From surfaces to services

New Brunswick releases report and recommendations on inclusive and sustainable transportation

 – by Yves Bourgeois

               “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

– Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota

Yves Bourgeois stands in front of the iconic former Canadian Pacific station at McAdam, where New Brunswick’s report on sustainable and inclusive transportation was released on 11 December 2017.

New Brunswick citizens and policymakers need to pivot their thinking significantly from surfaces to services, putting “access” first and ratcheting up shared transportation services investments in balance with physical transportation infrastructure.   This fundamental shift from roads and highways is crucial if the province hopes not only to reduce poverty, but also to improve population growth, physical health, job creation and the environment.  This is the overarching theme of the report and recommendations on inclusive and sustainable mobility released on 11 December 2017 by the New Brunswick advisory committee on Rural and urban transportation (RUTAC) struck by New Brunswick Government’s Economic and social inclusion corporation (ESIC). http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/esic/news/news_release.2017.12.1583.html

The challenge is particularly daunting for New Brunswick because we are the most car-dependent province in Canada by several measures.  Nine out of ten New Brunswickers use private vehicles to get to work (compared to 78% for all Canadians).  We drive 750km and our cars emit 9.4% more CO2 than the average Canadian. We own an average 1.5 cars per household.  Owning a car has become a “rite of passage” for many graduating high schoolers, as evidenced by the sprawling parking lots on our campuses. The circle gets vicious and the problem compounds itself.  Because New Brunswick has lots of open spaces, we push new construction (neighbourhoods, strip malls, schools, etc) into the periphery, and this further reinforces the need for cars if we are to access workplaces, services and leisure.

Our overdependence on private vehicles bites us on the rear bumper.  Low income earners may be economically better off on social assistance than paying the costs of owning a vehicle, which the Canadian Automobile Association estimates at $11,000 a year for a compact car.  A person with a disability may lose the ability to work and participate from an inability to drive.  So too will a rapidly increasing number of baby boomers for whom we have scarcely begun to plan service delivery.  Many youth can’t access after school soccer teams or theatre groups because they don’t have a license or a car, which increases a sense of isolation and decreases their shot at post-secondary scholarships.  New Canadians leave for Montreal and Ottawa where life is less expensive; rents may be higher, but overall you’re saving money with a comprehensive $1500/yr transit pass instead of owning a car. The report teases out how these obstacles affect real families.

The challenges may be more acute for hundreds of thousands of people who are marginalized by the confines of private vehicles, but the challenges nevertheless exist for the majority of our population.  We spend 20% of our household budget on cars compared to the Canadian average of 15%, and that makes Atlantic Canadian middle income considerably more cash-strapped.  Our healthcare system loses millions of dollars in missed medical appointments because people can’t get to their appointment.  Car dependence and inadequate shared and active transportation options can be linked to lost productivity, business owner difficulties in filling vacancies, obesity rates, and preventable diseases, healthcare costs, etc.  Hence, sustainable mobility is not just about helping marginalized populations; it makes economic sense.

The vicious circle of car-ownership-and-exurban-development is not unique to New Brunswick, but we have been slow to adapt, even by North American standards.  Let’s hope the oft-evoked nimbleness of our smaller provinces allows us to catch up fast.  The report and recommendations present a road map to achieve this.  The recommendations are based on consultations with hundreds of experts, community stakeholders and citizens.  Some are low-hanging fruit while others will take time to achieve. http://www2.gnb.ca/content/dam/gnb/Departments/esic/pdf/Transportation-Transport/FromSurfacesToServices.pdf  Recommendations fall under key themes:

  • Link development and transportation.  Siting infrastructure in peripheral areas of the town or city will undermine municipal investments in shared transportation. Cities across North America are reducing or eliminating minimum commercial parking requirements in tandem with increased transit investments.
  • Regional approach.  People pay taxes municipally, but they travel regionally (work, hospitals, retail). One third of workers who work in Moncton and Saint John do not live there, for example.  Hence parking demand is driven significantly by people who do not live there, undermining urban density and shared transportation whose costs are borne mainly by a single municipality.
  • The provincial government is central to coordinating many initiatives, yet it is largely absent from shared and active transportation solutions, deferring to municipalities. However, it stands to gain significantly in terms of healthcare savings, service delivery costs and increased tax revenue.
  • Since we cannot expect a bus or train to take us from doorstep to doorstep, and having a bus run a route every 50 minutes is not inviting for citizens to change travel behaviours, people will keep reverting to the default option of private vehicles.  The “last mile” challenge is greater in New Brunswick, where almost half of the population lives in communities smaller than 1000 people and only 2% take public transportation, compared to 12% in Canada and 24% in Toronto, for example.

Cities around the world are betting much on increased multimodal integration, increasing the frequency of a scheduled bus service, for example, while better connecting other modes.  This can mean safer or more convenient shelters from where you can park-and-ride or coffee shops to where you can walk or bike and take a shuttle.  It can shared bike options and safer sidewalks at destination.  Other examples of integration are Rural Lynx in Southwest New Brunswick, where community shuttle services connect with private intercity Maritime Bus routes to Saint John. Or think Uber-like on-demand services connected to scheduled inter-city community transportation services.  We brand New Brunswick as a tech-savvy place, but we are miles behind the use of certain smart services such as mobility apps.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be nudging people’s behaviour towards these more sustainable modes of transportation.  I recall when Université de Moncton proposed a $100 increase in tuition in exchange with an unlimited Codiac Transpo bus pass it had negotiated with the transit commission.  Students rejected what was perceived as a $100 tuition grab but could have saved their families thousands of dollars.  A well-intentioned program failed because it reached out to a student population that already had cars and needed parking.  If it wanted to get university students in buses, it should have reached out to high school parents with a reliable alternative before a car was bought or bequeathed.  As a researcher, smarter incentives and nudges is where I focus.

The next step is crucial.  The provincial government needs to play a strong leadership role in implementation.  However, it can count on hundreds of keen New Brunswickers across the province who are working diligently on making more inclusive and sustainable a reality.

 

Dr. Yves Bourgeois chairs the New Brunswick Rural and Urban Transportation Advisory Committee.  He was recently appointed dean of studies at the Shippagan Campus of the Université de Moncton, while continuing to serve as an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick, where he was previously director of the Urban and Community Studies Institute.  He is also a member of the Transport Action Atlantic board of directors.

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