Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy
Last week, I described some of the local “seeds” working to create a One Planet Region in the second-largest part of our ecological footprint — transportation. About three-quarters of the transport footprint is due to private vehicle use, most of which uses fossil fuels. Thus, we have seen a growing interest in electric vehicles, which not only avoid carbon dioxide emissions from the tailpipe but also reduce other vehicle-related air pollution.
This makes a lot of sense in B.C., because our electricity source is 90 per cent hydro, and makes even more sense if the vehicles are powered using renewable solar or wind power. However, it makes less sense in places like Alberta, where coal fuels half of electricity generation and natural gas about 40 per cent. In that case, EVs just move the source of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants to the even dirtier electricity-generating stations.
There are many local groups that are working to make private vehicle use more environmentally friendly. These include the Victoria EV Club, which shares news, organizes events and provides information and support. A November 2019 B.C. government report noted EV sales in B.C. are the highest per capita in North America and were higher still in this region, accounting for almost 10 per cent of vehicles sold in the first nine months of 2019. In an interview with CTV News, Glenn Garry with the Victoria EV Club pointed out an important local benefit: “All the money you spend on [fuel for] your EV stays in British Columbia.”
Then there is Modo, which is a car-sharing co-op that operates in this region and the Lower Mainland. They report that “for every Modo, nine to 13 private cars are removed from our streets” and that “using car-share services is shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 30 to 50 per cent”; all this while saving money for their members and paying a living wage to their staff.
However, another recent innovation, “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft, appears not to be the answer, at least in large cities. A September 2019 commentary by Transport and Environment, Europe’s leading clean-transport campaign group, noted several studies from the U.S. found “they are adding more cars to the road, increasing air pollution and CO2 emissions that cause global warming.” They might also be competing with public transit, resulting in fewer riders and more cars on the road; Transport and Environment also noted that “Uber said in a share-offer document earlier this year that it views public transport as a competitor.” Overall, said Yoann Le Petit, T&E’s mobility officer, the ride-hailing approach might be a good business model, “but it’s not working for society.”
However, while electric vehicles will lower carbon emissions and air pollution, they will not reduce the other main adverse impacts of private vehicles, which include injuries and lack of physical activity in addition to congestion and stress. Only better urban planning — creating more compact and mixed-use communities where people can work near where they live — and good public transportation will do that, coupled with support for active transportation and tele-commuting.
Thus other important seeds of a One Planet Region in the mobility and transportation area are the organizations that are working to reduce the use of cars through support for active transportation, which means walking, biking, skateboarding and public transit. These include the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, which works to create “vibrant public places that promote health, happiness and well-being”; Walk On, Victoria, which is Greater Victoria’s pedestrian advocacy group; the Better Transit Alliance, which advocates for “a convenient, reliable, and affordable transit system” in Greater Victoria; and the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition.
This last group, of course, has been a key player in the creation of bike lanes, which in spite of all the grumbling in some quarters are an important part of our future transportation system and should be welcomed as such. We should make walking and biking the top of the transportation hierarchy along with public transit, with cars as the lowest priority. That can’t be achieved overnight, but it makes sound environmental, health and economic sense, and we have the seeds of that approach in place.