The debate over the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been raging in London, Ontario for weeks, recently including a highly contentious public meeting as well as instances of online name-calling and attacks. For non-Londoners, it is important to note that a better plan for light rail was already rejected. Although it is easy to feel intimidated about wading further into the debate, there are some important points to be made about why I, as an urban geographer, community organizer, and permaculturalist, support BRT.
Most urgently, there is a need for cities throughout the world to not only mitigate climate change impacts but to adapt to the reality of climate change. Excellent, publically-funded transportation needs to be part of this plan, especially if we are going to create a city with any degree of social equality. As a climate researcher recently pointed out, “urban climate change hazards are not only increasing in severity and frequency, but also, they are likely to have a profound impact in a wide range of urban infrastructures, services, the built environment, and supporting ecosystems” (Broto 2017, p. 2). Furthermore, she adds that, “over the last two decades, empirical research has consistently emphasized the close relationship between poverty, urban inequality, and the vulnerability of urban populations to climate change impacts” (ibid, p. 2).
A related argument in support of BRT is that fewer people can afford cars for their transportation. Over the past four decades there has been a move towards more precarious employment, lower rates of unionization within workplaces, and stagnant pay. This means that car ownership – which can start at about $400/month to over $700 a month, for car payments, insurance, and gas – is prohibitive for many people. Even for people who currently own a car, not owning one might mean they have more money for other life expenses. And not owning a car can be wonderful – leading to a more connected, physically active lifestyle filled with cycling, walking, and, yes, riding the bus.
However, being car-free should not mean a life of greater hardship. This is where excellent public transportation is essential. Even among young adults who can afford car ownership, fewer are interested, gravitating towards cities with good transit and cycling infrastructure. Excellent transit will make London attractive to young people during university, college and beyond. All moderate to large cities in Ontario are having a similar debate about updating their transportation system – with most making the decision to go ahead with ambitious light rail systems.
One argument against the BRT is that it doesn’t extend to the industrial areas of the city, which some have claimed represents the largest employment sector in London. However, statistics show that the majority of people in London work in the Sales and Service sector (27%), followed by Business and Finance (16%), and then Education, Government, and Social Services (14%). While excellent transit should extend throughout the city and beyond, it seems the BRT will meet the needs of most London workers, many of whom work downtown, at malls or large retail areas, and at Western University or Fanshawe College. Establishing transit infrastructure from the core to the areas of major employment will lay the foundation for further improvements.
Another, connected, criticism is that it doesn’t extend to all areas of the city. Why, some ask, should they support a plan that doesn’t directly benefit them? Decisions made about infrastructure today will drastically affect the kind of infrastructure changes that will happen in the future. The BRT is laying the foundation for future expansion. However, the more important answer is that a city that is vibrant and in which people are thriving is a better city for all residents. It is safer, healthier, and more interesting. I live in a neighbourhood to which the BRT will not extend. However, I take the bus regularly and know that my trip will be faster and more convenient once I connect to the rapid system. I also know that a city with excellent transit is, overall, a city that is more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable, two things that are extremely important to me.
This brings me to one of the most important tensions in this whole debate: why should people support something that might only have medium to long-term benefits? I can’t win over people who are only concerned about next year’s profit margin or property tax bill. However, for others, an environmentally-friendly and socially just city will be the foundation for the type of transition our society will undergo in the next decade. Public transportation is just one issue of many that we will grapple with over the next few years. In these times of political and environmental uncertainty, cities may very well be at the forefront of positive and transformative change. As a permaculture practitioner, I filter everything through permaculture ethics, this project is no different. Is it good for people? Yes, many people in London will benefit. Is it good for the Earth? Most definitely excellent public transit reduces reliance on gas-guzzling cars. Is it good for the future? Absolutely, a vibrant city with excellent public transit is more socially equitable, reducing hardships for those who can’t afford or don’t want a car and will allow us to find collective solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate chaos.
An excellent public transit system is a step towards a city that is more liveable and human-scale. It is a step towards a hopeful future in which humans can begin to live in balance with the Earth. London has a chance to be a city that is taking this step, or it can take a step backwards…it’s our choice.
Broto, V.C. (2017). “Urban Governance and the Politics of Climate change”. World Development. 93, pp. 1–15