Public transit that works: Part I

Let me start by declaring my conflicted sentiments. I love cars. I love what quaintly used to be known as motoring. When I was the auto industry reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, I was in heaven every time I got to sit inside a new model or go through an auto assembly plant.

But driving to work has become a nasty chore, the antithesis of what I love about motoring. In fact, with the Middle East in flames and the world unquestionably running short of petroleum, I recognize that motoring culture is in big trouble. It’s a problem we’re not going to solve without public transit – clean, efficient, safe, affordable public transit.

So I just sighed and turned the page when I noticed in the Gazette that St. Albert Transit customers will, as usual, have to pay more in 2008. No need to recount the sorry details here. The way we run public transit in this city, this province and this country seems designed to guarantee that it will fail. St. Albert Transit’s latest fee increase is just another example of this mentality at work.

It is axiomatic that public transit offers huge environmental, social and infrastructure-cost benefits to society. But for these benefits to be realized, the public has to use public transport.

It’s also axiomatic that you’ll never force me or anyone else out of our cars, even at the point of a Taser. People will use public transit and make our cities safer, more civilized, less congested and less costly to maintain. But they will only do it if public transit is safe, efficient and affordable. Also, it has to run late into the evenings, and on weekends. (Example: the Toronto Transit Commission. Cheap, efficient transit. Part of why Toronto is a great city, fun to live in, easy to get around. Completely unlike, say, Edmonton, Alberta. In Toronto, even die-hard drivers like me use the TTC with a smile on their faces. Also, people who own houses along subway lines there see their property values increase dramatically.)

But if you do as we do here in Alberta and build a crappy system, and then raise the price every time you lose another dozen riders, you can be certain that it won’t be used by anyone except by the most marginalized people in society. The whole thing will spiral down from there, which is exactly what’s happening in the Edmonton area, optimistic rider surveys notwithstanding.

This is because municipal and provincial politicians with no imagination can be counted on to respond to falling ridership by raising fares and cutting service. “What else can we do?” they ask us. “The system isn’t paying for itself.” And so, here in Alberta, we’re reliving in slo-mo the Great American Streetcar Scandal – wherein a group of automobile and petroleum companies bought up the streetcar lines in numerous cities and tore up all the tracks.

In their hearts, I reckon, our politicians know that paying now for good public transit is an investment in the environment, in society, in our cities and in the future. But you can’t really blame them for not going out on a limb for good public transit – after all, their car-bound constituents are hardly screaming for it.

Indeed, I remember how during the 2007 election campaign I suggested at an all-candidates meeting that the farther you ride on public transit, the lower your fare should be. I thought this was the most original idea of the night. Maybe it was, but there were no gasps of astonishment and support. The silence in the room was eloquent.

Of course, by 2010, with gasoline prices hovering around $5 a litre and used Hummers selling for $50 to farmers with a good team of draught horses, it may be a different story. But good public transit takes time to build – especially if it runs on rails as the best systems always do. It seems to me that now, when we still have some wiggle room, would be the time to start working on a solution, not when we’re in the midst of a full-blown crisis.

Next time I raise this topic, I’ll talk about some public transit ideas we ought to consider. …

One Comment on "Public transit that works: Part I"

  1. Kris Klaasen says:

    Lowering transit fares the farther one travels is indeed a novel idea. Much like those that Bucky fuller used to throw at us in the 60s and 70s.

    but it may be better as a kickstart for further thinking.

    for instance, it begs the question as to why we have to travel such long distances between home and work in the first place.

    More effective infrastructure and planned development would reeduce the need for a lot of of our daily commuting in the first place

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