I won’t be taking the Commuter Challenge next week. I’m pretty sure you won’t be either.
Last year, only 0.45 per cent of Waterloo Region residents took part in the event, which aims to get people out of their cars in favour of walking, biking or using public transit to get to work.
As low as that number was – 2,283 people from among a population of 508,000 – it was still good enough for top spot in Ontario and fourth in Canada. Winnipeg was number one, with a participation rate of 0.94 per cent. Calgary (0.59 was second), followed by Regina (0.48). Ottawa (0.41) rounded out the top five.
Organizers of course hope for larger numbers at this year’s challenge, running May 31 to June 6, but even doubling the number would still put participation at less than one per cent of the population.
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I’d love to help. I really would. Leaving aside the fact that I often need my car for work purposes, commuting is just not feasible between my Waterloo home and Elmira office. While only a 15-minute drive, the distance is unmanageable by foot or even by bicycle. As most commuter traffic goes the other way – Elmira to K-W in the morning, reversed in the evening – carpooling really isn’t an option. As for transit, that became a possibility last month with the extension of the bus service, but would take a minimum of three times as long as the drive – not practical for one day, let alone a week.
Scott Young, who’s spearheading Waterloo Region’s Commuter Challenge efforts, hopes there aren’t too many people with my mindset. He remains optimistic last year’s participation numbers can be beaten, eyeing a first-place finish nationally. Still, he knows there’s an uphill battle to be fought, not only to convince people to ditch their cars next week but in the larger context of changing our auto-centric way of life.
“As Waterloo Region continues to grow, we’re obviously going to have more people driving. The idea is to have more alternatives for people – bike paths, trails and more solid transit systems – to give them the option, the incentive to keep the car at home,” says Young, a WLU student working this summer as a transportation demand planner for the regional government.
The Commuter Challenge highlights the alternatives to the typical image of the lone driver taking the car to work.
“We really want to reduce the amount of single drivers,” he notes.
“People can use this week to take a look at the alternatives. Hopefully they’ll continue past this week.”
Offering up an alternative to cars is one of the rationales behind the rapid transit initiatives now under debate in the region. The light rail transit, in particular, is supposed to entice us out from behind the wheel. That in turn should lead to intensification of homes and businesses along the transit lines, perhaps making walking and biking more feasible as density rises and distances fall.
Walking and cycling are much more ideal ways of getting around from an environmental standpoint. They also have the bonus of providing us with more exercise. In Woolwich Township, the many trails encourage people to hike recreationally. Pathways and connections to larger trail networks are increasingly common in subdivisions. It is indeed easy to get out and go for a walk in a comfortable and safe setting.
That kind of infrastructure does make the area more walkable, and providing it is relatively easy. Where things get trickier is when it comes to seeing walking as an alternative to driving. We are hooked on the automobile. Getting us to give them up is going to take a lot more work than simply improving the trail system.
For decades now, we’ve had a model of suburban sprawl – low-density living that relies on roads to connect our homes to shops and workplaces. In the region, it’s pretty difficult to get around without a car. The transit system is not particularly robust, especially outside of the main transit corridors, which means pretty much the bulk of the area. The townships are beyond the pale.
Changing how we get around will be difficult. Entrenched planning goals based on big roads and big, sprawling developments will have to be altered: That kind of growth is not pedestrian friendly.
Living in a large suburb, kilometres away from a mall or massive power centre, we naturally get in our cars to get there. And, when it comes to work, many of us have to commute great distances. Changing that reality could take decades, even if we opt to do so.
Clearly, the regional government wants us to do just that. Its growth model calling for higher densities hopes we will pass on cars in favour of public transit, pedal power and our own two feet. A great theory, but it’s not going to happen any time soon, if at all, despite billions of dollars in potential expenditures.
That’s the real challenge.