Debates over Toronto’s subways and Ottawa’s LRT have overshadowed an equally important issue: how to move people in small, rural communities.
Traffic congestion, sky-high commute times, and overcrowded buses—complaints such as these from across Canadian cities have generated a growing number of demands for government leadership and investment into a strong national public transit plan.
But in the call for increased upper-tier investment, it would be a mistake to limit the definition of “public transit” to formal systems found only in the country’s largest cities and towns (such as rail, bus, and subway lines), leaving out the vast majority of small and rural areas that don’t have the population density to support such systems.
In these small communities, what alternatives are available for effectively spending their allocation of “transit” dollars? The answer involves taking a creative, multi-pronged approach that’s tailored to each community’s unique needs.
“The challenge going forward, clearly, is going to be making the case for ways of addressing the mobility challenge in small communities, and it’s only going to become more and more difficult as the population ages,” says Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA). “We’ve seen the demographics, and we’ve seen some of the environmental and economic trends, all of which point toward a growing need for public mobility solutions in communities of all sizes.”
Owen McGaughey, transportation planner at engineering consulting firm GENIVAR’s Toronto office, says the trouble with promoting “active transportation” such as cycling and walking is that more people in rural areas tend to own vehicles because they’ve got a long way to travel. “A lot of people work in different towns, the towns are spread out, the industries in a lot of rural areas are commonly agriculture and forestry, and they are industries where people are more likely to need a vehicle for their job,” says McGaughey.
However, in many rural areas, single-industry community economies are weakening, young people are migrating out to larger urban areas, and rural areas are greying. “So, there is a need to develop alternatives to the car,” says McGaughey.
Infrastructure elements may include designated, fully separated, or painted on-street bike lanes, sidewalks, and additional crossing points, though on low-volume, low-speed roads, says McGaughey. “Instead of spending money to widen the road or remove street parking and going through that exercise and controversy, one method of encouraging cycling, and on some streets walking, is to simply lower the speed limit.”
And while it’s by no means universal at this point, in Canada and the United States, there is a slow trend towards recognizing that people should be able to navigate roads without a car. “Sidewalks aren’t a local frill; [they’re] required as part of the road,” says McGaughey. Such non-auto elements are increasingly being included, and thus paid for, by the same authority responsible for the specific road (re)construction project.
Of particular benefit to cyclists travelling between towns is the addition of wider paved shoulders, which increases safety for cyclists who would otherwise be travelling in live lanes. Additionally, paved shoulders can actually reduce maintenance costs, says McGaughey. “If you only pave up to the white line and then have a gravel shoulder, the travel lane is close enough to the edge of the pavement that it weakens the edge and the pavement deteriorates.”
McGaughey says that Ontario’s Grey County, which has instituted a paved shoulder policy, has found that the increased capital costs of paved shoulders are more than offset by the reduced maintenance costs, and the life cycle is extended so reconstruction is required less frequently.
Quebec is developing a cross-province network of cycling routes known as the Route Verte, expanding the network by paving road shoulders and identifying certain rural roads with little traffic as designated cycling routes in a bid to promote the region’s “cyclo tourism” industry.
The Route Verte also utilizes public right-of-ways, such as abandoned rail corridors, towpaths, and hydroelectric right-of-ways as part of the network—a strategy that could work well in other Canadian rural towns to create off-road routes for both pedestrians and cyclists travelling across town and between towns, says McGaughey. By improving such path infrastructure, “you can make them part of a network and it’s another option for people to use.”
For communities in closer proximity to some of Canada’s largest urban centres, a great source of support, ideas, and programs for promoting active transportation such as cycling, walking, and carpooling can also be found via organizations such as Smart Commute (in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area), TravelSmart (Vancouver), or HRMSmartTrip (Halifax).
Investment in infrastructure that makes road transportation more efficient, such as advanced signal technology to ease massive traffic backups, or smart information technology systems to track and notify riders about the whereabouts of transit vehicles on complex transit routes, may also qualify for government funding. But more often than not, it solves problems that don’t apply to smaller communities, says Dennis Fletcher, director of transit solutions at GENIVAR. In these regions, he says, “the options are more in the service than they are in the facilities and the technology.”
Fletcher says a more formal transit system can work where there is a collection of urban nodes across a rural region. Norfolk County, south of Brantford, Ontario, is one such example, with its largest town, Simcoe (about 15,000 people), surrounded by smaller communities. A small 12-seater activity bus operates daily between the two largest communities, and on different days of the week to the smaller communities. “Ultimately they want to provide service throughout the county on a demand-responsive basis so that anybody can get a ride anywhere,” says Fletcher. “Norfolk County is not a high-growth centre. It’s not going to get much bigger than it is now, so [the success of the system] just depends on tailoring the service to the particular people that need it and can see how it works.”
Flexibility is indeed the key to transit systems in small and rural communities, as recommended by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) in its 2012 report, Transit-Supportive Guidelines. MTO spokesperson Bob Nichols says effective strategies include demand-responsive transit services, community transportation, and implementing flexible transit services and fully accessible transit systems to serve aging populations.
Roschlau envisions another flexible transit solution to be a “brokerage” system that pools and makes available for public use community service vehicles such as vans owned by a local nursing home, Lion’s Club, or other non-profit organizations. “Investing in the facilities and the mechanisms that will allow [these vehicles] to be made available would be relatively inexpensive compared to what we’re used to in larger urban areas,” he says.
Fletcher says there have been similar successful initiatives in the past, including a Toronto-based program developed by the Metro Agencies Representatives’ Council that coordinated transportation needs and vehicle-sharing activities amongst local social services agencies.
Fletcher says that while this is one example of success, in other instances, pooling transportation money and resources became unworkable simply because many agencies don’t have a dedicated transportation budget. “When it came down to it, it was difficult to find a way to move the money.”
Another creative, demand-responsive form of public transit using private taxis, known as Taxibus, has been in place in Rimouski, Quebec since 1993. Local taxi drivers formed a cooperative to dispatch and drive passengers to designated stop points in the community, while a non-profit organization created by the City administers the service and performs registration, reservation, and financial functions. According to Transport Canada, Taxibus has shown that public-private partnerships with the taxi industry can improve public mobility in an affordable manner.
Variations on this concept include systems where taxis take passengers to the nearest bus stop or transit terminal, and “taxi scrip” programs that subsidize taxi rides for qualifying citizens, such as seniors, the disabled, or low-income riders, says Fletcher.
Small communities that are currently (or soon will be) linked to a larger regional transit system, such as the one Metrolinx oversees in the Greater Toronto Area, are best served by investing transit dollars in better connections between the community and that higher-order regional transit system, says Cherise Burda, transportation director at the Pembina Institute in Toronto. “You can get into community carpooling, transit vans, and things like that to go pick up [passengers] around commuting times,” she suggests.
More isolated, self-sustaining, or standalone communities need to examine “not just infrastructure, but the development of the community itself,” says Burda. Smart taxation and community development policies play a major role in building transit-friendly towns. For example, corrective land tax strategies and development charges can help stem urban sprawl, which necessitates the increased use of private vehicles rather than walking or cycling, and encourage a thriving, mixed-use downtown core. Burda says, “[With urban sprawl], you’re never going to have a transportation system that is effective, and you’re never going to have the higher order levels of density to even have a regional bus that moves people around.”
Supporting transit in small communities requires reconsideration of the way cities and towns grow and evolve, concurs the MTO. “By using investments in transit to encourage more development and place-making, the effects of outward expansion can be minimized, valuable farm lands or natural areas can be preserved, and road congestion moderated.”
Susanne Ruder is an Ontario-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as PROFIT magazine, Retail News, MoneySense, and Reader’s Digest Canada.