– Ottawa transit strike costing millions for local businesses, residents

CBC News

Ottawa

ATU 279, which represents about 2,300 Ottawa transit workers, has been on strike since Dec. 10. Other unions joined them for a rally at City Hall Friday. (CBC)

ATU 279, which represents about 2,300 Ottawa transit workers, has been on strike since Dec. 10. Other unions joined them for a rally at City Hall Friday. (CBC)

A transit strike now in its second month is costing local residents and businesses millions in lost productivity and increased commuting costs, researchers say.

A federal mediator was to meet Monday with the City of Ottawa and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279 in an effort to resolve the dispute. About 2,300 transit drivers, dispatchers and maintenance staff represented by the union walked off the job on Dec. 10.

OC Transpo, the city-owned and city-run transit company, has estimated the strike is saving it $3 million a week.

Meanwhile, the strike is costing the local economy $4 million a week in increased commuting costs alone, estimated Ian Lee, director of the MBA program at the Sprott School of Business. That leaves residents with less to spend on other sectors of the economy, he said.

Lee’s calculation is based on the difference in cost for commuters who are now driving instead of taking the bus, factoring in the average distance driven in Ottawa, the average number of cars on the road and the average fuel consumption.

Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, an Ottawa-based think-tank that studies links between the economy and social well-being, said the strike is creating all kinds of inefficiencies within local organizations.

“There’s going to be less output — so overall productivity will be negatively affected by it,” he said.

The Tivoli flower shop in the Byward Market is one business that is feeling those types of inefficiencies.

Manager Krista Evans said her Christmas sales were down as a result of the strike and now she’s not even sure how many flowers to order for Valentine’s Day because of the impact of the strike on demand.

“It’s very confusing,” she said. “We don’t really know what to do at this point. It’s hard, it’s really hard.”

Strike causing scheduling issues

The dispute between the city and the union is largely over control of the workers’ scheduling.

But Evans said the dispute has wreaked havoc on her own schedule — she’s the only employee at her store, and its hours now vary depending on the time she can get a ride to and from work.

“If I have a ride, you know, and my ride leaves at 5:30, I’m closing a half hour early in order to get that ride,” she said.

Often, that ride comes from Mary Arpaia, manager of the Paper Papier store next door.

During the transit strike, Arpaia has been taking the extra time to fill up her car with employees from both stores.

She said the strike has been demoralizing for a lot of people.

“You know, they’re worried about their jobs, worried about getting in for their shifts, worried about getting home at night.”

Some former transit users plan to keep driving

Some former transit users have become fed up with trying to find temporary alternatives and say they’re going to stop relying on the bus for good.

Kathleen Forder, who has been a dedicated transit user for 10 years, is among them. She is buying her first car.

“I don’t want to be reliant on OC Transpo anymore,” she said. “I need some control.”

The bus strike has turned her life upside down, she said, forcing her to give up social obligations and hobbies. “Anything I want to do in the city, if I can’t walk to it, I don’t do it.”

She is trying to arrange a permanent carpool with neighbours and said in the future, she will only use the bus as a second choice.

Forder estimates she has spent almost $10,000 on transit passes and tickets over the past decade, and now she’s not happy with the way her loyalty has been rewarded.

Thomas Nicholls, who used to take the bus from Ottawa’s Orleans neighbourhood to his job in Hull, has found a carpool since the strike began and he likes it.

“I find it very comfortable and my energy level is way up when I get to work.”

Ottawa city Coun. Alex Cullen said the city does expect transit ridership to be lower after the strike.

“You can expect city council to come up with some strategies to woo back the riders we had before,” he said.

Those could include fare-free days and postponing the fare increase scheduled for April.

However, Cullen said, in the long run, higher oil prices combined with the convenience and low cost of transit will encourage people to go back to taking the bus.

Last Thursday, members of the striking union voted 75 per cent against the city’s latest contract offer. No talks have taken place between the two sides since the city issued that offer on Dec. 23.

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