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What can we do about the climate crisis? Eric Doherty answers our questions and provides solutions

Photo: Creativity103/Flickr

How does the climate crisis affect Canadians and Canada and what can individuals and cities do to reverse the effects? Those are some of the big questions being asked this Earth Week, so we sought out expert and friend of the rabble.ca book lounge, Eric Doherty, to help us answer them.

Eric Doherty is a Registered Professional Planner in Vancouver and recently joined the Babble Book Club to discuss Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile and the issues presented in it surrounding transportation, environmentalism and the climate crises. Eric has kindly taken on the task of answering the babble book lounge's questions about the climate crisis and transportation and gives us an insider's perspective on Canada's options and solutions.

Enjoy!

You've mentioned the big picture of developing and utilizing public transit in combating the climate crisis. What are the specific challenges Canada faces with the climate crisis and how does public transit and alternative transit serve to reverse them?

People in Canada are already suffering from the effects of global heating; for example the forest workers in B.C. who have lost their livelihoods due to the pine beetle which is a direct result of the rapidly changing climate. Canada has many severe climate vulnerabilities from buildings built on melting permafrost in the north to cities such as Richmond, B.C. on flood plains which could be swallowed by rising sea levels.

It is no longer just environmentalists are pointing out that global warming has reached a crisis point that demands big changes quickly. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently stated that, "Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled." The "future generations" that are gravely threatened by the climate crisis includes some present generations -- everyone under 40 years old.

If we want a country and planet that can support a decent human society we need to make big changes quickly. About a third of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution comes directly from the transportation sector -- from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and airplanes. When you add in extracting and refining fuel, building and maintaining roads and building cars, about half of Canada’s carbon footprint comes from transportation. A transformation of our transportation system is essential to prevent a complete climate catastrophe and improving public transit is an essential component. Improving conditions for walking and cycling is also essential. Transit, cycling and walking improvements make it politically possible to stop expanding roads. It is just as important to stop the expansion of roads and freeways as it is to improve transit.

What are the biggest challenges (and challengers) facing Canada in its fight against the climate crisis?

The biggest challenge we face is the belief that the necessary changes are not possible. The changes we need to make are fairly obvious and common sense, but many of us believe that Big Oil and Big Auto are just too powerful to challenge in a serious way. A powerful climate justice movement is emerging, but it can only succeed if people admit the possibility of success.

What do you think are the most effective changes Canadian cities can make to deal with automobile dependency and the global warming crisis?

The most effective changes cities can make are:  

1. stop expanding roads for the private automobile

2. re-allocate the money spent on road expansion to walking, cycling and transit

3. re-allocate significant amounts of road space to transit, cycling and walking

4. eliminate minimum parking requirements for residential and commercial properties

What are some examples of successful and positive initiatives and policies that have been enacted by Canadian cities? What areas need the most improvement?

One example of a positive policy adopted by a number of Canadian cities is the decision not to expand roads for cars. Vancouver has had this policy in place for over a decade and New Westminster, B.C. more recently adopted a similar policy.

An area that desperately needs improvement is parking policy. Municipalities are still forcing people to pay for parking spaces they don’t want or use. A single underground parking spot now costs around $35,000, and some municipalities require two spots for a three-bedroom apartment. We have mandatory zoning to ensure that every car is housed, which drives up housing costs and ensures that many Canadians don’t have a decent place to live.

What are some instances that Canadian cities have protested the expansion of freeways/roads/highways in favour of transit?

The successful 1960s/'70s Vancouver freeway revolt is a classic example of a movement that prevented any freeway from being built into the downtown area. It brought together a very diverse coalition that overcame the racist attempt to bulldoze Chinatown and other neighbourhoods for freeway construction and demanded investment in transit instead. Unfortunately, the provincial NDP government elected in the midst of the controversy did not stay in power long enough to build the rapid transit network they promised; but the Sea Bus which replaced the proposed 3rd crossing freeway tunnel is a legacy of this movement.

More recently, people in the Metro Vancouver municipality of New Westminster got together and defeated a proposed waterfront highway through their community which would have cost about half a billion dollars. That is about half a billion dollars of public money that can be spent on transit instead.

There are many other great historical examples. But the most important present-day struggle is probably the Turcot Interchange in Montreal. The present provincial government is pressing ahead with plans to replace this massive crumbling freeway interchange and the connecting freeways with an even bigger version. Basically, the Quebec provincial government plans to pay construction companies linked to organized crime billions of dollars to commit climate crime. Groups such as Mobilisation Turcot are fighting for more transit and less road space for cars instead.

Hundreds of kilometres of elevated freeways built in the 1960s and 1970s are crumbling in Canadian cities, and they would cost tens of billions to replace or repair. Instead, for the about the same cost these mistakes of the past could be demolished and replaced with transit and improvements to our rail network for both passengers and freight.

Why are these protests important, and what do they say about the community's needs and wants?

Struggles against freeway expansion and for transit are extremely important because they are a way of taking action against climate crime right in our communities and proposing a positive alternative at the same time. These movements express a willingness to create a better future right where most of us live -- in Canada’s urban areas. We need to be able to see the transformation away from the fossil-fuelled path to disaster we have been on and tearing down freeways and building electric powered public transit is about as visible as it gets.

During the Babble Book Club conversation for Straphanger, we discussed the idea that health-related initiatives and environmental-related impacts might not engage all audiences in turning to transit, and might not be the best long-term solution. What do you think are key areas to highlight in order to shift car users' perspectives to utilizing public transit or alternative transit?

I think is very important not to frame the climate crisis as a typical "environmental issue" like protecting cute furry animals. It is the critical social justice and economic issue of our time.

The positive side of transit is great, but focusing too much on the positive undermines the message that we face a crisis with a very tight timeline for action. At this point the most important audience to reach is people who are convinced of the need to climate action but are not yet active. We are the majority, but we are not yet being seen on the streets (or blockading freeway construction sites).

It is also very important to recognize that younger people are not as attached to cars as the baby boomer generation; many younger people are not even getting driver's licences. We have reached "peak car" and the proportion of people who are really attached to their cars is shrinking fast.

Activating the majority is more important than worrying about the greying car lovers.

Grescoe said that city planning needs to champion public transit and alternative transit by making bike paths where people want to go, giving buses priority on roads and making transit systems integrated and comprehensive. Do you believe this to be true, and if so, what are the best steps to achieving this?

This is definitely true, and there are enough real-world examples to emulate that we know it can be done quickly and build public support over time.

I think that the one of the most important steps is for people who want strong climate action to learn about the best of the best and share the vision. This means learning from examples like the transit network in Zurich and Dutch cycling facilities.

You are based in Vancouver, and there has been a lot of discussion around the existing and proposed transit lines there. What do you think the best step is for Vancouver transit?

Metro Vancouver desperately needs more transit lanes and signal priority so transit riders don’t have to stop at red lights. The proposed rapid transit lines are important, but the whole network needs to get priority over the private auto.

We also need to get a lot more buses on the road quickly, and expand the electric trolley bus network.

What are some issues the plague Vancouver transit and creating a comprehensive transit system?

Transit has been an issue that politicians can play games with. The present governance structure of our transit agency, TransLink, is designed to confuse the public. The major decisions are made by the provincial cabinet, but there is a smokescreen of an appointed board and a mayors council to confuse things. But the key issue is that there is little political will to take serious action to reduce carbon emissions. Once there is a will to take action, the money and road space needed will follow. What is really lacking is a movement strong enough to blow away the smoke screen and force action.

Can you elaborate on the idea that condo developers favour subway lines and how this will impact Canadian cities?

Subways and elevated trains can provide great transit service, but they are so expensive and carbon-intensive to build that they are not an option for most locations. In Vancouver some developers or land speculators seem intent on getting a subway on West Broadway so they can have both good transit and road space for private automobiles. But in bigger cities it is really only developers of high-end condos that really value preserving road for the automobile. Developers building for a less wealthy clientele can make do with light rail or electric trolley bus rapid transit created by re-allocating road space; many of their customers can’t afford to own both a condo and a car.

In an ideal world, what are the changes you would like to see take place in Canadian cities to make them more environmentally friendly and inclusive for their citizens?

Inclusive is an essential point here, great transit for the rich and isolation in decaying suburbs for the poor is not an option.

One important starting point for change should be to gradually start reducing transit fares as transit service is improved. We should emulate Zurich which gradually cut transit fares in half over a decade while making unprecedented improvements to the whole transit system -- even in the suburbs. But we also need to think about our whole transportation system, including the small towns.

A much-improved passenger rail and highway bus system is needed coast to coast. The centrepiece of this should be electrifying the existing rail network so both passenger and freight trains can run on renewable electricity.

Check out the original Babble Book Club thread with Eric Doherty discussing Straphanger.

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