High gas prices leave commuters decrying lack of alternatives to driving
Max petroleum price in N.B. hit record $1.86 per litre Thursday
Beth Brooks has to depend on owning a car to get around.
And with gas prices soaring to record highs in recent days, the UNB graduate student feels even more frustrated by the lack of options she has for commuting in Fredericton.
"I love it here. It's great. It's phenomenal. I can see myself being a permanent transplant in New Brunswick," said Brooks, who's originally from Guelph, Ont.
"I just wish I wasn't held hostage by the infrastructure in terms of being forced to use a car."
As the high cost of fuel puts a strain on New Brunswickers' budgets, residents and experts say it's also shining a light on how limited the transportation options are in the province.
"You know, it's the fact that you can get in your car if you have a car, and go somewhere in five minutes by driving, but it might take you a half an hour by transit or or by walking," said Trevor Hanson, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of New Brunswick and co-ordinator of its Transportation Research Group.
"We've got to get those times closer together if it's going to be a realistic alternative. And maybe it isn't all or nothing either — maybe it's how do we use our car less and these other modes more?
"So maybe drive to one place, but then once we get there, make it easier to travel all around [using alternatives]," Hanson said.
Giving up on public transit
Brooks moved to Fredericton four years ago for university, first living in the Forest Hill neighbourhood in the city's east end.
Coming from Guelph, Ont., Brooks said she was used to depending on public transit buses that ran as often as every 15 minutes.
"And so when I first moved out here, I didn't have a car and I didn't want a car... because I was relatively confident that, you know, Fredericton is the capital city of the province, like, of course, I'm going to be able to use the public transportation effectively and walk places."
After four months of relying on the buses, however, she gave up, because they only run once an hour for most of the day, and don't run at all on Sundays.
She now lives along Hanwell Road, just south of Prospect Street, and said that area is even worse for getting into the city without a car.
"There's no sidewalks, there's no streetlights... and people are going 90 [km/h].
"So it can feel very threatening to have the cars that close and just no protection."
The cost of being a car-dependent province
Yves Bourgeois is the dean of studies at the University of Moncton's Shippagan campus, and has done research on transportation access and its impact on the economy.
In 2017, he chaired the Rural and Urban Transportation Advisory Committee, which released a report titled From Surfaces to Services: An inclusive and sustainable transportation strategy for the province of New Brunswick.
"Over the years, private vehicles have made mobility convenient to many, but it has come at significant costs," says the report.
"Our dependence on private vehicles has created a heavy financial burden on middle income families, while posing even greater obstacles to vulnerable populations."
Bourgeois said that dependence on private vehicles is having damaging effects on the province, including discouraging people from participating in the workforce because of the high up-front cost of needing a car.
Meanwhile, others are being driven out of the province entirely, and settling in larger cities where higher rent can be justified if they don't need a vehicle to get to work and run errands.
"We like to think we're a relatively lower cost province," Bourgeois said. "But when you factor in the fact that you can live in Montreal on a $500 a year transit pass and you have to pay, you know, at least $11,000 a year to own and maintain a vehicle in New Brunswick, any differences in cost of living as to housing and whatnot, rent, you know, quickly disappears."
Shifting from car-centric infrastructure
When Shayne Dobson went looking for a home to buy in 2020, he said the main criteria was a location that would allow him to go without using his car most days of the week.
He ended up settling on a home in a northwestern neighbourhood in Dieppe, just a short walk from a grocery store, the farmers market and the mall.
But even though he's now relatively insulated from shocks to the price of gas, he still finds the alternatives to driving in the Moncton area disappointing.
He said streets like Champlain are unfriendly to pedestrians with long crosswalks that are few and far between.
Cycling on them is also dangerous, with traffic moving at up to 70 km/h, and no segregated bike lanes, he said.
"I'd say we're subsidizing car use far more than anything else," Dobson said. "Like, when you think about, like, streets and roads, those are all public infrastructure."
When it comes to alternative transportation infrastructure, Andre Arseneault believes in the adage "Build it and they will come."
Arseneault is president of the Fredericton Trails Coalition, which has advocated for the expansion and maintenance of the city's paved trail network, which now spans about 29 kilometres, with much of it built on old railroad beds.
As that trail system has grown, more people have been using it, even in the winter months, and Arseneault said he thinks the same would happen if segregated bike lanes were built on city streets.
"I'm confident that it will, because the communities that do have protected bikeways on the roads have all seen — and this is around the world — have seen huge increases in usage," he said.