Monday, April 4, 2011

The economic cost of inefficient public transit

For some time now, people dissatisfied with public transit service have made suggestions that maybe our politicians and city managers should have to take transit to really get a hands-on feel for the issues everyday riders face, and an honest understanding of the service they're responsible for. It's a good idea, in theory, and something most people would love to see done. David Reevely, however, poured some cold water onto the idea a little while back, stating--correctly--that we're paying these people handsomely, and while they're "on the clock", it makes sense for them to get around the city as quickly as possible; rarely is OC Transpo the quickest option.
Practically, also, our senior transit officials and their political bosses don't ordinarily have enough hours in the day to do the business we want them to do. These people have a lot more places to be in a day than the average white-collar worker. The more time they spend in transit, so to speak, the less time they're actually working.

This all speaks to a larger problem, though: The fact that having slow, inefficient public transit is costing our people, our cities, and our national economy greatly. While I have no way of measuring it, I can hardly imagine the economic cost of lost productivity as a result of ever-lengthening commutes in cities.

The real solution to this problem is a pretty obvious one: Have people work closer to where they live, or live closer to where they work. But this isn't always an option. When it isn't, finding innovative ways to get commuters from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but also as cheaply as possible, if the best we can hope for.

Adding more roads is the typical solution, but more roads rarely (if ever) provide a long-term solution to traffic congestion in Canada's big cities. Investing in public transit can improve the capacity and service level (including time, comfort, and environmental cost), but it's always a challenge for cities due to the unpredictable nature of transit funding from federal and provincial partners, and the fact that municipalities simply can't foot the bill on their own.

In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, the fact that Canada doesn't have and hasn't ever had a national transit stategy to fund municipal projects was lamented, and many explained the need to make it an election issue this year.

“We would certainly hope that one of the key issues that this election is fought on is around a national transit strategy,” said Board of Trade president and CEO Carol Wilding. “There has to be a vision brought to it across all levels of government.” Unlike other countries, Canada has never had a national transit strategy. Although Ottawa has grown increasingly involved in transit over the past 10 years, averaging investments of about $600-million a year, the funding remains ad hoc, with no predictability. In the lead-up to this week’s federal budget, the mayors of some of Canada’s largest cities appealed to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to address transit and the $123-billion urban infrastructure deficit.

Both the NDP and Liberal parties have recently outlined plans for a national transit funding strategy for Canada. The Conservative Party, while in government, has been willing to fund transit projects--including $600M for Ottawa's current project, among others--but neither they nor the Green Party have committed to putting one in place.

For cities to adequately plan and fund transit projects, consistent and predictable funding is of utmost importance. Through a national transit strategy, whoever ends up running this country acter May 2 could guarantee their cities exactly that.

3 comments:

WJM said...

The real solution to this problem is a pretty obvious one: Have people work closer to where they live, or live closer to where they work. But this isn't always an option.

It doesn't help that this "option" has been zoned out of existence for the past sixty years in the name of modern city planning with its mass-segregation of land uses.

No one wants to live like that, we are told.

Meanwhile, you can't buy a house for under half a million in the old pre-war neighbourhoods that exemplify the compact, high-density, mixed-use designs that our official plans keep calling for, and that the politicians, developers, and architects, keep failing to deliver.

Diane Deans, in her intro spiel at the "consultation" sessions, kept mentioning how expensive it is to provide transit on suburban street layouts.

Well, memo to the future: STOP BUILDING THAT WAY, NOW.

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