Transit and the Environment

What happens when the distinguished scientist and much-admired broadcaster known as Canada’s foremost environmental conscience gets together for an idea-sharing session with that nation’s transit leaders?

Everybody wins — for generations.

That’s the driving thought behind the action plans arising from the CEO Roundtable on Transit and the Environment, hosted by the Giffels Associates Limited division of the Ingenium Group in Toronto on June 4th.

Dr. David Suzuki, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, energetically led a frank and stimulating dinner discussion covering topics from political agendas to bureaucratic lethargy to funding formulae and the need for integrated planning initiatives.

The discussion included senior transit executives for GO Transit (Province of Ontario), Toronto Transit Commission, WestCoast Express/SkyTrain (Vancouver), Agence Métropolitaine de Montreal and OC Transpo (Ottawa). They were joined by the president of Toronto Hydro Energy Services Inc. and the CEO for Sustainable Development Technology Canada, as well as Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Transport. The Ingenium Group hosts were Victor Smith, CEO; Fouad Moustafa, VP Business Development; and Greg Percy, VP Operations.

Canada’s most prominent and popular spokesperson for science and the environment for more than three decades, Dr. Suzuki heads a non-profit, science-based organization dedicated to finding innovative solutions to achieve sustainability within a generation.

The day of the CEO Roundtable, Dr. Suzuki had already received a standing ovation for his rousing luncheon address at the 2007 Rail Conference of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). There, he had promoted the use of public transit as a key initiative in preserving the earth for future generations. Strengthened support for public transit is one of his Foundation’s recommended strategies for reducing transportation emissions, as are carpool programs, cycling infrastructure and other sustainable transport options.

Later, Dr. Suzuki led off the discussion at Ingenium’s private dinner with a passionate discourse about our narrowing window of opportunity to protect natural diversity, the balance and sensitivity of nature, the social and economic impacts of climate change, and how the average Canadian has made the environment the highest political priority today. He pointed out that sustainability involves everyone, and that while many individuals already recycle, drive less and use environmentally friendly products; we also expect our governments to set policies that give us choices to build a better future.

Public feedback from his spring 2007 cross-Canada tour had already discovered that Canadians’ No. 1 priority to fight climate change, if they were Prime Minister, would be building an affordable, sustainable public transit system.

“I think you have such a massive opportunity right now, in that the public is overwhelmingly concerned and want action. They want to know what they can do. So I think one of the biggest things that transit must do is to reach out to the environmental community and form an alliance,” said Suzuki. “And the advertising message should be that transit is hip, it’s healthier and it’s no hassle.”

He added, “There must be a massive commitment to this. It’s just not fair to ask public transit to compete with the private game. Private vehicles have been subsidized for so long that it’s totally unfair. Canada is the only industrialized country that doesn’t massively subsidize transit from the federal level.”

Transit-Oriented Development
Gary McNeil of GO Transit raised the issue of development practice. “It all starts with the municipality in the planning stage, so just like pipelines and sewers and gas lines, transit should be a key piece. They should be saying, ‘Come in and service us.’ And for those projects … I think we in government agencies have got to learn to get products to market quicker. We are not good at it, now.”

Vancouver’s Doug Kelsey agreed, “I am struggling with how we can get there to address the magnitude of the issue of optimizing transit to be used more extensively as a tool to support the protection of the environment. We need to be outcome based, not just process based. Part of our leadership challenge as CEOs is actually knowing when to get out of the way.”

In Ottawa, according to Alain Mercier, there is a strong effort to “plan land development and transit at the same time and in the same equation,” but admitted that although OC Transpo has a mandate to provide transit within 400 meters of any new development, costs are skyrocketing and the environmental impact is not positive because development is still sprawling instead of intensifying. “The community growth is still in the suburbs and we’ve got to chase that 400 meters all the time. The service is expanding, costs are rising and we just end up buying more and more and more buses — running on diesel.”

Vicky Sharpe agreed saying that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), “Urban design gets in the way of transit being able to do what it wants to do. When it comes to land use in the GTA, density of growth, usage and where communities could go, I haven’t seen a single reference to an eco system or corridors between eco systems. Until we begin to overlay that as a business decision, we’re going to be dealing with symptoms.”

The Toronto Transit Commission’s Gary Webster concurred and described the paradox of increasing ridership and decreasing market share that has resulted. “If cities aren’t designed for transit, people don’t use it. Because ridership is going up, we’re spending a lot of our time trying to chase the ridership to put more service on the street, and having a hard time catching up to it, but not really dealing with the issue. This really isn’t a transit city.”

Shelly Jamieson asked, “Doesn’t it come down to transit really informing urban planning and cities making strategic decisions about how they should grow based on transit’s ability to serve them?” “In the Vancouver region, I think that we are a generation behind in our transit infrastructure,” said Doug Kelsey. “We’ve seen transit used as a tool to react to the population growth, not to lead the way. That reactionary state means we’re always just trying to keep up.”

Gary McNeil agreed with an advance build approach, “You open a subway system; you build up the ridership and you gradually change the land use. We shouldn’t be afraid of that approach. Cities are dynamic; they change.”

Financial Issues
Chris Tyrell pointed out that often, the full financial picture isn’t explored in environmental discussions. “We don’t look at the real cost of the impact of automobiles and the benefits of transit on, for example, the health system costs, and promote that to the end user, the consumer. Ultimately humans are motivated by self-interest. So we need to think about what the consumer really wants to get out of transit and get them motivated. We need to explain the decisions factoring all the costs, to make it personal to everyone.” “We need to put the ‘eco’ back in economics,” agreed Doug Kelsey. “There must be a new formula for balancing financial drivers with others. I believe we will look at our needs and the investments and related prizes in a different light.”

Advocacy Partnership
The Roundtable participants went on to discuss how the Canadian transit industry might partner to take a more visible role in advocating the increased use of public transit, and in so doing attract the significant increase in government funding required to support investment in fixed transit infrastructure and rolling stock. As Gary McNeil explained, “Our big struggle with our cities is far beyond each one of us trying to make a difference individually.”

Dr. Suzuki urged the transit leaders to act. “Public interest is high. People are ready. I think they’ll make the switch to transit, if they’re given the proper inducements and the service is there. I want to know how we take advantage of this enormous interest now, to partner to start putting the pressure wherever it will start bringing about some serious commitments.”

Gary McNeil suggested that all the agencies promote the sustainable transportation approach to the public. “In transit, most of us are really ready to take some pretty progressive leaps. In the Canadian Urban Transit Association, you have access to something in the order of about 5 to 10 million voters. We can help get the message out, link to the Foundation Web site, provide pamphlets to our riders. And even if only a small percentage of those people vote but vote the right way, that can start the change.”

Vicky Sharpe welcomed transit agencies to take advantage of her organization’s programs. Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is a not-for-profit foundation with a $550 million investment fund, which finances and supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies that deliver economic, environmental and health benefits to Canadians. “We produce technologies that need to host demonstration sites to prove out their performance in real-world situations.”

She also encouraged the group to develop an economics-driven advocacy platform. “The way that you make a change is to do a complete analysis of the impact of what you are suggesting on the current system — a solid economic impact analysis that goes with the Sustainability in a Generation indicators the Suzuki Foundation has developed. On the other side, you must combine this approach with societal or public influence because without winning the electorate, nothing happens. With those two sides working you can enable politicians and bureaucrats to move. Together, the technical economic answer and the public’s societal values shift will be very powerful; you can enable politicians and bureaucrats to move.” Dr. Suzuki suggested that the group appoint a cross-agency committee to work with the Foundation economist and Climate Change Group on such an analysis. “I think this challenge is perfect for us. It would be great project.”

Doug Kelsey was quick to respond. “Sign me up right now, I’d be glad to help. I think there’s no single answer, but that there’s a whole palette of things that have to be developed. I think there are things that we, as the agencies, have to sign up for, too. Maybe we open up to things we’ve never considered in how we run or don’t run our business.” Montreal’s Joel Gauthier agreed, “So many studies have been done, on the cost of congestion, the effect of the quality of air on public health, the environmental cost. So why don’t we talk to each other and put all those pieces together?”

Expanding the Suzuki Nation
Dr. Suzuki volunteered to lend his personal branding to any transit industry efforts to increase transit use. That’s no small offer.

A recent government research report named as ‘the Suzuki Nation,’ the 20 percent of the Canadian population discovered to find the negative state of the environment in conflict with their values, to express high environmental concern and to be extremely motivated to take action. According to the Toronto Star, the report found another 43 percent of the population will “act if given the right reason,” such as a greater understanding about environmental risks and pollution levels, economic incentives or enhanced social prestige — all key points for advocacy efforts.

Dr. Suzuki told the Roundtable participants, “Transit is one of the things I’d like to work on. And if there is this Suzuki Nation, I want to find a way to use that to really get some big movement now.”

“I believe that Dr. Suzuki is attempting to incite an intellectual revolution whereby Ontario, as the economic center of Canada, can take a leadership position in driving a new environmental agenda, much as California is attempting to do in the United States,” said Ingenium CEO, Victor Smith. “Our company is committed to collaborate with the transit industry in the advocacy efforts sparked by this discussion.” In addition to a communications strategy and the ‘eco-nomics’ project, one of the first tactics that the Roundtable group has undertaken is the development of a segment on transit and the environment for television program Dr. Suzuki hosts. The Nature of Things is Canada’s public broadcaster’s longest-running television program, seen weekly by an average of 400,000 viewers of all ages in more than 80 countries. It will be a highly effective vehicle for getting the transit story out front and exploring solutions that will bring Canada one step closer to that goal of sustainability within one generation.

Greg Percy is vice president of Operations at Ingenium.