September 28, 2020

Less Car More Transit, Walking, Cycling in a Post Pandemic World?

It was Eric Doherty that started it all in this article by Jennifer Saltman in the Province.  In the summer more than 250 government leaders who are affiliated with the Climate Caucus sent an open letter stating that Covid related economic recovery monies should not be used for expanding highways and airports but fr supporting transit service, walking and biking.

In Canada after oil and gas industries it is transportation that is the largest source of greenhouse gas emsisons. In British Columbia  transportation produces 37 percent of emissions. Mr. Doherty representing the Better Transit Alliance in Victoria sees Covid recovery as an opportunity to reinforce transit which is suffering with lower ridership in this phase of the pandemic.

There are a few changes already evident from the pandemic. The first is that there is a clear adaptation to working at home. Mario Canseco’s work shows that 73 percent of Canadians expect to continue some kind of work at home, while 63 percent think that business travel and meetings are gone,with internet applications like Zoom replacing those trips.

The second change is that there has been an increase in physical activity as one of Mr. Canseco’s latest polls with indicates.  Two-thirds of people in this province say they are walking more despite living at home, and 26 percent of all people are running or jogging more.

But if more people are working from home, and as in the case of London
England only 25 percent of workers have come back to work in the downtown because of Covid concerns, what shifts can be made?

George Monbiot in The Guardian perceives this time in  pandemic mode as an opportunity to rethink our “traditional” view of transport, something echoed by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Realizing that a return to the “new normal” meant more vehicles coming into central London and less people using the transit system because of virus concerns,the mayor immediately cordoned swathes of streets for walking and biking. The metro area of Manchester has done the same, moving to creating 1,800 miles of protected walking and cycling routes.

It is, as Mr. Monbiot puts it, the recognition of a “structural failure” in how we roads and highways. Even switching to electric cars (now touted as the only new car for sale by  2035 in California) won’t eliminate pollution. I have already written about the microscopic particles from tires and the hazard of brake dust which along with road surface wear ” “directly contribute to well over half of particle pollution from road transport.No legislation is currently in place specifically to limit or reduce [these] particles.”

Each vehicle when made embodies the same carbon emissions as driving a vehicle for 150,000 kilometers. Electric vehicles also require lithium and copper elements which are strip mined, causing damage to the environment. Lastly if every internal combustion engine car is simply replaced with an electric vehicle the congestion of our cities will continue, with vehicles still dominating and restricting movement of walking, biking and transit.

It was Paris’ Mayor Anne Hildalgo that has been talking about  the “15 Minute City” where every residence is just a fifteen minute walk away from schools, shops and services in their neighbourhood. I have described the potential return of the corner store in Canada,  as well as the ‘popsicle test”. That describes the shape of the popsicle when you can  send a kid for a popsicle to the corner store and they return to the house with the popsicle not completely melted. It talks about allowing this commercial usage which is now existing non-conforming in the neighbourhoods they exist in to be zoned as belonging to a neighbourhood and being welcomed, as a vital service mitigating local area food deserts.

We have the opportunity to make a generational shift to supporting walking, cycling and public transit over vehicular, and to reimagine our neighbourhoods to be inclusive of the variety of uses that residents need, not exclusive.

As Mr. Monbiot concludes “This, I believe, is the radical shift that all towns and cities need. It would transform our sense of belonging, our community life, our health and our prospects of local employment, while greatly reducing pollution, noise and danger. Transport has always been about much more than transport. The way we travel helps to determine the way we live. And at the moment, locked in our metal boxes, we do not live well.”


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  1. It will return to normal in due time, but the new normal is less car use AND less transit use, more work from home, but of course still offices downtown, people going to Mexico or Hawaii on vacation or to imprtant biz meetings or conferences. Zoom canNOT replace human-to-human connectivity. It can at best augment it ie reduce the frequency of meetings.

    The new normal is also far FAR more folks in suburbs and further out, ie Sunshine Coast, Chiliwack, Saanich peninsula or Nanaimo for folks – liek me and 10’s of 1000s of others – currently connected to Vancouver. That is why you see tremendous property demand in those places this year.

    Germs on elevator buttons or public transit: so overrated.

    Tiny 2BR 1000 sq ft hovels for a family of 4 vs. a TH or a real house with a yard 100km further out? Many more now will chose the latter !

    1. I agree on about half of your points, but I’ll keep my family of 4 in its 1,100 ft2 North Van hovel with neighbours and amenities close over an isolated 3,000 ft2 just-add-water estate in Langley any day of the week. The pandemic isn’t going to do anything about the availability of land in the Lower Mainland. The border, mountains, ALR, and ocean will still dictate where people can move; and despite current fears – which will fade in time (unless the virus suddenly takes a terribly worse turn) – very few are moving up to Boston Bar just to escape elevator buttons. The city and region’s residential population will not be significantly affected.

      Downtown real estate will, though, and the transit usage downtown commuter density supports. Some folks will return to their downtown offices, full or part-time but the days of massive peak flows of private vehicles and packed buses in and out of downtown 40 times a month are over. That doesn’t bode well for expensive, fixed transit infrastructure intended solely for that purpose like the Langley Skytrain. It may be too late for that business case, but for other traditional inbound / outbound transit goodies like the North Shore rail link, it could well sink it.

      1. Yes indeed.

        Many will stay where they are, of course, though many will opt to move further out as Langley (or Sunshine Coast, or Nanaimo, or Tsawwssen, or White Rock, or Squamish etc) has other attractions and major city life, ie major shopping, opera, theaters, good restaurants, specialty stores etc can be accessed on occasion, say 1-2/month around necessary day time biz meetings.

        Land further out is cheaper thus 750K, $1M or $1.5M goes a lot further than downtown or close to downtown. Of course not everyone will move, but enough to shift demand measurably.

        1. I disagree. Land may be cheaper to buy outright in the Sunshine Coast, but it’s not cheaper than moving. Squamish welcomes new development about as much as it would an Ebola outbreak and White Rock or Tsawwassen are not ‘out there’. It’s the same cost of living. There just isn’t going to be a significant demographic shift within the region. Not as a result of this particular virus. The fundamental barriers to sprawled residential development in the region have not changed, despite how tempted we are to project our habitation desires onto the population at large.

          1. Deleted as per editorial policy

            OF COURSE IT IS FAR CHEAPER, ie for the same $ you get far FAR more space ie more bedrooms and more of a yard.

            Of course not everyone wants that, and for many it is not an option, I get that. But for many it is and this virus is just the final push they needed to make the move. That is why prices further out for single family homes are up, WAY UP, well over 10%, despite the somewhat recessionary environment we are in now.

            Once immigration & students (bot local, national and international) and associated buying & rentals returns to a more normal pace by 2022 we will see tremendous upwards price push for condos and smaller units again closer to the core too !

    1. Not bad for the very middle of a pandemic. Especially considering downtown offices are still not filling up with the workforce that dominates transit use. The people won’t have truly spoken until the pandemic is over and everything finds its new normal. Nothing is normal now. How can people speak?

      1. People always speak, or vote with their $s or feet. Sometimes rationally, and sometimes, like right now, irrationally.

        Eventually we will find out how dangerous this “pandemic” really is. Still loads of (irrational) fear despite evidence of extremely low risk now.

        However, density, transit, housing, schooling, work location patterns and urban planning will need to be re-discussed, re-analyzed and re-re-discussed in light of these real or perceived fears in the future !

    1. That’s not comparing apples to apples. First, it’s still summer data. Second, it’s Average Daily Totals (ADT), not peaks, which haven’t returned.