Boosting cycling and walking key to solving transit woes

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Photo: Sweet One / flickr

By process of elimination, simple means of getting around like walking and cycling must be looking increasingly attractive to Ontario's provincial and municipal politicians as they struggle to fund new
transit to unclog roads.

The need for better transit is obvious. How to fund that transit: not so much. That's why it's a good time to invest in relatively quick and cheap measures to increase walking and cycling safety to get more people out of their cars and to provide clean and affordable ways to get to new transit once it's in place.

Cars

In step one of our existing car-dominated system an individual forks over big bucks to buy and operate a transport product (the car). Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), estimates that the average household spends over $9100 annually on car ownership.

In step two the individual, whether car owner or not, pays various taxes that ultimately fund highways and roads as well as associated costs like policing, health care, and environmental degradation.

In the final step, the individual gets into a car in order to travel just a bit faster, but often slower, than a bicycle.

Transit

The Metrolinx plan for rapid transit expansion in the GTHA calls on each household to contribute an average of $477 per year. It's a relatively small amount but still a hard sell, particularly to grumpy motorists already burdened by vehicle costs. It doesn't matter that only two of the proposed funding tools target motorists or that low-income earners, who benefit most from transit, would be compensated by a mobility tax credit.

Walking and cycling

Fortunately, walking and cycling improvements don't require multi-billion dollar investments. Equally important, once the Metrolinx plan is fully implemented over 70 per cent of GTHA residents will live within two kilometers of rapid transit service -- close enough to cycle or walk to a station.

Building our cities to accommodate cars has meant creating public roadways that usually aren't welcoming to cyclists or pedestrians, even for short trips. In Toronto more than half of all trips are actually less than seven km and therefore easily manageable by bike (or on foot for shorter distances). Simple investments like marked mid-street crossings (which could address some of the 31 per cent of mid-block pedestrian deaths recently identified by Ontario's Chief Coroner), more bike lanes, and slower speeds are a good and inexpensive start to improved safety.

Bike lanes are often attacked as being too expensive. The claim has a hollow ring for homeowners (like me) who cycle to get around --- and therefore put minimal demand on the road system --- but pay the same amount in property taxes as neighbours with two or three cars.

Painting a bike lane on a street isn't expensive. It's the complex studies, including environmental assessments (EA) that are expensive.

These EAs often have little to do bicycles and much to do with figuring out how to accommodate every potentially displaced motorist or parking spot.

Bike lanes actually present the opportunity to increase a road's traffic capacity. After the installation of bike lanes on Jarvis St. in downtown Toronto, traffic increased from 13,300 to almost 14,000 vehicles per day. The bike lanes were nonetheless removed and a car lane re-installed (at huge cost) because civic leaders cared little about the vehicles without exhaust pipes.

Getting more kids out of the back seats of cars and onto their feet on the way to school will cost little more than the price of putting the initiative in place. In a Metrolinx pilot project at 30 schools, kids were given the opportunity to walk to school as part of a supervised program. As a result, car drop-offs in the morning fell by 7 per cent and kilometres driven were cut by 100,000 in a single year. Lower speed limits in neighbourhoods around schools would give even more parents the confidence to send their kids to school on foot (and take advantage of the obvious and long term health benefits.)

The monetary savings created by walking and cycling might also create a greater willingness (and capacity) to contribute to transit projects.

While we resolve the bickering around transit funding there are great opportunities to make small but valuable investments in cycling and walking that will serve us well today ... and tomorrow when the new transit finally shows up.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and cycling advocate. He was on the Ontario Chief Coroner's stakeholder panel for pedestrian safety.

Photo: Sweet One / flickr

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