First off, you need to know that Ottawans–like most urbanites–have a love-hate relationship with their transit system, OC Transpo. A long and nasty wintertime strike a couple of years ago still leaves a sour taste in many riders’ mouths. And a running joke when I was a student at Carleton University was “Waiting for a bus in Ottawa on a January night gives new meaning to the words ‘Hell frozen over.'”
Yet, to be completely objective about it, the transit system is pretty good. And the Transitway–one of North America’s largest bus rapid transit systems, with a large network of bus-only roads–has drawn attention from transit planners around the world.
So, as a visitor, what do you need to know to hop on the bus, Gus?
Every OC Transpo bus stop has a sign with lots of useful information–if you know how to decode it.
The phone number at the top (560-1000) is the number of the automated information system. If you’re standing at the stop, you can dial this number on your cell phone to find out when the next few buses are scheduled to arrive.
OC Transpo hasn’t got around to changing most of its signs since Ottawa initiated 10-digit dialing a few years ago, so remember that you’ll have to dial the city’s area code (613) first before dialing 560-1000.
Once you’re in the system, you need to key in the stop’s four-digit number, found in an oval under the main number (on the sign above, that’s 2414). Then you’ll get a recorded message listing the arrival times of the next few buses on each route.
Another basic thing to know: regular, seven-days-a-week routes (like route 1 and route 7 on the sign above) are shown in solid black numbers. If the number is in red, the route runs in rush hour only; if it’s in green, it’s an express route and it’s more expensive. And if the number is shown with broken lines, the route runs on an irregular schedule.
Finally: most Ottawa buses have the same number in both directions. Only the name changes. Thus, Route 1 Ottawa-Rockcliffe runs downtown, while Route 1 South Keys goes to the southern suburbs. If in doubt which way your bus is going, ask your driver or you could end up far from your intended destination.
All of these instructions apply to OC Transpo’s extensive bus system, including the Transitway. The transit company also runs a very limited train service, the O-Train, but it doesn’t go anywhere most visitors are likely to travel and it has its own quirks and fare rules, so I’m ignoring it here in the name of simplicity.
You can pay for your ride with cash, tickets or a DayPass.
- Paying in cash is a bad deal. Currently, a one-way adult fare is $3.25. For that price, you can transfer as often as you like within a two-hour window. Make sure you have the exact fare or you’ll get soaked even more, as bus drivers don’t provide change.
- Tickets are better value. They cost $1.25 each. Most routes you’re likely to take as a tourist cost one ticket for children aged 6 to 11 and two tickets for adults. (Children under 6 ride free.) Tickets are available in hundreds of locations, including many convenience stores, drug stores and grocery stores, as well as OC Transpo offices and some government offices. They’re sold in sheets of six, but you don’t have to buy a complete sheet. Vendors will usually have the logo below posted on their front door or window.
- A DayPass gives you unlimited rides for $7.50 per person on weekdays or the same price for a family of four on weekends and holidays. You can buy them from the bus driver and you’ll need exact change. You’ll have to pay $1 extra to ride on rural express routes.
How to ride
- If you’re paying with cash, put your fare in the box next to the driver.
- If you’re paying with tickets, you may need to insert the tickets in a feeder attached to the fare box on some newer buses. Otherwise, put the tickets in the fare box itself.
- If you need to switch to another bus en route, ask for a free transfer. Just show the transfer to the driver when you board the next bus.
- If you’re boarding a long, articulated bus, the driver will give you a transfer whether you ask for one or not. You’ll need this as proof of payment.
- You may see people boarding through the back door of long, articulated buses. Don’t try this unless you have a transfer. Most of the riders boarding at the back have monthly passes. Occasionally, fare inspectors show up on articulated buses to check that everyone has paid. If you haven’t obtained a transfer from a driver along your route (available only at the front door of the bus), you’ll face a steep fine.
- To let the driver know you want to get off the bus, pull the cord above the windows or press the “stop” button next to the back door on some buses. A bell will sound and a light at the front of the bus (“stop requested”) will illuminate. If someone has already requested a stop, the light will already be lit and the bell won’t sound.
- Getting off the bus is an adventure. You should disembark via the back door (although this rule is largely ignored). OC Transpo has a wide range of buses in its system, and every model seems to have a different method for opening the back door. In some cases, you wait for a green light to light up above the door, then step down; in others, you have to push a yellow bar on the door itself. If in doubt, ask someone nearby for help…or just exit from the front.
- On some buses from May to October, you can attach your bike to a rack at the front of the bus before boarding. It’s a free service and it’s cool, but it takes a bit of finesse to master the art of attaching your bike. Fortunately, OC Transpo has created a video to walk you through it.
- In Ottawa, people usually line up in an orderly queue to board the bus. Shoving your way on is frowned on.
- If the bus is crowded, put your bags, purses and other gear on your lap or at your feet. If you put it on the seat next to you while other people are standing, you will attract the Stare of Death.
- Leave the seats at the front for elderly passengers, pregnant women, disabled people and people with strollers.
- On some buses, seats at the front fold up so that a wheelchair can be placed near the wall. Vacate these seats when asked.
- Heading to your downtown hotel from the airport? Hop aboard a Route 97 (the route name will be either “Tunney’s Pasture” or “Bayshore”). The bus stop is immediately outside the baggage claim area of the terminal. This bus travels most of the route to downtown via the speedy Transitway. Get off at the Mackenzie King station for hotels near the Rideau Centre or in the Byward Market (such as the Westin Ottawa and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier), or Metcalfe, Bank, Kent or Bay station for downtown hotels (such as Arc The Hotel and Hotel Indigo).
- Want to visit Parliament Hill via public transit? Good choice; parking downtown is expensive, and choices are limited close to Parliament Hill. All the main Transitway routes (route numbers 94 to 99) stop at the Metcalfe station; Parliament Hill is three to four blocks north. Route 1 and Route 7 travel along downtown Ottawa’s main drag, Bank Street, and drop you right in front of the Hill on Wellington Street.
- Trying to get to the Canadian War Museum or the Canadian Museum of Civilization? Hop aboard a Route 8 Gatineau, which stops at all the downtown Transitway stations.