David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Faisal Moola is the David Suzuki Foundation’s Director General for Ontario and Northern Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and York University.
Ontario’s recent election campaign was bookended on the right by the Conservative Party’s bullish plan to drastically reduce the size of the public service and on the left by a grab-bag of populist promises, including the NDP’s commitment to reduce auto insurance rates and monthly hydro bills.
It would seem voters rejected the Conservatives’ brazen plan – which was ambitious but out of touch with the province’s propensity to moderation and centrism – as well as the NDP’s lacklustre platform, which was sprinkled with voter-friendly initiatives but lacked substance.
In the days since the election, pollsters and pundits have attempted to explain Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s crushing victory over her opponents. Many have attributed her success to personal charm and voter appeal, the electorate’s lack of interest in scandals that plagued her predecessor and the fact that Ontarians were more fearful of radical change under Tim Hudak’s Conservatives than Ms. Wynne’s continued governance.
Although these and other factors played a part in her victory, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Ms. Wynne has also put forward a number of big and bold ideas since she took office only 16 months ago – ideas that clearly resonated with Ontario residents.
Chief among these is a plan to inject $29-billion over the next decade into overhauling Ontario’s antiquated transit and active transportation systems, with new LRT and subway lines, more frequent regional Go bus and train service and 400 kilometres of new cycling lanes. This commitment is visionary in its potential to radically transform the province for the better, and is a populist move to help improve the lives of millions of commuters who find themselves stuck in mind-numbing traffic jams or herded onto overcrowded buses, subways and streetcars every day.
Throughout her short tenure as Premier, Kathleen Wynne has made transit a centrepiece of her government’s vision for Ontario. In doing so, she’s correctly realized that transit investments are a catalyst for positive change. Improved transit reduces barriers that strangle economic productivity while improving the well-being of commuters who would otherwise be stalled in gridlock.
Furthermore, transit-oriented communities have better air quality with lower greenhouse-gas emissions and benefit from reduced congestion with shorter commuting times. Evidence even shows that people in cities with a range of transportation options are also less sedentary, get more exercise and are happier and healthier.
You don’t have to travel far to see how transit investments can improve residents’ lives. In his book Arrival City, Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders argues that easy access to transit, among other factors, is a reason Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park has avoided many social problems that plague similar inner-city neighbourhoods. Though most Thorncliffe Park residents are recent immigrants, half speak a first language other than English and many are poor, they integrate well into Canadian society and many enter the urban middle class within a generation. This is in part because the neighbourhood is well-connected to Toronto’s downtown, with bus and subway routes, and easy access to schools, employment and other opportunities. Transit facilitates social and economic links to the core of the city and helps residents overcome the physical isolation that plagues many communities. Ms. Wynne deserves praise for her recognition of transit’s importance to the economic, social and environmental health of Ontario and her willingness to stake her political future on it. Given her strong electoral mandate, she now needs to move quickly. Transit improvements have suffered from too much politicking, grandstanding and partisan bickering in the past, including from within her own ranks. She needs to devote tens of millions in kick-start funding for immediate improved transit service and active transportation infrastructure upgrades so the public can see marked improvements now. And she needs to reconsider her opposition to new revenue streams to support transit investment, which will bolster resources without worsening the deficit. Polls show most residents support increases in taxes and fees to improve transit. Two expert panels studying the issue have recommended fiscal solutions such as these to her already. The Green Party’s election platform championed revenue tools aimed at changing driver behaviour – which garnered praise from the independent Pembina Institute in its evaluations of party platforms and transit policy.
The recent election bodes well for a public that has been waiting too long for transit solutions. Investing in transit will transform the way our communities move and generate numerous other benefits. Effective transportation solutions can spur economic productivity, protect the environment and improve quality of life. It’s time to get moving.