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Every day should be Clean Air Day

The biggest expenses we have in our private lives are, for the most part, our mortgages, our food, and our cars. Tax-wise, our biggest expenses are health-care, education, and roads. If we made our transit systems as free as our road systems, how much money would we each save in both our personal expenses and our taxes? I argue this point in today's column.

We are, generally, perfectly willing to spend as many tax dollars on our roads as we are willing to spend after-tax dollars to buy the cars to run on them. Highway 7 from Kitchener to Guelph will cost $22,000 per commuter. The new parking garages downtown will each cost $30,000 per parking space. The city roads to connect the two will cost several thousand more dollars per user. The emissions from all of the construction and vehicles will send hundreds of people to hospital and cost millions more of our tax dollars.

Real transit solutions will save us plenty of both tax and after-tax dollars. Cars will have their uses for a while yet, getting kids to the doctor and sports practice, buying groceries and large items, getting somewhere in that hurry we always seem to be in. However, if we can address commuting with transit solutions, the automobile's total cost to our society will drop considerably. We are a society that likes getting things for free and we're willing to pay a lot for the privilege.

Our roads are free, but we pay as much as half of our municipal and provincial taxes to build maintain them. Our health-care is free but we pay a significant portion of our federal taxes to fund that, too. We complain about our high taxes, but do nothing to lower our own use of those tax dollars. Making our transit systems free will address all of these.

Transit systems, whether rail, bus, community bicycles or communal cars and taxis, reduce the total number of vehicles on the roads, the total amount of roads needed to handle them, the total effect on air quality and our quality of life. It reduces our total costs at all levels of government, from road and parking maintenance, highway construction, and health-care costs. As we worry about our modal shares and concentrate on a modal shift away from the car, we must try something new. Free transit is better than $.25 transit or $2.00 transit because there is no requirement to have change, tickets, or a bus pass. A major psychological barrier to taking the bus is taken away.

Guelph is currently going in entirely the wrong direction. On July 6th, our bus frequency will increase to 20 minute service, incidentally the level of service we had in 1895, which is good, but our fares will rise by 12.5%, which is bad. At the same time, the city is acknowledging that lowering bus fares encourages ridership by actively encouraging the city's large employers to get bulk bus pass rates of 15% off for their employees. Why? To encourage ridership, decrease costs to the employers for parking, and the city for roads. We already admit that lowering transit fares will save us money, yet we continue to raise them to cover "operating costs". Roads have no such fees. And in case you're thinking it, no, gas taxes don't even come close.

While we're on the topic of increasing bus fares, I must again point out that the amount of revenue raised by increasing transit fares in Guelph will be roughly equivalent to the money the city is losing in revenue from making downtown's street parking free, on an annual basis. Why must we ask our transit riders to pay for downtown parking?

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that cars are one of the most destructive forces in the history of our society. I say that as a car owner and driver, as lazy as they come, barely willing to walk beyond the end of my own driveway, whose eyes have opened only recently. That's the crux of the issue, really. Why is it that the only place modern man is willing to walk is the gym? And I don't mean to get there.

The automobile has broken us. It is a device I am slowly weaning myself from. I haven't quite figured out how to do it cold turkey, and as the most heavily subsidised means of transit around, there's very little incentive to break away from it. Although neither I nor my wife use a car to get to work -- I work at home, and she takes the bus, we depend on it for everything else. This past weekend I finally bought myself a new bike to replace the one I've had since 10th grade, which has been sitting in my shed since -- you guessed it -- the day I got a car. My project over the next while is to use my bike to help eliminate the need to own a car, though I suspect the need to use it, with the help of short term car rentals, will be years yet to completely resolve.

If we make our transit systems free to use, my contention is that we will save money as taxpayers and as individuals in nearly every industry and aspect of life. The city of Guelph spends nearly 7x as many tax dollars on its roads as on its transit, and around 4x as many tax dollars on roads as Guelph Transit gets in ticket and advertising revenue. That is to say, Guelph spends 4 years of free transit on roads every year. One transit operator I proposed free transit to warned that busses would become full of homeless people, but could give no other arguments why it might be a bad idea. Making transit free is all about providing options for transit that are, quite simply, better than the options for driving.

We start this trend by addressing the most significant replaceable use of cars: commuting. While I believe that people have a moral obligation to live as close to work as practical, addressing the 10,000 people or so who pass each other to work next to each other's homes between Guelph and Waterloo region is a much longer term project. Transit is something we can implement in the short term.

We have already proven the viability and usefulness of making transit free. Every year, Guelph celebrates Clean Air Day by making its busses free for all to ride. That day is approaching. This year, it lands on Wednesday, June 4th, in the middle of our Commuter Challenge. If making transit free contributes to clean air on Clean Air Day, why wouldn't it year-round? Making transit free could make every day Clean Air Day.

Driving costs us. It costs us car ownership, maintenance, fuel, insurance, road construction, road repair, parking structure, land use, health concerns, accident recovery, and environmental impacts from particulate and emitted matter in the construction, delivery, and operation of our cars and our roads. I would estimate that 1/3 of every dollar you spend in your life will have something to do with driving. Transit pools all of these costs for all of us and reduces them all around. Really, moving away from the automobile is more an economic argument than an environmental one. Like businesses "going green" save money, so too will our society.

On a closely related issue, drive-thrus have recently surfaced as an important issue to local residents. Many residents swear by drive-thrus, stopping on their way to or from work for a coffee or burger fix, or at the drive-thru bank machine for cash. Many other residents warn of the environmental consequences of idling vehicles. But my perspective is different from both of these. I believe drive-thrus are a symptom of a problem rather than a problem in their own right. On her excellent new blog, Mayor Farbridge recently asked for feedback on this issue. I replied: "the only real difference between the pollution and emissions from a car idling in a drive-thru and one passing it on the road is the optics of it. On the whole, the one driving is the problem. Solve that and the one getting coffee resolves itself." That is, if these transit solutions are implemented, drive-thrus will be as obsolete as the cars that drive through them.

For those concerned about the loss of jobs in the auto sector with a shift toward transit, I would not worry too much about that: a transit-based society's only unemployed people will be auto industry lobbyists. The auto sector's employees will be needed in a big way to build and operate our transit infrastructure. Yes, infrastructure, not service.

Here, then, is my column on the topic from today's paper, which started its first draft as a "what changes would I try to push through if I were on city council". The half not about transit will become another post.

Public transit: if you love it, make it free

Is our public transit system a service or is it really an integral component of our infrastructure?

Without including provincial investment in such projects as the new Highway 7 or the Hanlon Expressway upgrades, Guelph currently spends nearly seven times as many tax dollars on road maintenance and parking as we do on our public transit network.

Road and parking construction and maintenance will cost Guelph taxpayers more than $46 million in 2008 alone. This is the true culprit behind our constant tax increases, like next year's projected 6.5 per cent rise.

It's not the fault of the paltry investment of a few hundred thousand extra dollars into our bus system.

Our city councillors can fix this disparity, but they have to know that we will not turf them and return the Reign of Error to office if they take bold, necessary, but hard-to-sell measures.

That means you and I have to make it clear that we are ready. The most bold measure Guelph should try - and it is not without precedent around the world - is to make Guelph Transit's buses free for residents to ride. As radical and simple as the idea sounds, it should save tax dollars in the long run.

Free transit would increase ridership and alleviate stress on our road network, eliminate the need for huge new parking structures, and encourage developments built around transit instead of around the car.

The one day that transit was free last year, on Clean Air Day, ridership rose to 22,000 from 15,000. That represents a lot of cars not driving on our roads.

Our transit system should be considered and treated as infrastructure rather than as a service. As infrastructure, extending our transit system to new developments would be a cost associated with development charges as is the case for road construction, sewer and water lines, and our power grid.

Funding transit expansion through development charges would encourage transit-friendly developments as developers seek ways to save money. Public transit is no less an integral part of our city's operations than any other aspect of our infrastructure.

If the Toronto Transit Commission's recent strike and Queen's Park's rapid response -- including a rare Sunday sitting and back-to-work legislation by the start of the next rush hour -- is anything to go by, public transit is clearly a form of infrastructure, not just a service.

Public transit is as important to our infrastructure as our electricity, our running water and our roads. All these elements together are what allow our community to function. We should declare public transit as part of our infrastructure, even if no one else has.

While we are getting that sorted out, we must focus on intercity transit and the importance of the former Lafarge property in any vision of our transit future.

City staff assured a business audience at the city's recent Transit Forum there is no legal reason we cannot run our city buses beyond city limits. Having our transit system connect to Waterloo's by bus, and eventually by light rail, is essential to the future viability of Guelph as an employment centre.

Highway 7 and the Hanlon upgrades from south of the 401 to north of Guelph will likely cost more than $600 million provincial tax-dollars over the next few years.

That huge sum does not even count the billions that the GTA West highway corridor proposal will cost, which proposes to connect the top of the Hanlon directly to the 407.

If we put that kind of money into inter-regional transit infrastructure, we would likely eliminate the need for those new highways altogether.

Guelph has to lead this charge, no one else will do it for us.

With GO Transit's recent announcement it's exploring a return of GO train service to Guelph that may not initially extend to Waterloo Region, the former Lafarge property will show itself to be essential as our transit terminal area for car connections, with the Carden Street transit hub for bus and pedestrian connections in and out of the city.

Securing this land, now in private hands, will take leadership, guts, and investment on the part of our city. It will require us to consider public transit as a critical part of our infrastructure rather than being viewed as little more than a service that other people use.

Making public transit free will ultimately reduce our taxes.

Posted at 08:50 on May 26, 2008

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

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Padraic writes at Mon May 26 09:57:32 EDT 2008...

I think the fiscal case against roads subsidies is the best way to attract right-of-center voters to the environmental/transit coalition: Keep getting the message out there.


David Graham (davidgraham.ca) writes at Mon May 26 10:03:21 EDT 2008...

Padraic,

I agree completely. As much as some industries don't want us to realise it, environmentalism and transit are first and foremost an economic argument.


stageleft (www.stageleft.info) writes at Tue May 27 20:27:24 EDT 2008...

I agree with your point but would quibble about some words and phrases - nothing is free, using that phrase gives those who would prefer that the status quo remain (regardless of the cost) additional ammunition to use against your argument.

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