Not even the City Hall activities going on this past Jan. 17 could stop a group of 50 or so residents from attending a forum at D. A. Morrison Middle School on national transit strategies.
The event was hosted by Beaches-East York Member of Parliament Matthew Kellway who organized a panel of speakers including New Democrat Olivia Chow, Canadian Urban Transit Association’s (CUTA) President and CEO Michael Roschlau, and Beaches-East York Member of Provincial Parliament Michael Prue.
The city of Toronto was looked at under a magnifying glass as an example of a problematic system with Kellway pointing out that it scored last in 21 metropolitans worldwide with an average commute time of 80 minutes, according to a VitalSigns report by Toronto Community Foundation. That equates to spending 1.5 years of one’s life getting to and from work according to the same report.
“In spite of building all that roadway [in the past few years] it still takes 20 minutes longer, on average in Toronto, to get somewhere by public transit,” said Kellway.
The evening event continued with a presentation by Roschlau depicting CUTA’s Transit Vision 2040, a framework for transit improvements across Canada over the next 30 years, a time frame equivalent to a generation according to Roschlau.
Recognizing the changes the country is undergoing, both nationwide and at community level, CUTA has identified key challenges with current systems and developed a set of key points to focus on as its vision is implemented, including putting transit at the centre of the community, revolutionizing service, and greening transit to reduce the industry’s ecological footprint.
Key findings by CUTA during their research process were the inevitable growth of cities and an increase in senior population.
“Traffic congestion will not go away,” admitted Roschlau, who is a resident in the Beach, while pointing out that changes in lifestyle will see people travelling less, resulting in a more compact urban lifestyle.
Chow, the NDP’s transit critic, has entered a private member’s bill into the House of Commons which she calls the National Public Transit Strategy Act. In it, she calls for fast, affordable, and accessible transit to the public.
“It can happen,” said Chow. “It’s about [different levels of government] working together. Right now the Federal Government is mostly missing.”
The Bill aims to “reduce commute times and alleviate congestion in Canadian cities and communities” and “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality,” among other things.
Chow expressed her concern that the three levels of government don’t really know how the funding of transit nation-wide is managed.
“There’s no funding formula. It’s not clear,” she said adding that the feds simply expect the municipalities to decide how to spend the money, which results in long term projects never getting completed due to changes in the mayoral seats. She exemplified the issue by mentioning the work that was done on the Eglinton subway line back in 1994 before it was scrapped by Mike Harris a year later.
In an effort to rally support, Chow will be travelling across the country to educate people on the needs of a national transit plan. She hopes to encourage communities to demand more from their local Members of Parliament.
“We hope to have a transit system we can be proud of,” she concluded.
Prue then took to the stage to emphasize the importance of investing in cities and urban areas.
“Cities are the place where development is going to take place,” he said. He stated that currently in Canada 85% of the population live in towns and cities, yet the Provincial governments still focus too much time on rural issues. Prue is working on changing that so there is more focus on municipalities.
As a way to familiarize themselves with commute times in Toronto, Prue, along with a few other MPP’s took up the challenge of using public transit exclusively for one week. He was astonished by how long it takes to get around.
During the question period of the forum attendees expressed their frustrations with accessibily for seniors, safety issues, and sky-rocketing fares.
“Public transit not only benefits the customer, public transit also benefits society,” said Roschlau of the riders bearing 60% of the costs of transit on average in Canada. “Without public transit there would be constant traffic congestion.”
“[The governments] have forgotten what we’re about, and we’re about surviving together and protecting and caring for everyone amongst us from the rich to the poor,” said Diane Gordon, a local resident. “I use public transit all the time. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s always something. And you know you’ve gone somewhere, you’ve been with people…it keeps you real.”
Prue also stressed that all cities have the authority to raise funds, and that all cities in North America except the ones in Ontario have ultimate level of funding that come from federal or provincial government. He suggested that Toronto may implement its own sales tax or even income tax to help fund projects.
“All the cities’ ills can be fixed,” said Prue.
Attendees were also asked to sign three petitions. One to adopt Chow’s bill, one to move forward with a high-speed rail system in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, and one to force large trucks and trailers to install side under-run guards, an idea brought about after the recent death of a cyclist in the west end.