We lack the drive to get out of our cars
Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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We lack the drive to get out of our cars

One of the most amusing sights to behold is drivers circling around a parking lot looking for a spot close to the door. Well, that’s not amusing, unless it’s at a gym, which is something I’ve seen on many occasions. There’s a clear irony in watching people jockey for the closest spot, apparently looking to minimize the amount of walking they’ll have to do … on the way to exercise.

If those people won’t give up even the tiniest conveniences of their cars, what hope do we have for a less car-centric society? Not much, at least not anytime soon. And what hope is there for Waterloo Region’s grandiose plans for a train-centered transit scheme? Pretty much zero.

That has not, of course, dampened the enthusiasm of a handful of proponents leading the mad dash to spend hundreds of millions of dollars – well in excess of a billion, certainly. They were at it this week, committing to spend $17 million simply on one group of consultants, forging ahead despite the fact beleaguered taxpayers have been offered no reassurances that the non-inclusive $818 million budget will not balloon – almost a dead certainty – nor any guarantees those responsible will be held legally and financially accountable if (well, when) the budget is exceeded and ridership numbers fail to materialize.

What we’ve got is lots of nice theories, but no evidence and no plan B for dealing with failure.

And failure is very, very likely. It’s common with government projects, and especially with politically-motivated ones. That’s even more the case when the project in question goes against the tide and counter to how the public actually behaves – wishful thinking never trumps reality.

Take, for instance, the ongoing traffic issues outside of John Mahood Public School in Elmira, discussed again this week at Woolwich council. The township has introduced bylaws, offered up parking areas and called in the police to battle the unsafe confusion that erupts daily as parents drive their children to the school, jockeying to get as close as possible to the entrance before dropping off or picking up their little darlings, a scene reminiscent of the health club drivers.
The school board and region’s public health department have long encouraged walking and cycling to school as an alternative, but still the parents come behind the wheel. Every reaction and solution offered up by the township countered by the urge for speed and convenience, no matter how often parents are reminded of the safety risk. Or the health benefits of letting their kids get to school under their own steam.

The township passed another bylaw this week – “no stopping” provisions on a stretch of Snyder Avenue – but, as Coun. Julie-Anne Herteis noted, that will just move the congestion elsewhere. Human nature at work, despite the best wishes of administrators and politicians.

That’s not to say advocates of walking to school should give up, unlike the train’s proponents. Groups such as the Active and Safe Routes to School Workgroup, which held events in the region earlier this week, should continue to press for their cause, as should advocates of a more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city, despite the uphill battle. Even supporters of the train should join their cause, as success there will do far more to get people out of their cars and, perhaps one day, help support greater use of public transit.

Unlike Waterloo Region’s ill-fated light rail transit proposal, a push for proper bike lanes and, in the bigger picture, for more people-friendly communities has the possibility of benefits far beyond safer cycling. Just visit most European cities to see what that payoff is.

Along with cars tucked into anything resembling a parking spot, bicycles and scooters can be found in uncountable numbers. On a single stroll, you’ll likely see more bicycles, parked or in transit, than you’ll see all year around here.
There are many reasons for this, of course. Denser cities make getting around by foot and by bike much easier, as does the more temperate climate. The price of cars and fuel make alternatives more desirable. Crowding means smaller is better when it comes to a vehicle for getting around. Theirs is a culture accustomed to walking, biking and public transit. And the older cities were not built around automobiles, as opposed to what we find in North America. Policies actively discourage automobile use, particularly in city centers.

In Germany and Holland, for instance, you’ll find bicycle lanes, complete with traffic signals, line many of the streets adjacent to sidewalks.

Because of sprawl and car-centric design, our communities are largely unfriendly to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. While I’m as car dependent as the next person, there is something attractive about the lay of the land of most European cities (of course, they’re also generally far more aesthetically appealing than anything you’ll find here, but that’s another issue).

We walk and bike less often here, largely because it’s neither safe nor convenient to do so. And that’s not just perception: our car-centric planning in North America makes it much safer to travel by car than by foot or bicycle.
In the U.S., statistics show fatalities are 36 times higher for pedestrians and 11 times higher for cyclists than car occupants per kilometre travelled. Car-meets-pedestrian accidents have that kind of outcome.

While Canadians are more active than Americans – we cycle about three times more often than they do south of the border, for instance – the numbers are nothing like what you’d see in Europe. Where walking and cycling account for about six per cent of trips in the U.S. and about twice that number in Canada, the figures compare poorly to the likes of Germany and Austria (35 per cent) and to front-running Netherlands, at almost 50 per cent.

We’ll walk more and cycle more when there are places to walk and cycle to. This means undoing decades of poor planning, mixing residential with commercial, installing separate bike lanes akin to sidewalks to make people safer and downplaying the need to get in the car to go anywhere farther than your backyard.

Provide the incentive, make it safe and convenient, and people just might change some of their habits. That includes parents who insist on driving their kids to school to the detriment of public safety. Achieve a major swing in that direction, then think about expanding transit.

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won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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