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Keeping Track - Rethinking the commute

Today's column in the Merc, the first in my Keeping Track series.

Leaving car at home would ease our stress

In a perfect world, commuting would be about more than just getting there, but could contribute to strengthening our community.

With advances in technologies like home video conferencing and our gradual shift to a knowledge and service economy, it seems to me that the ultimate solution for our clogged roads and crazy commutes is to not commute at all. We are a long way from there, of course, and much of our economy will always require being on-site. Many jobs will always require driving a car, whether to obscure locations at odd hours, or simply because there is too much stuff to transport any other way, or because extensive travel needs to be done for the job itself. And while some drivers value their commute as their one time to be alone and at peace during their busy lives, it is an inherently unsocial way of getting around.

When we think about how to improve our transportation system, one fundamental piece of the picture is missing. It should not be about how to accommodate those commuters who must drive, but how to organize transportation so that everyone uses the most sensible system for their needs. That would free up the road network enough so that those who have to drive can do so sanely and would make transit more attractive to the vast majority of travellers who currently are aware of it only insofar as they occasionally have to pass a bus stopped at the side of the road.

I take bus route 52 to work. I live near its southern extremity, in Ward 6. Number 52 is a slow, meandering route, and it takes 29 minutes to get downtown and 26 minutes to get back home, plus waiting, and walking time at either end. It gives me a chance to relax and read a book or chat with the person next to me, and by taking the bus I pass on the responsibility of cleaning off and warming up the snow-covered vehicle to someone else. When all is said and done, at least in the winter months, it is not significantly slower than driving the six kilometres to the city's centre.

Taking the bus to work has helped me understand that I often feel rushed when I am in a car. I do not know what it is, but there is something about a car and its asserted anonymity that makes its very existence feel urgent. It is counter-intuitive and unhealthy, yet I know that it is very common. One need only spend a few minutes on the road to experience another driver's hurry to get somewhere. Driving is a dangerous way to travel at the best of times.

Commuting by transit is inherently safer than travelling by car. The medicare costs alone of auto-crash-related injuries, should give us pause when considering the economics of different modes of travel. The personal risks and stresses of driving when there are viable and even relaxing alternatives are things that most of us do not even consider as we feel a desire to "get there." Intuitively, public transit should cost little to the user, be relatively quick, go far, and run reliably, none of which is generally the case today in Canada.

The Toronto Transit Commission is raising fares so much this year that it's expecting a drop in annual ridership. The TTC's chief general manager, Gary Webster, noted publicly last fall that for every 10-cent increase in fares, a ridership loss of three per cent can be expected. The service is raising its cash fare by 25 cents per ride, which, based on his numbers, should reduce transit use in Canada's largest city by seven-and-a-half per cent.

Those riders will not stay home. One can imagine the cascading effect of increased transit fares and decreasing ridership on other aspects of our infrastructure.

Guelph's transit fares will be going up the same amount in just a couple of weeks, with route and schedule cuts to follow. Ridership loss should not be as pronounced in Guelph because so much of the ridership is made up of university students on their fixed-rate passes, to the tune of 60 per cent of its riders. As many of my fellow bus commuters will no doubt do, I have stocked up on bus tickets at the current price and fully intend to save the few cents per trip.

In a perfect world, commuting would not be about everyone hurrying some place, but about simply getting where we need to go and helping our society calm down just a little bit. From a social point of view, driving and taking transit are polar opposites. Going together is not only an environmentally and economically responsible way to travel, but one that helps build our community.

Posted at 11:47 on January 13, 2010

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