Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Canada’s Biggest Environmental Challenge – Ourselves

Ironic – a day before Earth Day, our dependence on fossil fuels is evidently echoed across Canada’s largest city.

Today, the world’s largest automaker, General Motors (GM) announced it has repaid the $1.4CDN billion in loans it received from the Canadian federal and Ontario provincial governments – which the company’s president says is a sign the company is recovering from the recession. GM also repaid the $6.7CDN billion in loans it received from the American federal government’s bailout package.

Also happening today in Toronto, Canada, the city says it is expanding bike lanes in the downtown core along some of the major routes, despite a growing divide.

Much like the battle for and against bike lanes in Toronto, the street where they are going this summer -- University Avenue -- is split down the middle by beautiful gardens and statues – it is one of the widest streets in Canada’s largest city.

So why the division?

Some see the addition of bike lanes as an attack against drivers, as one of their lanes in either direction will disappear, causing more traffic headaches.

Others see the new bike lanes as a step forward for the environment and personal health and fitness.

Despite the greater good – for the environment – adding bike lanes in Canada’s largest city won’t amount to a hell of beans, to paraphrase a famous American general.

For some, it will encourage them to use peddle-power instead of gas-power. For those that already do ride their bike wherever they go it will make their life a lot easier.

But the real problem isn’t really being addressed – lifestyle.

In other urban centers, such as New York, Chicago and London, it isn’t uncommon for people to take public transit, walk, or bike wherever they go. Hailing a cab in Manhattan may make you feel like you’re in the middle of a Woody Allen movie, but with gridlock, you’d probably get to where you were going faster if you were on a bike, or even walked.

In most cities around the world, if you arrive anyway other than by your own personal vehicle, there isn’t anything seen as odd or wrong with that – that’s life living in the big city.

But in Canada’s largest city, if you happen to mention you took public transit or rode your bike, people look down on you, as if there is something wrong with you.

“You can’t afford a car?”

Automatically, people in Canada’s largest city assume that if you didn’t drive, there is something wrong with you. You’re not normal, you are an outcast.

Statistics back this up – or at least the part about those who drive versus those who don’t in the city of Toronto. In Canada’s largest city, over 70 percent of the adult population drives.

Politicians buy into these stats too – over past two decades, federal, provincial and municipal politicians have made – and more importantly broken – their promises to expand public transit.

Back in the mid 1990’s, when I was a reporter, I watched as then-Ontario Transportation Minister Al Palladini, sporting a gold-colored hard hat and shovel, broke the ground at was to become the Downsview subway station, along with several other politicos.

Although the Downsview subway station was built, and stands today, I’ll never forget what Palladini said. He proudly declared that this was the start of a massive initiative to get Ontario moving.

His major transit initiatives, aside from the lone Downsview subway station, never materialized. He had plans to expand the subway to York University in the north-west corner of Toronto, and to create a single-fare system across the municipalities outside of Toronto, currently you have to pay two fares.

Thanks to budget cuts, changes in government, and lack of public and political interest, those green transportation plans got shelved.

More recently, just this past month, the province of Ontario took away funding from TransitCity, another massive government plan to expand public transit across Toronto. TransitCity was going to fund the expansion of transit for the next decade – they tossed everything into it but the kitchen sink. From funding for replacing old, outdated, and costly to maintain buses and streetcars with new ones, to increasing bus route services, to building new light rail lines – including one much needed connecting Toronto’s downtown to the airport – were all a part of this big plan.

That plan too sits on a shelf, collecting dust, as the politicians at the provincial level bailed out – transit costs too much, and they’d rather put their funding into what the voters want.

Ah yes, that’s what it always comes down too. It never really comes down to the greater good for the environment, or even to really seriously reduce gridlock – which costs Canadians a billion dollars due to lost productivity. What really matters is buying voters with policies and plans catered to them.

Never mind that part of public life is to do the right thing, if I were a politician, I’d probably do the same – worry about pleasing those who gave me m job, so I could get re-elected.

Or would I?

Actually, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to keep your job, please the voters and do the right thing. All you have to do is lead by example.

If our leaders at all levels of government took public transit, road bicycles, even drove around in environmentally-friendly electric prototype vehicles, then it wouldn’t seem so outrageous a thing to you and me.

Instead, our leaders travel like royalty, in luxury late model vehicles – the American Presidential car is even nicknamed “the Beast.”

That’s why GM is able to pay back it loans – cars versus taking the bus – cars win hands down. When was the last time you saw Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper riding a bike, or standing in a busy subway train during rush hour?

Love them or hate them, we do follow our leaders. That’s human nature, and until our leaders change their ways, it doesn’t matter how many bike lanes they put in Toronto, or any other Canadian city – they won’t get the use they could, had our leaders used them to show us the way.

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