Prier & Hersh: Lack of vision, not office workers, is the city’s problem

A downtown shouldn’t just cater to lunch crowds and happy hour crowds. All it takes to do things differently and successfully is a little forward thinking.

Article content

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, along with Premier Doug Ford, recently announced a $543 million investment in Ottawa over the next decade. Most of these funds are allocated to roads, road use and policing efforts, such as a proposed police station in Byward Market.

Although there is some funding for capital projects when it comes to transit, no funding for transit operations has yet been announced, despite OC Transpo’s multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Ottawa transit service has struggled to fully recover since the pandemic, and ridership in 2023 will reach only 66 percent from pre-pandemic levels. This deficit is the result of insufficient municipal investment and a lack of vision on the part of the three levels of government. However, Sutcliffe and Ford have blamed low public transport ridership almost entirely on remote working.

Meanwhile, Treasury Board Chair Anita Anand plans to increase mandatory days in the office for federal workers to three days a week. She did not consult any union or any public servant.

Ottawa relies heavily on federal employment and the pandemic has prompted a reassessment of where and how white-collar workers should work. Ford’s insistence on increasing transit ridership before allocating funds overlooks the benefits of remote work, which has improved the quality of life for many federal workers and spread spending to other parts of the city.

Survey after survey has shown that office workers do not want or need to be in offices, particularly when many of those offices are infested with bats, bed bugs and asbestos. Additionally, those offices have moved to a model in which almost no one has an assigned desk or locker. Ford effectively wants federal workers to run back to offices worse than the ones they left at the beginning of 2020, with no data to support why that would improve anyone’s life or job.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Ford and Sutcliffe’s rhetoric also assumes that transit ridership will increase significantly if workers start coming to the office more. However, we know that the problems and solutions are much more complicated. Many have chosen to drive and pay a fortune for parking instead of using public transport due to the unreliability of the service. Also playing a role were announcements of new service cuts in last year’s city budget and an OC Transpo “service review” that eliminated several express buses coming from the suburbs.

However, the argument for greater public transport ridership serves as a distraction from deeper issues in urban planning. The desolation of downtown Ottawa after 5 p.m. reflects outdated urban development strategies that prioritize office spaces over vibrant communities. The federal government, as a major landowner, has significant influence over the city’s future and must embrace progressive changes.

The recent federal budget marked a shift toward repurposing federal buildings for housing and investing in child care and climate initiatives. However, this was accompanied by massive job cuts of 5,000 workers following the ArriveCAN outsourcing scandal, highlighting the need to rethink public service structures. We don’t need to fall for the old scam that cutting public sector jobs saves taxpayers money when substandard contractors simply replace responsible public servants. Remote working should be prioritized over austerity measures, recognizing its potential to improve worker wellbeing and urban vitality.

Advertisement 4

Article content

All it takes is a little vision.

The trend toward remote work is evident globally, with jurisdictions such as Australia and British Columbia granting definitive remote work rights to their public service employees. The federal government has the opportunity to lead this transition while revitalizing boring urban spaces and promoting worker well-being.

Ford’s disconnect from Ottawa and disregard for workers’ preferences undermine efforts to create a city that prioritizes health and well-being. Improvements in transportation are necessary, but not at the cost of forcing workers to use outdated office models. It’s time to embrace a vision for downtown Ottawa that reflects the needs and wants of residents.

A downtown shouldn’t just offer lunch and happy hours for the 9-to-5 crowd. We have the opportunity to build a vibrant downtown and potentially abandon that old nickname of “the city that fun forgot.”

Sam Hersh is the coordinator of Horizon Ottawa, a grassroots municipal organization advocating for progressive local change. Nate Prier who is the president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which represents more than 25,000 public servants in Ottawa.

Recommended by Editorial

Article content

Leave a Comment