Making it green, and accessible to everyone
Change is coming. The first sign of real change in how we deal with climate change was a landmark agreement last December in Paris, when 195 countries committed to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Every single one of those countries, whether rich or poor, now has to take concrete action to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. In the words of the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon: “This is truly a historic moment. For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”
Canada has followed up on its commitment by making climate change the focus in the first ministers’ summit in March of this year. At this summit, the Prime Minister and provincial premiers agreed that additional action has to be taken to at least meet Canada’s international commitment to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. As a result of this summit, Ontario has now implemented a new Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP) (see this link: https://www.ontario.ca/page/climate-change-action-plan). The plan covers many different areas, but, in the interest of time and word limits, this column will focus on the area of transportation, and in particular, the types of transportation that could really make a difference in our community.
As pointed out in Ontario’s CCAP, more than one-third of Ontario’s greenhouse gas pollution is caused by the transportation sector, and car and truck emissions add up to more than 70 percent of the total. The decrease in emissions since 1990 that resulted from more fuel-efficient vehicles has only slightly offset the rise in emissions as a consequence of the increase in vehicle ownership, commuting distance and population growth.
Subsidies to buy or lease electric vehicles are one option, as is making it easier and safer for people to walk and bike as an alternative to driving, where feasible. Increasing the availability and use of lower-carbon fuel is another. The province is also planning to improve the competitiveness of short-line railways, which can be three to four times more energy efficient than trucks for transporting a given mass of freight. Finally, the province is also supporting the accelerated construction of the Regional Express Rail (RER) system in the densely populated Golden Horseshoe region in Ontario. Although this particular project will not benefit us directly, it stands to make the greatest impact dollar for dollar in our province.
In the case of Lanark County, approximately 3,000 km2 in area with a network of approximately 2,500 km of roads and a population of about 60,000, an RER, or even a county-wide bus system, is clearly not a viable option. The fact remains that we need to reduce carbon emissions by providing alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. This has the additional benefit of reducing the pressure to build more roads and supporting infrastructure for cars. And of course, there are other, non-environment-related reasons for enabling residents in this county to be able to get around, for which we need to find efficient, affordable solutions.
What exactly are the county’s needs? Lanark County ‘s elected officials and staff, having determined that there was decidedly a need for public transportation, but realizing that they needed a thorough analysis of the problem before taking action, hired two consultants to take this on. The result was, at the end of June of this year, an extremely informative presentation by Messrs. Nelson Rogers and Robert Leitch (with Kurt Greaves, Lanark County CAO, acting as host) on a wide variety of options, from low-cost (including ride-sharing) to more expensive (such as municipal buses). Messrs. Rogers and Leitch combed through provincial and national research on rural transportation, case study reviews of best practices and innovative approaches, and local data on transportation needs and current services. All the options they described in their presentation are already being used in various jurisdictions in North America. Here is the link to the powerpoint slides for their presentation. .
The lack of transportation is seen as a big factor in youth leaving their rural homes; it’s also a barrier to employment; to education opportunities (possibly a contributing factor to the lower percentage of rural people with post-secondary education); to health, social and recreational programs; and to access to shopping, personal care and legal services. In addition, it’s a contributing cause to feeling isolated. Furthermore, the lack of alternatives to driving a car may result in people with vision and/or cognitive difficulties or who are substance impaired, continuing to drive because they have no other way of getting around. People with a low income, unable to afford a car, continue to be trapped because they can’t find better jobs, get more training, or apply for jobs or shifts with non-standard schedules. Tourists, visitors and seasonal residents are not easily able to access the many festivals, events and conventions in the county unless they can drive. Commuters have no alternative to long commutes in their cars. A decline in the county’s rural population as people move to places with access to transportation could further impede the abilities of rural communities to support businesses, schools, health care, recreation and other benefits for residents.
In other words, it’s a vicious circle. By promoting other options to cars, the county can become more attractive to both residents and visitors, and prevent population declines.
At present, there are some commercial services available in Lanark County, although, in the case of Mississippi Mills, Thom Transport is ceasing its once-a-day return trip to Ottawa this month (August). A number of people have informal transportation arrangements, such as carpooling (aka ride-sharing). There are also transportation services available through social service organizations and volunteer groups. The Lanark Transportation Association (LTA) is a not-for-profit transportation service, funded by both the county and the province (this is where the gas tax helps out!). The LTA provides transportation to and from medical and other specialized services for people unable to drive because of a disability or financial limitations and/or for people referred by an agency, such as Ontario Works Program or Ontario Disability Support Program. Generally, people need to book their ride one to two weeks ahead. Fees may vary based on the client’s destination, and qualifying clients can have their fees subsidized. LTA serves a base of over 5,000 riders.
Lanark County, in conjunction with Mississippi Mills, and now Carleton Place (with, it is hoped, more member municipalities joining in), is promoting active transportation. Mississippi Mills now has an Active Transportation Advisory Committee to look at ways to make our community more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. In many cases it involves very little spending to tweak our current system to make it easier and safer for people to get around on
foot or by bike; for example, painting white lines to designate bicyle lanes or implementing supportive policies and programs. (People with mobility problems, who use a mobility-scooter, can also take advantage of the bicycle infrastructure). The fact that our municipality has, thanks to the efforts of people like Jeff Mills, earned bronze level status in the Bike-Friendly Community program, is definitely recognition of what we’ve accomplished so far, and an incentive to better our standing.
There are many approaches to reducing the need for single-occupant cars. One is to reduce the demand for transportation. Instead of having many people find their way to the medical clinic, library, hair stylist or pharmacy, these people could book a visit by various service entities to their neighbourhood on a weekly or monthly basis. Pop-up stores have become popular in towns and cities – why not have them in smaller communities? This approach may require funding from the province or municipality, but would be more cost-effective than a full-out public transportation system.
Advances in technology such as web-based information, scheduling software, and flexible routing (a program which identifies alternative paths that a vehicle can follow to get from Point A to Point B) open up real opportunities for getting around by coordinating transportation information, whether for commercial purposes, government and non-profit agency services, or personal activities. Ride-sharing is one example, where the old-fashioned bulletin board at work or school becomes a computer-based centre where people can offer or request rides. In some communities, the 2-1-1 telephone service is used. (This is a special telephone number reserved in Canada and the United States as a quick and easy way to request information and referrals to health, human and social service organizations. It is now available in 26 municipalities in Ontario, including Renfrew and Lennox and Addington, but not (yet) in Lanark County.) The advantage with 2-1-1 is that people who don’t have a computer can still have access to transportation information. Somewhat similar to a ride-share program is a central transportation booking service, which is a single point of contact for multiple agencies and services (much like a taxi dispatcher). It would be important to disallow use of this service to transportation service providers, to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest.
Another, similar, way to coordinate demand for transportation with available drivers is a central transportation referral service. This service focuses solely on transportation, unlike 2-1-1, and links not just individuals and social agencies, but other entities as well.
It can take many forms. It usually consists of a centralized booking and dispatch service for both individuals and organizations. For example, the service can arrange for off-duty school bus or commercial van drivers to take individuals or groups to a particular activity. It’s somewhat like a ride-share program on steroids. To function effectively, it would be necessary for our municipality or county to assess the transportation needs of its residents, to take an inventory of local transportation services and resources, and to establish a central coordination system with suitable software, technology and trained staff.
Yet another system is transportation service collaboration, modelled on a method used in industry to reduce the need to purchase additional vehicles, and to increase flexibility in getting goods from Point A to Point B. Let’s imagine a scenario where Company X, in the business of shipping furniture, has no delivery trucks of its own. Instead, using a sophisticated software program which identifies delivery trucks belonging to other companies that are suitable for delivering furniture, Company X determines that one of the trucks owned
by Company Y has space for Company X’s merchandise, and is also travelling between the initial location of the furniture and its final destination. Company X then contacts the truck driver and pays the necessary fee for making the delivery. Company X benefits by not having to invest in delivery trucks, and Company Y maximizes use and revenue from its trucks. The same could theoretically be done with people. It sounds a little like centrally managed hitch-hiking, and might not be to everyone’s taste, but certainly offers an inexpensive mode of transportation that might not otherwise be available.
Last year the Ontario Ministry of Transportation provided funding, averaging about $90,000, to 11 municipalities as part of the Community Transportation Pilot Grant Program, in which the municipalities defined their own projects for addressing local transportation needs, including ways to improve use of existing transportation resources by coordinating services and sharing vehicles, staff and drivers, but Lanark County was not included – perhaps there will be another opportunity, and this time we need to be ready to take advantage of it. For more information on this funding, see the following link: https://news.ontario.ca/mto/en/2015/04/selected-municipalities-for-community-transportation-pilot-grant-program-1.html.
Last, and most expensive, in the list of transportation options, is a public transit system. Here again, there are several options, ranging from less to more expensive.
One public transit system option is to operate a shuttle bus to ferry people to and from bigger centres. These shuttle buses could be set up as rural/town loops, or hub and spoke, or a combination of the two. With the right scheduling software, routes could vary with demand. Because Mississippi Mills is situated fairly near a major urban centre, Ottawa, which results in many people commuting there and back, our municipality would be a great candidate for a shuttle bus to link Almonte and Pakenham to the nearest OC Transpo bus stop. Links could also be provided with VIA Rail, Greyhound, and other major transportation systems. Of course, this would require a substantial financial outlay (i.e., a significant subsidy, or tax increase), and because three to five years are required to build a regular ridership, the viability of this system would be difficult to assess until it was well established.
A second public transit system option is to have standard buses with regular routes (for example, between Ottawa and Almonte), but this option is quite expensive, and lacks the flexibility and accessibility of the other approaches mentioned in the presentation by Messrs. Rogers and Leitch.
Transportation links could also be provided for visitors to Mississippi Mills, especially to enable them to participate in the many festivals for which we are famous. Advertising buses and vans to these visitors would make it possible for everyone, not just car drivers and their families, to come here, and it would also alleviate traffic tie-ups and the need for extra parking in the towns and villages.
Lanark County can and should do its part to reduce carbon emissions and make transportation more accessible to all its residents. We lack the infrastructure and tax base of larger municipalities and counties, but we have a proven tradition of community involvement and ingenuity, and, if we have the will, we will find the way! It depends on you to advocate for change in the way we do transportation by contacting your elected representatives, and to propose feasible ways to make the above strategies – or other, new ones – work for us!