo workers offered apologies to the public, but said they have no plans to return to work until the issue of block booking is off the table.
"If it was about money, we wouldn't be here," said one picketer.
The OC Transpo strike comes after talks between the city and the transit union broke off Monday when the union rejected what Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien called the city's final offer.
The city says it offered the union a seven per cent wage increase over three years, an offer that was good until midnight Tuesday. The union, though, was asking for a 10.5 per cent pay raise over a three-year period, plus concessions on sick days, scheduling, and workplace safety insurance.
A federal mediator, who worked to hammer out a deal with the City of Ottawa and the Amalgamated Transit Union over the weekend, met independently with both sides on Tuesday. Despite the meetings, no new contract negotiations were scheduled.
According to a memo sent to the mayor and council, the federal mediator advised the city late Tuesday night that "there is no value in further discussions with him in regards to reaching a negotiated contract settlement" with the union.
Union says it's not about money
Although the city is blaming the gap between its final offer and the union's demands on the current economic downturn, union representatives insist talks broke down after demands for scheduling and sick days were not met.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, who have been without a contract since April, voted 98 per cent in favour of strike action last week. OC Transpo buses provide service to about 350,000 riders on an average day.
A transit strike is not expected to disrupt transit service in the Outaouais or Para Transpo in Ottawa.
With a report from CTV Ottawa's Vanessa Lee