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It's time to connect Toronto to nearby vacation areas with low-carbon transit systems

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A photographer looks down a road in Muskoka, Ontario. Image: Justin Main/Unsplash

Proposals abound to plan for a greener, post-pandemic future. Most focus on cities, where 81 per cent of Canadians live. But, a truly national plan must include how to connect cities with rural areas without relying on internal combustion (ICE) vehicles.

It is urgent to connect Toronto with nearby vacation areas like Muskoka in low-carbon ways. Until the 1950s, people got to Muskoka without a car. Could they do so again? What would a sustainable Toronto-Muskoka connection look like in 2030?

My first memory of Muskoka was steering the Sagamo, the largest and grandest steamer on Ontario's minor lakes. It was 1948 and I was four years old. I was thrilled when my dad took my hand and led me up the steep steps to the pilothouse. Crammed with passengers on its four decks, the Sagamo was going full steam ahead.

I was bowled over when the captain asked if I would like to steer. Would I ever. From my three-foot-nothing vantage point, the helm (steering wheel) seemed to be 20 feet high. I reached for a spoke, barely getting my hand around it and moved the steering wheel back and forth for a few memorable minutes. Although the boat didn't seem to change direction, I've never felt so powerful.

I can't remember how we got to the Sagamo from Toronto but it could have been by train. Like most families on my street then, we did not own a car. Trains ran onto the Gravenhurst docks, where passengers boarded steamers. The Sagamo dropped passengers off at lodges, town wharfs and cottages with deep enough docks. No need for a car.

Can we rekindle that vision using 21st-century technology so Muskoka becomes a green beacon for vacationers, cottagers, and city runaways on modest incomes? Here's what Muskoka could look like in 2030.

Many Torontonians, like my 43-year-old and 37-year-old sons, don't own cars -- just like when I was a kid. They are lured to Muskoka by fast, affordable passenger trains that leave every two hours and run all the way to North Bay. Tens of thousands of carbon-emitting cars no longer jam Highways 400 and 11. Return trains connect Muskokans with businesses, leisure and health services in southern Ontario.

Train stations in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville have hubs where passengers rent bicycles, electric cars, e-bikes, or take driverless e-vehicles and e-shuttles to cottages or provincial parks. Station hubs have outfitters that rent everything for outdoor pursuits and have tourist offices offering help in several languages.

The death of distance has become reality, and Muskoka now has high-speed internet. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that many workers need not be in the office to work effectively. Some moved to Muskoka. All they needed to stay connected was great internet and great train service.

Governments put infrastructure into Muskoka so public transit, walking and cycling are now safe, affordable and convenient. People now live healthier, more affordable lives. They place a much lighter footprint on the environment.

Modelled after "Vermont is made for cycling" tourism, Muskoka now has extensive, separated, paved and safe bike lanes. They are used extensively by permanent residents, who, contrary to stereotypes of Muskoka as the playground of the super rich, have below average incomes. Safe bike lanes are such an enticing feature that visitors flock to Muskoka in summer and join cycling tours in autumn to see the spectacular turning of the leaves.

Frequent, inexpensive public buses run between major centres in Muskoka, and within the towns of Huntsville, Bracebridge and Gravenhurst. ICE transit buses were replaced by e-ones, made at the old Oshawa GM plant and by Lion Electric in Saint-Jérôme Quebec. All Muskoka's school buses are electric and made in Canada.

Town planners built with proximity in mind. Many people now cycle or walk to many places because sidewalks adorn all town neighbourhoods.

Sound like a fantasy? Not at all. With the pandemic turning the old normal upside down, polls show Canadians are ready to build back better. With the help of the Ontario and federal governments, Muskoka could live up to a new brand as a green vacation area, by greatly cutting carbon emissions and taking better care of its scenic lakes and forests. The makeover would make economic and environmental sense and build on Muskoka's legacy as a stunning place to live and play.

The changes could be so exciting, that four-year-olds could dream again.

Gordon Laxer is professor emeritus of political economy at the University of Alberta and author of After the Sands. Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians. This op-ed originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Justin Main/Unsplash

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