Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Turning Green

It’s no secret lately that our planet is in a state of disrepair. In fact, I just received an email detailing upcoming “Hamilton Events about the Environment”: Climate Change and You! The Global Warming conference that took place last week has been headlining daily in the papers, warning tenants of the world of the sorrows to come - from increased tropical storms to melting glaciers and rising temperatures.

Turn off your idling cars! Turn down your furnace! Turn out the lights! Turn from vacationing, stop taking unnecessary plane trips, and for heaven’s sake, don’t drive your car!

Good advice. Unfortunately, in this weather, it’s not likely to be heeded by the citizens of Hamilton and the GTA. The question is, would the average citizen alter his routine on an average-temperature day? Unlikely.

Brian and I haven’t turned on our furnace yet - we’ve been using space heaters in the rooms that we occupy at the moment. Same goes for the lights in our apartment - unless we’re in the room, the light doesn’t go on. We haven’t been on a plane for a vacation. Unfortunately, there’s no way that we can stop driving our car (yes, that’s right, we’re a ‘single-car’ family!). Or at least, not with the present state that our transportation system is in.

I have lived in Ontario for the majority of my life; however, I believe that it is my experience of living in Vancouver, BC, Charlbury, UK, and Kobe, JP that qualifies me to make the following statement: transportation systems in Ontario, particularly the HSR in Hamilton, will never allow the majority of citizens the option of becoming just a one-car household or even a no-car household unless several million dollars are invested in the systems.

My first exposure to a competent transportation system was in Vancouver in the summer after my second year. Laura and I moved there for a summer job - we lived in Burnaby, worked in Surrey, and regularly visited our friends in Vancouver, Port Coquitlam, and North Vancouver. Oh, and we didn’t have a car. During rush hour (7-9am, 4-7pm) buses passed our house (in a small, residential neighborhood) every minute and a half. It was a five minute bus ride to the nearest sky train station, where trains left the station every two minutes in rush hour, every five minutes at other times in the day. A 35 minute ride above and across town brought us to the Surrey (King George) station, where we could catch a bus to the neighborhood of our workplace within ten minutes. We’d run for our last bus (after a week, our bus driver started waiting for us at the bus stop on a busy street) and hop off a few minutes later across the road from the green house. Our hour-long public transit journey was not only faster than driving (an hour and a half on the roads), but more relaxing and social. It’s amazing the people you meet when you’re on the same train every day, when you get on or off at the same bus station, when you notice that alien boy has stopped appearing at the stop every day. I had the chance to read books and write letters, and I had the freedom to travel painlessly around the city. One Saturday I hoped on the bus and was at the White Rock beach after only one quick transfer.

My second exposure was 8 months later in England. While we didn’t need public transit to get around the small town of Charlbury, there was an adequate train system in the surrounding country. An hour on the train brought you from Oxford to London, and from there you could get to anywhere in the country. I was fortunate to have a BritRail travel pass for 21 days, with which I could step on and off of trains at my whim, travel to Canterbury for an hour just because. It was also possible, for the ordinary day when the travel pass wasn’t activated, to get on a bus to the heart of London for a pound ($2 Canadian) - you can’t even catch a ride from Hamilton to Toronto for $2! The transportation system within London is so fabulous that it takes minutes to get from one place to another and it’s almost impossible to misinterpret the tube system (“The Underground” aka the subway).

My third and most recent exposure was last year in Kobe, Japan. While I didn’t test out the bus system on my own (due to lack of language - nihongo ga wakkarimassen), I had fabulous success with the subway and train system. I lived very comfortably for five months with no car, and no need for a car. The subway station, located a five minute walk from my apartment, took me where I needed to go. From the city centre I could get to both Kyoto and Osaka within 30-45 minutes - for a relatively small price. A three-hour train ride in Ontario with VIA will likely run over $50 - my three hour trip to Laura’s place: $30. I could get to the grocery store, the department stores, my school, and tourist places so easily that most of the time it didn’t even matter that I didn’t understand the language being used on the signs or announcements.

What unites these three experiences first and foremost is the fact that they were all as easy - or easier - than using a car. Convenience is King today. Why do people sit in their idling cars outside train stations instead of figuring out the exact time of arrival of their guest and timing their arrival accordingly? Because idling is easier.

If towns, cities, and all levels of government committed to making their public transit systems more convenient than car travel, I believe that there would be a dramatic decrease in dual-car households. Hoping on a train that would take me up to Limeridge Mall would be a lot easier than fighting the Saturday traffic and finding a parking spot in the over crowded lot. Yes, the capital investment would be huge - so huge that most cities will never even consider it, unless the Olympics came to town. However, if everyone cares about being green as much as they say they do, they’d better find the money from somewhere. I do think that it’s fabulous that the new buses HSR bought are 80% better with emissions than the current buses are - but in order to maximize the benefits of those new buses, they’d better start finding people to ride them.

As long as transit systems remain expensive long journeys, the only people who will get on are those with no car and no license. Almost everyone will pay for convenience - but a population who will pay grand prices to wait outside in the cold for half an hour to transfer to another bus - just because it’s good for the environment? Unlikely.


debbie said...

hey Jenn!

it's Debbie, all the way from Vancouver! i've been reading your blog on and off, and I see that you've relived Vancouver in this entry :)

hope you're doing well..and you're right...transit will only expand if the Olympics come...and indeed they are coming :( construction for a third line, the Canada Line, has already begun with a station at YVR airport... while i like the transit, it's unfortunate that it requires a profit making event such as the Olympics to motivate goverment officals to action..if indeed that's what they call it.

keep bloggin.. my fellow Shakespeare lover!


Kenny said...

I want more trains! :)

kim furtney said...

hi jenn,
i really enjoyed reading this...because i totally agree. when i lived in christchurch for a year, i didn't have a car, and didn't ever feel like i was being held back because of it. i knew how to get around better than some of the kiwis! i definitely agree with you that ontario would be a lot more environment-friendly if they invested some serious money in the public transportation system.

bertnee said...

hey jenn, we should take the bus up to the school together. it does work! you can get there by about 8:45, if you leave the stop on aberdeen/queen at 8:27, i think. (i haven't done it recently, so it might all be ten minutes later than those times i gave. =) but yah, it can work! i just never want to do it, and obviously some days i need my car later in the day. but if you want to do the bus with me, it would motivate me to use it. (at least MWF, when brian doesn't have class...) =}

Rachel said...

hey jenn - good rant :), and very well put. I totally agree with you. I've never lived in any of those places, so I can't speak regarding their convenience, but I do know that Hamilton is lacking with its current system after helping numerous individuals from work try to figure out bus plans to get them to their destinations. A simple 25 minute ride sometimes means three (not so easy)transfers, and a long wait! Ridiculous!

Rod and Bec said...

Hear! Hear! Well said!