This is the last of three articles about active transportation. After having looked at why North America became an automobile dependent society, and what problems this has resulted in, today's article will look at active transportation as a sustainable way forward for North American cities in general, and Orillia in particular.
If automobile use has caused a wide-array of problems in areas such as personal health, economic loss, and even planetary survival, and if it was never a well-considered transportation solution in the first place, what are we to do? Especially now that we’re running out of cheap oil and have designed our cities to be hostile towards anything BUT automobiles? Well, the best answer is to lace up your comfortable walking shoes and get your bike out of the garage. Active transportation (walking and biking) is one of the best solutions we have.
Now, no one is saying that automobiles are going to disappear, but every level of government in Canada knows that we have to get as many cars off the road as we can. That is why the federal Conservatives introduced their tax rebate for public transit use, and why then Environment Minister Rona Ambrose explicitly stated “Our transit tax initiative will take the equivalent of 56,000 cars off the road each year which will significantly reduce greenhouse gases here in Canada” (Department of Finance Canada, 2006). In Ontario, getting cars off the road is why the Ontario Liberal party is now waving the PST on essential bike accessories, like helmets and locks, and on all bikes under $1000.00 (Canadian Press, 2007). It is also why municipal governments across the country, including Moncton, Chatham, Fort Frances, North Bay, Vaughan, and such weather-challenged cities as Winnipeg and Whitehorse, have been implementing active transportation plans (in 2007 the federal government contributed to $1.27 million in funding for public and active transportation projects in the Northwest Territories[Transport Canada, 2007], and $17.9 million for the same projects in Manitoba [Ottawa kicks in..., 2008]).
Regarding active transportation, it is hard to find a professional organization which is NOT lobbying for an increase in active transportation these days. The OCGHEPA (a group of Ontario health professionals) applauded the most recent Ontario budget's allocation of $10 million towards the childhood obesity epidemic, but also warned that “public infrastructure to encourage safe, active transportation should be a top priority for the government's Inter-Ministerial Committee on Healthy Living” (Ontario nutrition..., 2008). The Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Lung Association and the Heart and Stroke Foundation recently joined forces to call for an “allocation of at least seven per cent of federal transportation infrastructure funds to active transportation infrastructure; e.g. bike paths, walking trails and sidewalks”(Groups demand action..., 2008).
The Ontario Professional Planners Institute released a report in 2007 titled Healthy Communities, Sustainable Communities, which looked at the problems stemming from our auto-centric style of urban design, such as obesity and social exclusion. Amongst their key recommendations is the following: “Neighbourhoods and communities must create an environment in which public transit, walking and bicycling become the predominant mode of transportation for people to get to school, work, recreational facilities, and convenience shopping” (p. 15).
The 2007 Toronto Public Health report on air pollution in Toronto found that traffic causes 440 premature deaths and 1700 hospitalizations per year in Toronto, and causes children 1200 acute bronchitis episodes per year. They also found that a 30% reduction in vehicle emissions in Toronto would save 189 lives per year and result in 900 million dollars in health benefits. One of their key recommendations? “There is a need to reassess how road space can be used more effectively to enable the shift to more sustainable transportation modes. More road space needs to be allocated towards development of expanded infrastructure for walking, cycling and on-road public transit (such as dedicated bus and streetcar lanes) so as to accelerate the modal shift from motor vehicles to sustainable transportation modes that give more priority to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users” (Executive summary, p. ii).
Why are all these groups talking about active transportation, and demanding that all levels of government do more to encourage it? Well, for many reasons, but the main one is that active transportation is ideally suited to replace one terribly damaging practice with an all-around beneficial one. Perhaps the worst common practice in North America is when a single occupant vehicle travels less than 5km. Per km travelled, trips under 5km cause more C02 emissions than longer trips, because they finish before a car warms up and begins operating efficiently, and before it’s anti-polluting mechanisms truly kick in (Tomlinson, 2003, p. 10). Trips under 5km by a single person could easily be replaced, in a properly built city, by a bike ride or a long walk. Instead of one person driving and contributing to the climate change, air pollution, gridlock and health care problems, we instead have that person getting his or her recommended level of daily exercise, and hopefully not contributing to the nearly $10 billion burden that obesity and inactivity causes the Canadian medical system each year (Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, 2004). As well, that person travels from point A to point B with almost no impact on the environment.
If there is one thing that the current generation of municipal leaders and planners needs to do, it is to give the next generation a head-start. If our environmentally conscious children are going to want to walk to work, we have to leave them an inheritance of walkable streets. If we don’t, we’re forcing them to redesign the city before they can start using it sustainably. We have to install the bicycle parking posts for them. We have to ensure that housing developers plan bike lanes and large sidewalks along all their roads. We have to look at the bridges and roads that connect the different parts of our towns together, and figure out how someone on foot or bicycle could get to these places safely. If an answer doesn't currently exist, we have to make one.
In 2004, Ronald Wright wrote a book titled A Short History of Progress. In this work, Wright explores past civilizations which had failed (the Romans, Mayans, Sumerians and the natives of Easter Island), and compares their mistakes to what we have done in the 20th century. While past civilizations were small enough that the earth was able to recover from their collapse, he believes that our present civilization is different:
The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years. Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world so far by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown too small to forgive us any big mistakes (Wright, 2004, p. 3).
Currently, there are six billion people on this planet, and we're using 125% of the earth's yearly output of natural resources (Wright, 2004, p. 129). By 2050 there'll be nine billion of us here, at which time there'll be even less oil, food and water to go around. In Canada we're fortunate to live in a land of relative plenty, but we need to use this “plenty” sustainably – we have 0.05% of the earth's population, but we emit 2% of all Greenhouse Gas emissions, ranking us amongst the world's worst GHG emitters per capita (Simpson, 2008, p. 16). As well, we've let our GHG emissions from the transportation sector increase by 35% from 1990 to 2004, despite having made progress in fuel efficiency (Simpson, 2008, p. 26).
Active transportation may seem like a small weapon to use against these massive global problems, but these small solutions are all that we have. In Orillia, this means that ideas like a pedestrian/cycling bridge across Highway 11, or turning the two side car lanes on the West Street bridge into sharrows (shared bicycle / car lanes), have to become genuine considerations. And we have to take all these small steps before we do any more damage to our own health, or the health of this pale blue dot, floating in a great darkness, that we call home.
Photos for this post primarily from Ski Epic and Picasa and Clever Cycles
Canada News Centre. (2007). The Governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories boost Public Transit in the Northwest Territories. (6 November 2007).
Canada Revenue Agency. Children's Fitness Tax Credit. (26 February 2008)
Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. 2004 Physical Activity Monitor and Sport.
Ontario drops tax on most bikes. CBC News. (9 November 2007).
Department of Finance Canada (2006). Taking public transit is now more affordable in Canada.
Groups demand action on environmental health. CTV.ca News (6 March 2008).
Metrolinx. (2008). Active transportation: Development of a regional transportation plan for the greater Toronto and Hamilton area (Green Paper #3).
Ontario nutrition and physical activity professionals applaud government investment in childhood obesity strategy. Canada News Wire. (26 March 2008).
Ontario Professional Planners Institute. (2007). Healthy communities, sustainable communities.
Ottawa kicks in $17.9 for transit. Winnipeg Free Press (28 March 2008).
Simpson, J, Jaccard, M. & Rivers, N. (2007). Hot air: Meeting Canada’s climate change challenge. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Tomlinson, D. (2003). The Bicycle and urban sustainability. York University graduate research paper.
Toronto Public Health. (2007). Air pollution burden of illness from traffic in Toronto.
Transport Canada. Wheel to work in Whitehorse. (24 July 2007).
Wright, R. (2004). A Short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.