Public Values

Asphalt will not solve all problems

Public transportation champion Harry Gow calls on politicians — planners and citizens must plan together.

Headed to Hell in a handcart - continued expansion of road mode wastes land, resources, human Straight Goods News Staff

A TOP PUBLICVALUES.CA STORY FROM 2011 — Following a symposium in Montebello, Quebec, on rural public transportation, organized in part by public transport champion Harry Gow, Straight Goods News Publisher Ish Theilheimer interviewed him by email about his vision, the accomplishments of public transport advocates, and the challenges they face.

Here's their exchange:

Straight Goods News: How long have you been working to promote public transportation? Why did you take up this cause? Did anyone in particular inspire you?

Harry Gow: I have been working since 1976 to promote public transport. I had been doing rural community organization work in Eastern Ontario as a volunteer on a number of files, the last being getting some redress for merchants, etc., who had lost large volumes of business along Highway 17 when Highway 417 opened, diverting customers away. We got some attention on the situation through better signage, etc., and when a reporter asked me what should have been done upstream, I suggested that massive super-highway projects should make way for improved rail passenger service. While that was a little over-optimistic in the context, it got me thinking, and when friends in Ottawa wanted a spokesperson to intervene in hearings for better rail passenger service, I was prepared. I had worked for the CPR earlier and had always been a user of urban transit, trains, and motor coaches, etc.

Influences on my way of thinking included Tony Haswell, founder of the US National Association of Railroad Passengers and Transport 2000 in the UK and France. Ed Abbott of the Canadian Railway Labour Association and then others helped me import the model to Canada.

SGN: What do you feel are your most important achievements on public transportation?

HG: Getting some VIA Rail services consolidated and properly funded, and the same for some urban transit, such as in Gatineau where I have played a role. Saving a few railways, such as the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield, and helping with the Vancouver Island line (of course, I was not alone and many others contributed). Lately, since 2002, it has been getting rural public transit services going in Papineau, Gatineau Valley, les Collines, the Pontiac, and in Eastern Ontario (Glengarry, Prescott, and Russell).

SGN: Looking back since the beginning of Transport Action, how have issues and realities changed regarding public transportation in Canada? Where are things heading? What are the options?

HG: The big change has been the massive growth of the road mode despite increased investment in rail and transit in the last 20 years. There is a growing realization in civil society that asphalt will not solve all problems, even if billions continue to be spent on it. Some transit service is creeping back into rural areas to fill the void left by the abandonment of rail services and the withdrawal of country buses. Things are still heading to Hell in a handcart given the continued expansion of the road mode and its waste of land, natural resources, and human life. The resultant global warming could well solve the problem by making Earth uninhabitable, thus eliminating people, cars, and other GHG producers.

The options are to invest now in High Speed Trains (TGV), urban and rural transit, and stop building highways, as Germany has done.

SGN: What sort of actions do we need to see from governments at different levels to get more people out of cars? What's stopping these good things from happening?

HG: More light rail and metros are needed, as is widespread small-scale rural transit. Commuter trains, regional trains, and High Speed Trains are all needed on the scale these things are being done in France, Germany, and elsewhere. Lobbyists of all sorts of contrary interests, such as Air Canada, some bus companies, and the auto, asphalt, rubber, and trucking industries, have played doorkeepers to shut out change. You have to remember how the construction and consulting industries may influence and corrupt politicians.

SGN: So many communities are built around car use and so are our social attitudes. How can transport advocates deal with the problems created by existing infrastructure and community layout?

HG: The transport advocates I work with proposed shared cars (Virtucar) and shared taxis (Taxibus). These innovations are working well in Québec and are becoming more widespread by the year. See Montreal's Agence métropolitaine de Transport (AMT), Rimouski's, or Victoriaville's websites for examples of the latter. I am currently developing such modes in Western Québec, for example, Transport adapté et collectif des Collines and TransportAction Pontiac. These are well-funded by the Québec government and the counties. I'm also working on the rehabilitation of local railways in both counties and in Renfrew County, etc.

SGN: Just as importantly, how do we build political support for public transportation when people are conditioned to feeling they need cars in order to be happy and independent? What has worked elsewhere?

HG: The use of area-wide transit authorities is a place to start (AMT, Translink, Metrolinx, RATP in Paris, MBTA in Boston, and others). These have to get serious funding from states or provinces, and usually additional sales tax and or gas tax money. Inter-system fare and transfer systems are an absolute necessity. Duplication and competition between modes need to be reduced — some heads have to be banged together. Mostly, however, municipalities with the right dollar incentives will work together willingly. After appropriate public education campaigns, public support is often sufficient to pass local initiatives in referendum.

SGN: Can you point to some Canadian communities and regions leading the way in developing public transportation? What kind of actions are they taking? How have they overcome the obstacles everyone faces?

HG: Montréal, above. Rimouski, above. Western Québec and Eastern Ontario, above. They get all the mayors and transit people in one room and get them to talk about people's — not cars' — mobility needs, for once. Then everyone gets to work to survey and consult the people and out of this grow "no small plans" for multi-year action to install or improve transit.

Posted: May 26, 2011

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