Could the next big vote on environment be Metro Vancouver’s transit referendum?

Could the next big vote on environment be Metro Vancouver’s transit referendum?

By Keane Gruending

April 03, 2014

Let’s face - it’s difficult for individuals to take meaningful action on the environment. The sheer scale of the world’s climate and pollution issues is daunting and can inspire a feeling of powerlessness for many. While we’re all some combination of consumer, voter, or investor, it’s easy to get frustrated when our individual actions at home or at work have a minimal impact. However, despite the fact that international and federal politics have failed to address our major energy and climate change challenges, real action is taking place on the local scale, such as in BC’s many diverse municipalities.

Did you know that the next big vote on BC’s environment is coming up and it’s happening right here in Metro Vancouver? Although it will never be labelled as such, the upcoming referendum on transportation represents one of the best opportunities for voters to flex their democratic muscles and take a stand on energy and climate.

While you could argue that it’s the job of politicians at all levels of government to respond to climate change, for the most part that’s just not happening, nor is there a plebiscite on the table, anywhere, to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Metro Vancouver’s transportation vote, having twisted in the political winds since it was first pledged by Premier Clark during the last provincial election, can best be summarized as this: The Mayors of Metro Vancouver’s 22 municipalities have until June 30, 2014 to come up with a collective transportation investment package for the region. Once established, this package will be voted on by citizens of Metro Vancouver no later than June 30, 2015. Failing that, all bets are off.

So what? What are the environmental implications of a transportation referendum? Why does it matter from a climate action perspective? Well, without knowing exactly what is on the ballot, it is generally accepted that the focus of transportation improvements will be on transit: light rail for Surrey, enhanced bus service for the region, a Broadway-UBC subway line, and/or other projects. An investment in transit infrastructure can increase the frequency of transit as well as the number of transit options available to people throughout the region; it will allow people to get out of their cars for more trips.

Transit is an incredibly energy and space efficient way of getting around. For example, the GHG footprint of a diesel bus is eight times less than that of a single occupant car on a per-kilometre basis. Moreover, bus services require ten times less space to move people around than passenger cars. Let me put this into perspective: the resource hit of moving nearly 1,000,000 people by transit is the same as moving 100,000 people by car. While this is a highly contrived example, it goes to show you how influential transportation is in shaping energy demand and creating carbon emissions. The point is that cities with high transit ridership have low transportation-related GHG footprints: Berlin, with its excellent cycling and public transportation options, generates one tonne of emissions per capita while Houston creates six tonnes of GHGs per capita - and that’s just for moving people around!

Furthermore, transportation and land use go hand in hand. While it’s important to have a variety of housing types to suit all lifestyles and family structures, transit is conducive to more compact, walkable, and bikeable communities. It allows cities and municipalities to build more affordable and energy efficient buildings and infrastructure. Using the same Berlin-Houston example: in the same amount of space, Berlin can fit nearly three times more people than Houston can. That’s less concrete, wiring, lighting, and sewage and water infrastructure per person and a smaller GHG footprint. It’s clear that there is a relationship between transportation infrastructure, how we choose to move around, and energy and climate impacts.

Yes, Metro Vancouver’s transportation system is one of the best in North America but we still have a long way to go. Want to know the region’s largest single source of emissions? It’s light vehicles: cars and trucks are responsible for 31% of the region’s emissions. That’s nearly twice the hit of the combined emissions of the cement, industrial, and agricultural sectors.

It’s not often that we, as individuals, have an opportunity to load the dice in favour of climate solutions. However, sometime over the next few months, all it will take is a couple hours of time and a little ink.

(Icon photo courtesy of samd/Flickr)

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