The COVID-19 pandemic has axed municipal revenues and cratered transit ridership. The federal government recently announced that its $19 billion Safe Restart Plan would include $1.8 billion to match provincial spending on public transit. This is certainly a step in the right direction. But is it enough?
With transit networks forecasting significant annual deficits – Canada’s largest, the TTC, is expecting a shortfall in excess of half a billion dollars – it is more critical than ever that our governments look to not only preserve but expand transit. If not, we risk commuters being unable to physically distance and prevent the spread of COVID-19. We also risk further entrenching car dependency – the concept that cities are built to favour personal automobiles over other forms of transport.
The costs of car dependency
Car dependency itself has serious health consequences. As a surgeon-in-training who has spent many nights in the trauma bay, I’ve cared for many of the victims of the more than 400 injuries and five fatalities caused by motor vehicle collisions every day in Canada. Recovery from a serious collision can take years and many victims have their lives permanently altered.
More insidious public health harms are no less tragic. Pollution from traffic is associated with one in five new cases of asthma in children. Road pollution has also been associated with heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.
Car dependency is also a matter of equity. Some one-third of Torontonians do not own a car and a city that prioritizes cars transport disadvantages this group. Racism, ableism and classism mean that people who are racialized, poor and/or disabled are more likely to be burdened by the public health harms of societal car dependency.
All of this is enough reason to end car dependency but we are also in the midst of a climate crisis. Transportation accounts for 25 per cent of Canadian carbon pollution, second only to the oil and gas sector. The climate crisis, in turn, has been called the greatest public health threat of the 21st century.
In response to the interlocking health, economic and environmental crises we face, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) has released a set of 25 policy recommendations for a healthy recovery from the pandemic, including a call for bold federal investments in transit and rail. The report recommends that federal recovery funds should be used to support public transit systems with operational funding and urgently decarbonize transit, passenger and freight rail. With Canada well behind in its commitments to the Paris agreement, this change of course is desperately necessary.
Decarbonizing transit alone will not end car dependency. Citing Jarrett Walker, James Wilt emphasizes in his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? that public transportation must do the following: 1) Take people where they want to go; 2) Take people when they want to go; 3) Be a good use of their time; 4) Be a good use of their money; 5) Respect them; 6) Be trustworthy; 7) Give them freedom to change their plans
Public transit must meet these criteria if we want transit to be a real competitor to the car.
What about electric cars?
Electric vehicles are also necessary to green transportation but they have many of the same drawbacks as traditional vehicles – high cost, tires that give off microplastics that pollute our waterways, collisions and a large physical footprint when space is at a premium.
Furthermore, a sustainable transportation strategy that hinges primarily on electric vehicles must confront the serious issue of scale. Energy expert Vaclav Smil writes that in 2017 there were around one billion vehicles registered worldwide, with less than one per cent of these being electric. Producing enough electric vehicles to replace one billion existing vehicles and meet future demand is a mammoth task that will take decades. On the other hand, streets can be rapidly and cheaply reconfigured to give preference to space-efficient buses, streetcars and bike lanes.
The way forward
We should be eager to make this pivot to transit – done right, it will mean good jobs in manufacturing and transit, more vibrant cities for all, cleaner air and healthier lives. And for people who must drive, less congestion for them. Transformational investments in transit are a win-win that can’t afford to wait.