Why Public Transit Must Be Fast, Cheap, and Convenient
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Why Public Transit Must Be Fast, Cheap, and Convenient

I want to talk about the morality of driving.

I want to talk about the morality of driving.

I own a car, but I don’t drive very much. I generally take transit or walk everywhere I need to go. I use the car to take my kids camping in the summer, to venture out to Mississauga to visit my parents, and to cart musical gear.

But day in, day out, I don’t drive. I have had funny conversations with my disbelieving insurance company about the small number of kilometres I add to the odometer each year.

I can do a lot of my shopping on foot, and I commute by subway and bus. Taking transit means it takes me longer to get to work, but it’s better for the environment, and better for my health.

My halo is blinding, isn’t it?

Those of us who don’t drive often or at all are pretty proud of ourselves, maybe even a little smug. And why not? We’re making a difference: every car off the road reduces air pollution, to which several hundred deaths are directly attributable every year in this province.

Non-drivers reduce the amount of carbon emissions by about one kilogram of carbon dioxide per two kilometres walked, and the exercise they get walking or biking improves their health and reduces demands on the health care system.

The problem with this is that we non-drivers live the way we do because we can or because it is what we can afford. There are some committed environmentalists who make sacrifices to live in more energy-efficient and sustainable ways, but many of us just do what is easiest. And maybe a few folks out there are nihilists who want to bring on the apocalypse, but the vast majority would rather live in a way that doesn’t contribute to climate change.

Byron Miller, a friend and colleague in urban studies at the University of Calgary, wrote a short piece [PDF] several years ago about his personal experience living in Phoenix, Ariz., and then Freiburg, Germany.

In Phoenix, even if you intended not to own a car, you quickly found it was practically impossible to get around without one. And yet culturally car-dependent North Americans found that when in Germany, life was fine without a car.

Byron says we have this idea that “you can’t force people to take public transit,” and I’ve heard that word for word here in Toronto. But it turns out you don’t have to force them. With better options, people will make that choice for themselves, even if they are used to driving.

Transit ought to be the easiest, cheapest, most comfortable, and most efficient option. It shouldn’t be crammed vehicles, vehicles without air conditioning, stations where the roofs leak when it rains, broken escalators, and a long wait at the curb in bad weather. It shouldn’t be a bus that runs only every 30 minutes. It shouldn’t cost more than driving would.

Recently, while my car was in the shop, my kids and I took the TTC and the GO train to visit my parents in Mississauga. Instead of the usual $6 or so in gas it would cost me, the trip cost us over $40. As a further kick in the shins, going by transit took twice as long. If I have a choice, I’m going to take a car every time.

Sometimes, people make the argument that the way to make public transit more appealing is to make driving even worse—for example, by making it more costly through road tolls. That assumes that drivers always have a choice, or that the choice they are making is a selfish and irrational one. That isn’t always the case.

Given how critical mobility is to the economy of the city and the well-being of its residents, any kind of tax on how we move should be introduced with caution, particularly if it’s at the point of use.

The answer isn’t to penalize drivers, many of whom have no real choice and whose lives would be more difficult and more expensive if they took transit. We have to do much more to make transit the best option. More buses, more streetcars, more subway trains, more often. Stations that are clean, accessible, and functional. Fares that are as dirt cheap as gas.

Automobiles versus public transit is a debate that has ethical aspects: injury and death rates, pollution, climate change. There is no question we would do better if we were less reliant on personal cars. But most of the responsibility for the choices we make cannot be placed on individuals. Not successfully, anyway. We shouldn’t have to make saintly sacrifices to be good citizens.

The big moral decisions around transit have to be made by our elected officials, particularly at City Hall. They have the ability to create an environment in which the best choices for the city are also good choices for individuals and their families.

It isn’t reasonable to expect residents to make their own lives inconvenient just because mayors or councillors have their heads in the sand and won’t make the tough decisions.

Our climate and our health demand a much greater investment in transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian access than what we have now. And we need to invest in every way, not just in the big ribbon-cutting projects, so that getting out of our cars is our best option at every scale.