Point of View

Better transit isn't just for the poor

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko argues Hamilton's transit debate has too often focused on what it is like for the unfortunate people forced to use it, as opposed to seeing it as something that can serve all citizens of the city.
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko argues the debate on transit has focused too much on the people who are forced to ride buses. (CBC)

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a Hamilton-based freelance writer, who works at Environment Hamilton on various projects.

What a fuss was made around Environment Hamilton’s recent, “Throw Council on the Bus” challenge, prodding councillors to ride the bus for five measly days of the month (not even consecutive days).

The invitation was an opportunity to expand their understanding of Hamilton’s transit users’ needs — not an attack on their personal transportation choices. It was an opportunity for councillors to think about how they can improve the HSR.

Cities are going to keep growing and we have to respond intelligently to these changes if we want a breathable, liveable future.- Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko

The response from many Hamiltonians framed the issue around a narrative that went: “Some people don’t have an option so they have to take a bus, sucks to be poor. Why don’t you ride and see how the other half live?” 

Because yes, transit is about equity — being able to get around no matter your age or income is a right and cities of the future are being planned with this in mind.

In a 2013 Ted Talk, Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogata, Columbia stated that as un-sexy as buses are, they represent “democracy in action.”  

He said, “In terms of transport, an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use transit.”

Public transit as an equity issue is a tougher sell for older cities, like Hamilton, gridlocked in 1950s car culture where owning a car is still equated with freedom (car payments, high insurance costs, aging infrastructure — freedom exactly how?).

What about climate change?

What really stood out for me was that in all the kerfuffle the campaign caused, we managed to circumvent the stomping elephant in the room: WE HAVE TO REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS.

Hardly any of the commentators rallied around the narrative “we all need to drive less, and to do so we need better transit for everyone.”

Reducing carbon emissions is not sexy either, but neither are the effects of climate change.

The reality is, most of the world’s population lives in cities; cities are going to keep growing and we have to respond intelligently to these changes if we want a breathable, liveable future.

Transit is top priority, not only for the sake of equity, but because cars are the largest source of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants in Canada (David Suzuki Foundation).

Peak Car?

Young people are on the climate’s side — whether or not they intend it so. They are driving less. It’s expensive. Jobs are hard to come by and when you have one, commuting by car is exhausting and stressful.

You want speed? Connect to the internet. Youth in Canada, the US, Australia and other western countries aren’t lining up for driver's licenses. It’s just not practical when you want to text, share and ‘like.’

Much easier to sit on a bus or train, listen to your tunes, sip your coffee and let someone else worry about getting you there.

Some taking note of this trend are betting that once the young’uns have families and settle down into the more affordable suburbs, they’ll get behind the wheel.

I’m with the more realistic thinkers who understand that what is happening is a cultural and structural shift, as well as an understanding that people want sustainable cities — and driving through, in your private automobile is increasingly less a part of that vision.