The Moral Imperative of Public Transit

One of our new light rail transit cars in Kitchener

Public transit has been a hot-button issue in many areas of Ontario in recent years. When we lived in Toronto, it was an issue there, and still is going into their current election campaign. When we lived in Hamilton, there was discussion of a light-rail line running east to west, but it was vetoed and they settled for bus lanes in the busiest stretch of downtown. We now live in Kitchener, part of the Waterloo Region, which has earned itself a bit of a reputation for being ahead of the curve on public transit development. They have spent years debating a light-rail line and recently broke ground on it. Nonetheless, some want to rip it up, even though it would cost a lot more to do that than to finish at this point, seemingly out of spite more than anything else.

Here’s five reasons why I think there is a moral social imperative to develop public transit systems as best as possible.

Ecological Impact

This should be a no-brainer. Less cars on the road means less harm to the environment. Of course, there’s some degree to which we can similarly limit our environmental harm if we just all went to electric cars – another thing I am a proponent of – but even then you’re still requiring electricity for at least one car per family. With transit we can more efficiently use our resources. This isn’t just some feel good social cause. It’s right there in the creation story that we are to take care of this planet we’ve been given.

Physical Space

Another no-brainer: walking requires less physical space per person than biking does than subways do than lightrails do than buses do than cars do. As our cities get more and more crowded there is no room to expand the streets, so instead we need to move people to modes of transportation that don’t fill up those streets so quickly. You can praise how much faster you can get around in a car in theory, but if traffic is jammed, you aren’t actually moving any faster.

Community Building

Granted, a lot of people just get on a bus and tune out listening to music or staring at their phone anyway, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in the most detached scenario, at least we are still actually having to look at each other as we get on and off. This past Sunday, we had a great conversation with somebody on the bus to church. We don’t really know him well, but we’d seen him a few times at the non-profit cafe where we volunteer. I typically try to always thank the driver as I get off, too, which I noticed almost everyone did in Hamilton but not as many do here (and nobody ever talked to drivers in Toronto except to yell at them when something went wrong). We share this city and I don’t really want to be in my own bubble of a car oblivious to everyone else.

Physical Accessibility

Not everyone can drive a car for various physical reasons. I can’t with narcolepsy and it is amazing how much some people look at me with pity as if not driving is the worst thing that could happen to me. There’s that strange love affair with driving in our culture, but it is a love affair that can only happen with a fair bit of able-bodied privilege.

Financial Accessibility

The average total cost of ownership for a car in Canada is $10,000. That’s for the car itself, for insurance, for gas, for depreciation, for parking, for repairs, etc. Mini cars can get that down to about $6000-$7000 while giant SUVs might be more like $13,000. The average adult Canadian income is $50,000. The average Canadian family’s income is about $80,000. (I’m not sure if those income numbers are before or after income taxes.)

Put those together and you’re asking the average Canadian to give up 1/8th of their family income to be able to drive one car between two income earners. If they both want a car, for example to get to those places where they make that average income, we’re talking about 1/4 of that income gone.  That’s average, so for about half of Canadians it is a bigger ratio than that (probably a bit more – I think it’s the mean, not the median, and safe to say there are more low income earners than high).

A lot of people I know under 30 do not own cars and this is a big reason why. It just isn’t worth what it costs, at least not when there are viable public transit options. I was pleased when one of Kitchener’s mayoral candidates brought this up at a debate this week. It wasn’t quite my framing of “help those who can’t afford it” maybe as much as it was simply “this is the direction our world is heading and we need to stay with it” but still, it was a rare acknowledgement that not everyone can afford a car.

Fiscal conservatives should be able to get behind this reason, too, not just social progressives. If we’re not pouring money down the drain just to get to work and make a bit more money than we lose getting there, now we suddenly have a huge extra pile of money available for putting back into the economy. Not into the giant car manufacturers obviously – I understand why they don’t like public transit – but it is especially beneficial for the smaller local businesses which we can now easily access.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.