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Will B.C.’s shift to clean transportation take rural communities along for the ride? ​​​​​​​

“It just seems like public transit between rural communities is getting more and more abysmal.”
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Eric Doherty of Climate Justice Victoria says B.C. needs to stop spending billions on highway expansion and create a clean transit network that includes rural communities and the entire province.

The B.C. government needs to ensure rural and Indigenous communities are not left in the dust as the province shifts gears to achieve a net-zero future and a clean transportation network, a coalition of climate and community groups say.

The province is in the process of shaping its Clean Transportation Action Plan (CTAP), but so far, B.C.'s core strategy to reduce emissions is making the switch to single-passenger electric vehicles in urban areas, says Eric Doherty, a transportation planning consultant and member of Climate Justice Victoria.

“The only thing [B.C. has] been concentrating on is electrified vehicles in urban areas and bigger centres — even suburban areas have really been left without good transit options,” Doherty said.

Intercity transit for communities has worsened over the past two decades, especially with the provincewide loss of Greyhound and coach services and poor passenger train availability, he said.

“It just seems like public transit between rural communities is getting more and more abysmal.”

As transformational change towards a clean transportation network moves ahead, it's also an equity and reconciliation issue to ensure rural communities — often populated by First Nations people — aren’t left behind when it comes to a sustainable climate future, Doherty added.

“Basically, what's at stake here is the opportunity to completely reverse [the situation] and to create a public transit network that serves the whole province,” he said.

“People need to travel between rural communities, as well as going into larger centres to work, hospitals, and colleges and universities.”

More than 65 organizations and counting issued an open letter Thursday urging Premier David Eby to reallocate the billions of dollars spent on highway expansion projects to public transit and active transportation networks, and to demonstrate climate action, equity, affordability, human health and well-being are provincial priorities.

B.C.’s clean transportation strategy can’t be limited to transit options for cities, said Chief Marilyn Slett, secretary-treasurer of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in a press statement.

“It must deliver reliable and accessible public transit to and from First Nations and small towns,” Slett said, emphasizing it was also a reconciliation and safety issue, particularly for First Nations women.

“Providing safe and affordable transportation services is essential not only to reduce transportation emissions but also to act on the Calls to Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” she said.

The province stepped in to fill transportation gaps after Greyhound’s withdrawal in B.C.’s northern mainland, particularly along Highway 16, dubbed the Highway of Tears, after at least 18 women, the majority Indigenous, were murdered or went missing.

However, the province’s BC Bus North service doesn’t serve rural or isolated First Nations communities in the southern part of the province or on Vancouver Island.

Many small communities on Vancouver Island, particularly in the North Island region, have never had intercity transport or lost it when the private coach company, Wilson’s Group, withdrew service along smaller routes during the pandemic.

Since early 2021, there has been no intercity bus service or public transit connecting Campbell River to Port Hardy or Port McNeill, which act as hubs for approximately 55,000 people, numerous small outlying communities, and a dozen First Nations.

North Island NDP MLA Michele Babchuk said the transportation gaps in the region, particularly for accessing health care in Campbell River, are long-standing concerns.

“It is a priority for me up here. I hear about it constantly,” she said.

“I’m hoping that as we move forward with the change in direction from the government that we start to see some big changes appear.”

Babchuk said she’s been working with Transportation Minister Rob Fleming, who is aware of the issue.

“He has highlighted that he does understand the issues that are happening here,” she said.

However, Babchuk said she doesn’t know if the province is developing any particular strategies or timelines to address the region’s service gaps.

Fleming was unavailable for comment and his office did not respond to Canada’s National Observer’s questions on intercity transit for rural communities before our publishing deadline.

The BC Green Party pointed out the NDP’s lack of funding for transit in the recent budget, noting there was little to no funding dedicated to intracity services beyond Vancouver on the mainland or Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau had called on the NDP to dedicate $1 billion to build “robust” public transportation across the province to reduce emissions and road congestion, boost economic development in rural areas, and create more livable and healthier communities.

The transportation sector is responsible for 40 per cent of B.C.’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Light-duty vehicles such as pickups, vans and SUVs are responsible for 36 per cent of transport’s total emissions, and heavy-duty vehicles such as logging trucks, semis or coaches make up 34 per cent.

It makes no sense that the province spends billions on urban highway expansion — like $4.1 billion for an eight-lane tunnel under the Fraser River to replace the Massey Tunnel — and a comparable pittance on public transit provincially while setting a climate target to reduce fossil fuel emissions by up to 32 per cent by 2030, Doherty said.

Some key goals of CTAP are to reduce distances travelled by single vehicles, shift to more efficient modes of transportation and the adoption of zero-emission vehicles. The plan also includes targets to reduce the distances travelled by trucks, vans and SUVs by 25 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020. And to increase the share of trips made by transit, cycling and walking by 30 per cent by 2030.

There’s a mismatch between clean transportation targets and government spending if rural residents and communities, highly dependent on light- and heavy-duty transportation to travel long distances, can’t get out of their trucks because there’s no access to public transit, Doherty said.

The focus on growing highways and airports at the expense of transit and trains is exacerbating the clean transportation rural-urban divide, he said.

Low-income families, seniors and youth, First Nations communities and businesses that can’t attract employees to work in their isolated communities continue to pay the price for the province’s “talk and pave” approach, he said.

However, the fossil fuel industry and the big auto sector are the winners, he added.

“They really benefit from the lack of public transit to rural areas and make a lot of money selling big pickup trucks and all the vehicles that people in rural areas are spending a very big chunk of their income on.”

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