Palaces for the people

We need to stop obsessing with ‘cheap’ if we’re going to get anything done. Ottawa’s LRT is a screaming example.

Almost 100 years ago, those responsible for public education in Ottawa opened what we now call Glebe Collegiate Institute. It’s a grand old building, on the west edge of the neighbourhood.

I was there recently, in the auditorium at an information session for parents and soon-to-be students. Quite apart from the kindness, enthusiasm and welcome students and staff showed, I was struck by the relative splendour of the auditorium.

With two levels of relatively plush (for a school) seating, ornate moulding and other embellishments (as was common at the time), it looked more like an opera house or theatre for posh types.

And why not, I thought. Its builders were no doubt convinced of the value of public education and its role in improving the well-being of the people of Ottawa and Ontario for that matter.

And at the time, the government was wrestling with the idea of raising the school-leaving age to 16 from 14. I expect they were still dealing with some skepticism around the value of education.

So they built schools that were unabashedly majestic and welcomed all to them to be part of the project of banishing illiteracy and making a better way of life for all.

Fast forward to today where we once again have a great social project — a light rail system — to reduce the damage we do to the environment and give working people some time back in their days.

But we are now so obsessed with getting to ‘cheap’ that I fear we may make things worse. The station architecture is dazzling, contemporary and awe-inspiring. But the platforms are too narrow, the steps slippery and one of them smells like a toilet all the time.

Because they cut corners both in design and construction, chose the lowest bidder, and privatized the whole mess. To get to cheap.

The trains look spiffy, but they’re not built for snow, can’t seem to handle a blocked door and they apparently can’t hold on to their power cable. Because cheap.

I don’t know if people will get back into their cars. But if they can’t reliably get where they’re going on time, you can’t be surprised if they do.