Photo: Transit funding will drive Canadian cities into the future

(Credit: Totororo via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Climate and Clean Energy Communications and Research Specialist Steve Kux

Many people think of Canada as a landscape of forests, mountains, water and ice, but the Canadian experience is fast becoming focused on glass and concrete. Our 2011 census revealed that 81 per cent of us now live in cities. And despite taking up less land space, our environmental impact continues to grow. As the UN notes, cities cover only two per cent of the world's land area but produce 60 per cent of CO2 emissions — including a significant proportion from urban transportation, as people commute to school and work on increasingly crowded roads and transit networks.

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Changing the way we move through cities is a critical step in reducing carbon emissions. The most direct way to accomplish this is to provide urbanites with reliable alternatives to automobile travel. By investing in walkways, cycling networks and efficient public transportation — including rapid rail and bus systems — cities can promote healthy lifestyles while protecting the environment. A two-car household that replaces one vehicle with alternative transportation can cut its annual emissions by 10 per cent.

Building balanced transportation systems and improving transit reduces reliance on private vehicles, cuts traffic congestion and leads to better public health by keeping pollutants linked to asthma and cardiovascular disease out of the air. It can also help curb North America's obesity epidemic, which is leading to diseases like diabetes and sending health care costs skyrocketing.

Recent research on the relationship between health and transit use in Metro Vancouver by University of British Columbia urban planning and public health professor Lawrence Frank and two health authorities reveals that residents of areas with above average public transportation use are 26 per cent less likely to be obese and 49 per cent more likely to walk for at least 30 minutes a day than people living in low transit use areas.

Vancouver is a good case study for the future of Canadian urban public transit. Metro residents are voting on a plebiscite to fund regional transit and transportation expansion with a 0.5 per cent provincial sales tax increase. Many groups in the region — including business, labour, environmental, health and student — are setting aside political differences and joining the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition to support it.

With only eight cents of every tax dollar going to Canadian municipalities, cities across the country are looking for ways to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Canada is also the only major industrialized country without a national transit funding strategy. Provincial governments, such as Ontario's, have had some success in securing funding for transit improvements, but across the country the issue is largely in the hands of local leaders.

Although Metro Vancouver's transit ridership has increased dramatically in recent years, road congestion is still a problem, costing the regional economy up to $1.2 billion per year. To combat similar issues, cities around the world, including London, Milan and Stockholm, have introduced congestion charges for drivers who use city streets during peak hours, funnelling monies raised to into transit improvements. By comparison, a Vancouver sales tax increase would spread the cost out to include transit users, cyclists, walkers and visitors.

North American cities often have a more difficult time than European municipalities convincing residents to support transit funding. Denver, Colorado, has had two transit funding referendums, one that failed and a more recent one that passed. In 2014, Seattle residents took part in two votes, agreeing to a 0.1 per cent sales tax increase and a $60 vehicle levy to improve transit only after bus service faced severe cuts following a "No" vote on transit funding earlier in the year.

Canadians aren't often invited to directly participate in policy-making. The vote in Metro Vancouver is the first of its kind nationally and will likely set off a heated debate about how transportation funding is discussed in this country. While the outcome remains uncertain, one thing is clear: People with realistic transit options have a daily choice to support or degrade the environment. When faced with that choice, history has shown more people opt to leave their cars in the garage. We need to think seriously about how we keep our cities moving into the future.

March 19, 2015

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Jun 27, 2017
11:46 PM

Welcome and useful tips.Thanks for sharing information.

Feb 27, 2017
9:29 AM

In addition to transit we must also consider a mode shift to cycling and or walking. Not only does cycling reduce congestion it also contributes significantly to our health through active movement and a reduction in GHG emissions.

Mar 27, 2015
8:52 AM

Einstein believed a new mind-set is needed to create a solution from that which created the problems — I lived in the GVRD (Greater Vancouver Regional District) for many years and used the transit system at various times. It was also one of the contributing factors to stress. When you live close to downtown to use less time and energy getting to work — and then the buses go by time and time again because they’re too full and you don’t get to work on time… But it’s the bad things that make you creative. I also couldn’t find anywhere that I could put my hands in the dirt, and you know how therapeutic that is… Finally I wove the problems into a solution: Our Heart Gardens, where people drop in to volunteer their time and energy to do easy gardening tasks in re-purposed buildings (old malls, warehouses, movie theatres, etc.) and are paid in meals, produce and BUS TICKETS, creating a network throughout the city. While working, gaining gardening skills, they can be educated and entertained

Mar 25, 2015
11:08 AM

At least in part, this problem is the result of the long standing practice of designing cities around the presumption that everyone will own and use a car. The redesign of the cities has made ownership of a car almost a neccesity for so many.

This is going to take decades to sort out, but my gut feeling is that while there is no doubt public transit delivers on people*km/MJ, it’s the entire model of the city itself that needs to be redesigned.

Ironically, the same declining economic conditions that make it difficult for cities to implement new infrastructure are the same ones that are also making car ownership less and less affordable and this will probably reccesitate improvements in public transit in the interim.

The federal government is the only level of government that can help get any of this going, because all other parties are constrained to revenue that can be supplied by those positioned to directly or indirectly recieve income generated through federal spending (money creation) no matter what path the money has followed including that which is repatriated due to our exports.

Mar 20, 2015
9:16 AM

I do agree with you in principle. We do need to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. I know that many people are doubtful that the funds will be used efficiently with the tremendous waste and lack of accountability from the Provincial, Municipal Gov’ts and Translink. If there was a specific plan and credible oversight I’d have more confidence.

Mar 20, 2015
9:07 AM

There is an assumption that a Yes result in this plebiscite would lead to better transit. I disagree. The tax in inadequate to fund the projects, some of the projects are ruinously expensive in relation to the results they will yield, and the current administrative and funding set-ups would be rewarded for bad behaviour. While I strongly support initiatives to reduce car traffic and general congestion, and while I wish to promote walking, cycling and public transit, I really don’t believe that this our best chance, and certainly not our last chance, to move those processes forward. I am, and will continue to be, a supporter of DSF, but let’s not let the developers turn us around on issues where they stand to be the major beneficiaries.

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