Transforming transportation will improve quality of life for all British Columbians

October 21, 2011

The 2010 Winter Olympics shone a light on one of the most fascinating experiments in transportation planning ever conducted in North America. Previously unthinkable measures were taken to keep downtown Vancouver and Olympics venues from being overwhelmed by gridlock.

In place of the status quo of roads and parking for cars, the city got a massive increase in transit service, pedestrian thoroughfares, and valet bike parking facilities. Spectators could ride transit for free on the day of their ticketed event. And in the end, more people were walking the streets, draped in Canadian red and white, than anyone had thought possible.

All of which goes to show that if the funding, and perhaps more importantly, the political will, are available, major shifts in behaviour can happen with minimal disturbance or inconvenience.

These lessons are central to addressing two key challenges: two-fifths of BC's greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation; and, our dependence on fossil fuels leaves us vulnerable to fuel price spikes. Eventually, we will need to eliminate fossil fuels from our transportation system.

A zero-emissions transportation system, however, can’t just be about switching to electric cars. Nor can it be about replacing long commutes by car with equally long ones by public transit. To get to zero, we will also need to create “complete communities.”

In complete communities, people do not have to travel very far in order to meet their day-to-day needs, making it possible to walk, bike and use high-quality public transit. This means ensuring a mix of housing types (including affordable housing options) in close proximity to decent jobs, public services, parks and other public spaces, and commercial districts with restaurants, cafes and retail outlets.

People living in complete communities would make green choices not only out of a commitment to the environment, but because they were cheaper and more convenient.

This shift is already evident in some parts of BC, from Vancouver to Nelson. In other areas, transforming auto-dependent suburbs and towns needs to become a central project of the next generation. Converting auto-oriented highways into mixed-use main streets, and parking-heavy malls into town centres, offers the prospect of enhanced livability and greater employment in suburban areas that will reduce the need for extreme commutes.

The need for new housing for a growing and aging population also provides an opportunity for redevelopment plans that reinforce complete communities. Public sector investments can help shape this transition, with libraries, child care, and community health centres. For our growing ranks of seniors, a range of smaller residential homes and supported care units, close to community health centres, would reduce mobility challenges.

These changes in our urban fabric also require that we reallocate space away from cars toward pedestrian and public spaces, bike lanes and bus lanes. This can be reinforced by pricing strategies, such as a rising carbon tax used to fund expansion of public transit service and infrastructure.

Designing complete communities promises other quality of life benefits. It levels the playing field for seniors, youth, people with disabilities, and low-income families so they can live and move easily – even if they are not able to drive or cannot afford a car. Eliminating long commutes frees up time and reduces stress. Lower automobile emissions and more walking and cycling mean a healthier population.

Transportation policy is almost always a political hot potato. Recent examples include Translink's proposed increase in the gas tax to fund transit improvements; billions spent on upgrading highways and a new Port Mann bridge; and concerns over the impact of bike lanes on Vancouver businesses.

But making the right decisions is crucial, as they affect the patterns of where we live and how get from home to work and play. Shifting to a zero-emission transportation will take some time, but it is realistic to think that by 2040 we can eliminate a huge source of pollution that affects public health and contributes to climate change, while achieving more livable, people-centred cities and towns.

Marc Lee is Senior Economist at the CCPA-BC and co-director of the Climate Justice Project.