Thursday, October 31, 2013

You're either on the bus or off the bus

Now, you're either on the bus or off the bus
It’s a dizzying time for public transit in Barrie. Our bus system changed not just specific routes but the whole approach; luckily, in a way that seems mainly to the better. Of course no change has only winners, but it seems there are far more winners than losers, making the sometimes-awkward transition worth the effort. And many of the early problems are being addressed, the bumps smoothed over.
Transit is a crucial issue for all of us, because even if you don’t need it now, you probably will someday. In about a decade, 1 in 4 Canadians will be over 60. Aging eventually takes away the ability to drive a personal car; by 2015, over a million Canadians will have blindness or partial sight; a number that continues to increase. Other concomitants of aging, such as reduced movement or mobility, dizziness or slowing reflexes, also take people out of their cars. And of course many people who aren’t seniors have physical or mental conditions which prevent driving and leave them at the mercy of other transportation options; options that remain second-tier in a land where the personal automobile is king.
The growing need for alternatives to driving requires constant expansion of our transit, and planning to make our communities more walkable. We must decide the best and most cost-effective ways to meet this need, so everyone will be free to travel, not just those with a car and driver’s license.
Of course, there is often resistance to transit funding from those who don’t use it. In Toronto, we see a drive to build costly subways keeping transit as far as possible from King Car. While I have nothing against subways, their stairs and busy platforms mean they aren’t always the best system for seniors or anyone with mobility limitations, and they undeniably cost far more to build than surface transit like buses, streetcars, or light rail.
Perhaps the most unique transit solution I’ve heard is to relax motorbikes rules, allowing people to add a small 2-stroke engine to their bicycle to forgo peddling without license, registration, or insurance. If one overlooks the fact that the frames, wheels, steering and brakes of bikes weren’t engineered for this, or that it means putting a hot exhaust manifold near your legs spitting out smog precursors, this seems attractive. Until you consider the huge number of people who would be unable to use this mode. Seniors, or anyone with a mobility, sight, or mental condition which precludes driving won’t be any more able to hop on a motorbike than they are to drive a car. Parents can’t safely motor young children around and would have to forgo using a stroller or shopping for groceries. (Bike trailers are both expensive and would put kids right in the path of dirty exhaust). And teens too young to drive cars shouldn’t be on any motorized vehicles. Luckily, e-bikes already exist for those who want to get around town on an unlicensed low-powered ride.
So the focus must remain on transportation that works for the people who actually need it, such as children, families, and the 20% of Barrie Transit riders who are seniors. According to a recent local study, a big obstacle is lack of awareness or information about the availability of existing transit. Luckily, that can be overcome at lower cost than buying new buses, and that work begins now.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie & Innisfil Examiners as "Lack of information a roadblock for transit change"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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