“Who will pay?” This question usually dominates our transit debate, but what if the focus was on “how much would we save by investing in transit?” The current Ontario municipal election campaign provides a new opportunity to ask the right questions, and present some compelling conclusions.  

For starters, the cost of physical inactivity from car-centred travel is enormous. The Medical Officers of Health of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) conclude that inactivity is leading to health problems, and costs. In “Improving Health by Design” they estimate that over $1.2 billion could be saved each year from prevented premature deaths and diabetes cases.

The solution: improve transit to prompt more walking and cycling (to transit stops) and replace some car trips with foot and bike travel. 

Air pollution from cars and trucks is another health care burden. According to the Medical Officers another $1 billion in annual savings could be realized in the GTHA by implementing Metrolinx’s Big Move transit plan.

Cars on roads and highways also take up a huge amount of valuable space that could be put to more productive use. If 50 individuals travelling in single-occupant cars instead took the bus about three km of road space (over three metres wide) could be saved! The math is simple: at 100 km/h a car needs at least 60 meters of stopping space, multiplying by 50 cars = 3,000 m.     

Cars are marketed for their speed. The marketing has been successful, but the speed… not so much. In fact, motorists often find themselves fuming in traffic jams, and burning fuel (and dollars). There are many other costs: a business may have to wait for repair parts to arrive; a painter has to tack a few hours onto each job; and freight for export sits idle in traffic. The cost of traffic congestion is upwards of $6 billion annually in the GTHA alone.

Low income families who rely on a car for want of good transit also stand to make significant savings. The annual cost of owning and operating car is over $9,000, according to the CAA. Even where one car is shared among several household members the cost of transit would be cheaper. In the first six months of this year, for example, I travelled 2,500 km around the city by foot, bicycle and transit (along with some taxi rides), at a cost of under $600 (excluding property taxes that contribute to local roads and transit).  

In his report “Raise My Taxes, Please! Evaluating Household Savings from High Quality Public Transit,” Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimates, based on U.S. data, that high quality transit will cost an additional $372 per person in subsidies and fares while the savings would amount to an average of $1,040 per person.

And for the almost 50 per cent of low income families in Toronto who rely on transit there will be additional benefits. Better transit — including easier access and frequency of service — means they can more readily get to jobs, stores, and community facilities. Keeping medical appointments, for example, can mean the difference between prevention of a health problem and expensive treatment.

The approximate $9,000 cost to own and operate a car multiplied by the number of cars in the GTHA shows that our traffic problems are not the result of spending too little. The collective annual expenditure for ownership and operation of the four million cars in the GTHA is roughly $36 billion. This figure pales in comparison to the $2 billion that Metrolinx is calling each year over the next two decades to put 80 per cent of residents within two km of rapid transit.  

It’s worth noting that a car, although clearly an expensive piece of machinery, sits idle almost all of the time. A public transit vehicle is mostly on the move providing the opportunity for greater efficiency and savings.

A major obstacle to transit funding options like parking fees, increased gas tax, road tolls or higher sales taxes is convincing people to pay now for dividends they won’t see fully in place for some years. When Toronto city councillors were asked their opinion last year about funding tools they infamously avoided any decision.    

Fortunately, there are opportunities for short-term improvements that can help sell the long term transformation to better transit:

1. Improved bus service can be implemented fairly cheaply. In fact, if our road and highway network were turned over to buses, we wouldn’t need to spend much on new transit infrastructure. This isn’t a likely course but we can nonetheless cheaply and quickly convert some car lanes to bus-only lanes on arterials or highways. When a relaxed bus passenger — perhaps tapping away on a mobile device — zips by a car stuck in traffic the message will be loud and clear.

2. Making roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists would promote transit use since more transit stops would become easily accessible. A pleasant stroll or bike ride to the transit stop can lead to the replacement of some car-only trips to walk/cycle and transit trips. Ontario’s Chief Coroner and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health recently recommended cycling networks, mid-block crossings, and lower speed limits to promote walking and cycling.  

3. Political leaders need to champion good research instead of simply playing to biases. The ill-advised and expensive Scarborough subway proposal is a good example given the low population density in the area. As well, the rationale in the last provincial election for avoiding a serious discussion about funding tools based on the burden on families was lame given the obvious benefits, especially to low income families, of better transit. A superior option would be to ensure financial relief for families burdened by new transit costs.

When the savings from better transit are made part of the debate it becomes clear that it isn’t new transit that we can ill-afford but rather the transportation status quo.      

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founder of Bells on Bloor. He served on the Ontario Chief Coroner’s expert panel on pedestrian safety. He is a candidate in the municipal election for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, Toronto.