by Theresa Peluso
Several months ago, I explored Mississippi Mills’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the amount of single-occupant car use. Our municipality faces some challenges in addressing this issue. It is located about 30 kilometres southwest of a major urban centre, Ottawa, where many residents work and shop. Out of a population of approximately 12,400, approximately 5,000 live in Almonte, 2,000 in Pakenham, and the remainder are dispersed over a total area of 520 km2 interlaced with 400 km of municipal roads. About 8,700 residents are of working age. These facts suggest that most residents get around by car, including commuting to work.
In addition, like many rural communities, Mississippi Mills has certain societal issues that need to be planned for, as explained by K. Majkut, in his 2011 paper Rural Transportation Issues and Strategies which explains Ontario’s vision for rural transportation. Senior citizens use public transit more than any other age group in Canada. (According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 there were 3,295 adults aged 55 and up in Mississippi Mills – one-fourth of our total population.) At the same time, there is an increasing trend for younger adults to move to large urban centres, which accentuates the age issue. Disabled people and low-income people are also less able to get around by car to meet their employment, household, personal and social needs.
We have started some very good initiatives: There is a daily bus run by Thom Transport to Ottawa and back (via Carleton Place). Mills Community Support operates a wheelchair-accessible bus for non-emergency transportation to local and long-distance medical appointments and regular activities such as grocery shopping and banking. This bus is for use by older adults and adults with disabilities, who pay a set fee, and need to pre-book their ride.
Other initiatives are the use of Facebook and Kijiji for ride-sharing; and the increased popularity of active transportation, enthusiastically promoted by our local cycling enthusiasts, and now our municipality, through its active transportation project, which is expected to provide successful strategies for enabling people to walk, bike, and ski to their destinations instead of driving. By the way, did you know that Whitehorse, Yukon, despite its extreme climate, has one of the highest year-round cycling populations? Whitehorse has taken advantage of this phenomenon by introducing a Wheel 2 Work campaign to encourage people to commute by bicycle during the summer season.
But we can do more! We can create our own solutions from scratch – or have a look at what policy analysts and planners have developed, and at what communities with similar considerations (widely dispersed, small population) have implemented.
In 1870 you could take the train from Almonte to Ottawa, via Carleton Place. For decades, Almonte residents had reliable public transportation to and from Ottawa – at least two trains a day, plus a way point for long-distance trains. Passenger service was interrupted in the 1970s and finally discontinued in 1989. As a result, a useful service was lost, and having a car became even more important (although people living outside Almonte would have had to find a way to get to the train station itself).
According to a 2006 Transport Canada document titled Sustainable Transportation in Small and Rural Communities cs61e_smallnruralcoms (1) Canada is a highly urbanized country – more than 80% of its population lives in urban areas – and, as such, the majority of citizens have access to some form of sustainable transportation, such as public transit. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that all but 3 of 49 urban centres with a population of 30,000 or more have public transit systems. The same cannot be said for rural and small communities, many of which are not well served (if at all) by sustainable transportation options such as public transit, cycling and walking paths, or carpooling programs.
In this document it is also pointed out that local governments and other key decision-makers assume that all rural residents have access to a personal automobile (or more than one, if family members have different schedules). In effect, it forces people who can’t afford a car, or who are unable to drive, to move to centres with public transportation. People who do have access to a car tend to choose it over healthier modes of transportation, such as biking or walking, and consequently have a greater inclination towards excess weight.
Some of the barriers to public transportation in rural communities are cost (smaller tax base and customer base) and low population density (difficulty establishing collection points, greater distance between collection points).
In Mississippi Mills’ case, the fact that we are situated close to Ottawa means that many residents commute to Ottawa, and many Ottawans visit Mississippi Mills for its recreation and cultural opportunities. In 2001, following amalgation of several surrounding municipalities into Ottawa, OC Transpo began offering rural transit service to outlying areas. Since their service doesn’t extend as far as our municipality, it might be possible to arrange a shuttle service from park-and-ride areas in or near Almonte to the nearest OC Transpo bus stop. Think of all the cars that could take off the road!
In some communities, where there are many employees working for the same employer, the employer (or their employees) can arrange for charter bus services. In rural Nova Scotia, Green Rider Ltd. operates on weekdays and organizes groups of commuters who live along a common route in rural Nova Scotia and have similar work or school hours within the nearby Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). Green Rider’s routes travel to all of HRM’s campuses, and the company also offers transportation service to those needing to attend medical appointments.
The Internet, with its growing availability and capability, provides opportunities for people in non-service employment to telework, or for students to work towards a diploma or degree on line. (https://www.tc.gc.ca/media/documents/…/cs52e_teleworkcanada.pdf). In its research, Transport Canada has identified many benefits: employers who offer telework programs benefit from reduced costs because of less absenteeism due to illness, lower overhead costs, and greater productivity and employee loyalty. Employees also benefit, as do communities – less travel time, fewer travel-related expenses, reduced car-generated pollution; more flexibility and more money spent locally.
The Internet also enables people to find rideshare websites where they can find people to carpool with. One such site, Carpool.ca, is subsidized by eight cities in western Canada, as well as provincial governments, universities and colleges and private businesses. Currently, 33 Canadian communities are registered with Carpool.ca. About one-third of these are small communities with populations of less than 20,000. For an example of a state-of-the art ride-sharing website, you have only to click on the Kootenay Rideshare – Nelson, British Columbia link. Ridesharing isn’t just for commuters and people needing to get to appointments – it can be used for sports/cultural/hobby enthusiasts travelling to a meeting or event. Carleton Place has several charter buses or vans that can be leased for use by large groups.
Another option is to use buses to transport rural citizens to and from surrounding rural communities, as Kings Transit Authority (Nova Scotia) does. They have a fleet of 7 vehicles: 5 minivans, 3 of which are wheelchair-accessible, and 2 accessible minibuses. They employ 8 drivers and 5 volunteer drivers to serve about 24,000 rural residents in East Hants. All their vehicles have daily and major semi-annual inspections, and all drivers are fully licensed, screened, and trained to administer First Aid and CPR.
According to Majkut’s report, quoted earlier: “Currently in the US, all transportation systems are subsidized, including bus, train, air, and road. This is not the case for Canada, because not all are considered vital community services.” Transportation should not be the exclusive privilege of those able to drive a car. It’s not justifiable on social grounds, and it has clear negative effects on the natural environment.
What can we do to improve green transportation in our municipality? Make use of the bus services currently provided by Thom Transport. Encourage our family members to walk or bike whenever feasible. Those who haven’t already done so, can contact the Town of Mississippi Mills and find out how to participate in their Comprehensive Transportation Master Plan (CTMP) and Active Transportation Master Plan. (My impression of the information boards posted at the CTMP open house, held last month, was that insufficient effort was made by the consultants to minimize car use and enhance active transportation.) Improve on and use the rideshare options already available on Facebook (Rideshare Almonte) and Kijiji, and charter a bus or van if many people are travelling to a popular event. Find like-minded friends and neighbours to come up with a business plan to improve public transportation and present it to the Town, or to environmental organizations, such as Sustainable Eastern Ontario. I’m sure there are even more ideas, but this is a good start in our efforts to get off cars. Other communities with similar transportation issues to ours, have found brilliant alternatives to single-occupant car use – so what’s stopping us?