Public transit: A hallmark of civilization

A robust transit system is one of the hallmarks of civilization. In the ancient world, it meant roads. And today, it means an affordable, accessible public transit system that runs on clean energy, and stands as a force to change the world for the better.

SkyTrain at New Westminster Station; a robust transit system is the sign of a real city (Image courtesy of Richard Eriksson). One of the reasons I moved to New West was for its transit system. I have two Skytrain stations (out of six in total here in New West) and four buses to choose from to get me home from downtown Vancouver, and the surrounding area. That enables my choice of a carless lifestyle – and choice is what modern living is all about.

This week is I Love Transit Week, a celebration of public transportation hosted by TransLink’s The Buzzer blog. Join Buzzer blogger Jhenifer Pabillano and other transit-lovers Thursday, July 15 at The Heritage Grill in New Westminster for an evening meetup with food, games and fun! You can also enter to win a Summer Commuter Prize Pack from TransLink & Tenth to the Fraser.

Listen: A robust transit system is one of the hallmarks of civilization.

One of the things that the Ancient Romans gave to the Western world is a widespread way to get around the whole of their empire. Even then, one of the ways to draw their civilization together lay in a transit system to match the times, to suit the cultural paradigms and economic realities of the day, and to grow with a shifting population. They knew that it is the way to the future.

In the ancient world, it meant roads. And today, it means an affordable, accessible public transit system that runs on clean energy, and stands as a force to change the world for the better.

What? Change the world for the better? Isn’t that overstating things just a bit?

No.

I don’t think it is, actually.

Now, it must be said that I’ve written about the need for public transit systems before elsewhere, particularly in public transit as a green building strategy. And sure, if more of us used public transit, there would be less automobile traffic, and therefore less carbon monoxide in the air, and less need to bore holes in the earth and risk our oceans and other natural habitats to keep those cars on the road.

Nothing against car travel in general, mind. But, what if we didn’t need it? What if our priorities informed by a new vision of the future allowed us to consider petroleum dependence and mandatory multiple automobile ownership to be the remnants of a century gone by? When I said that one of the hallmarks of civilization was a transit system to suit the cultural paradigms and economic realities of the day, and to grow with a shifting population, this is what I meant.

OK, so here’s something to consider. We need to think about how to re-define what it means to live in cities, and in suburbs too, in this 21st Century of ours. Simply put, I think we should leave traffic jams, enormous invisible clouds of exhaust fumes from millions of individual cars, and vast stretches of parking lots to hold those cars out of it as much as is humanly possible.

And again, as much as automobile traffic isn’t intrinsically bad per se, what if we could allow people to move all around their cities without cars, from more points of entry? What if we could do it more efficiently, with less overall cost, with less pollution, and with less dependence on fossil fuels which is becoming a dead end in the sustainable energy stakes?

Here’s something else.

What would happen if public and private sectors got together on this; companies, urban planners, community leaders, elected officials, academics, engineers, and more? What if these people enabled tracks and transportation hubs that could deliver you into the lobby of your building itself, because buildings, stations, and tracks have been entirely integrated into city planning? What if the money you spend on gas and insurance for your car could be split, with some of it supporting that system, and the rest supporting a better holiday, a home improvement project, or greater contributions to your child’s education fund with what’s left over?

Here’s what it comes down to.

When I was a kid, the 21st Century, which was the Future at the time, was imagined as a consumerist’s heaven, with food in pill form, robot maids (which I’d still love, if any scientist eggheads are reading this) and appliances that could grill the perfect steak just by asking it nicely. But, that was a vision imagined in a time where this was what people were thinking most about, to wit; affordable, labour-saving goods.

It was post World War Two during the fabled ‘Baby Boom‘. It was a boom period where consumer goods were concerned, too – like automobiles, folks – which were rolling off assembly lines. At that time, everyone could afford them, unlike during the Great Depression. And unlike now, in an age of increasing gas prices, and at a time of massive environmental damage related to unchecked industry.

The Future as it was imagined was a 20th Century vision of what the 21st Century would be. But, now we’re actually here in the 21st Century. And now that outmoded vision of the future has to change. Thinking about new ways to travel to our jobs, to see our families, to shop, to go on vacations, and to feed economies which are sustainable are the new flying car, folks.

Investment in the emerging technology in sustainable energy, and in turn made practical by a transit system that can support cities and suburbs that are planned around them are the keys to a new vision for what defines this epoch in history. To not invest in public transit is simply behind the times.

The Ancient Romans gave the Western world roads. And it changed the world. We’ve come a long way since all roads led to Rome. Let’s treat our public transit as a necessity, and maybe the road we’re on will lead us into a future we can count on for better communities, better cities, better lives.

TransLink BC is helping us to celebrate I Love Transit Week, July 12-16. Check out the posts to be found on TransLink’s the Buzzer Blog for more information.

5 Songs About Transit


Rob Jones

Rob Jones is a writer, music fan, and dad. He has been interested in cities and urban life ever since he first visited Toronto as a child, living there later as an undergraduate at York University. He later moved to London England, and then to The Lower Mainland. He is passionate about sustainability and community. Rob is the editor and writer of thedeletebin.com, a music blog and he will make you a mixtape with very little provocation.

Rob Jones is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

15 comments

  1. Awesome post, Rob! I think a user needs to do two things: use the transit we have now, even if it's not perfect and ask for change to make it better. Criticizing what is now without using or using without providing feedback won't accomplish it. If every frustrated transit user made a point of effectively communicating what they felt would improve it, the planners will know where the priorities are. Also, I think anyone who is a decision maker at transit must take transit to commute as a condition of employment. Gotta walk the walk.

  2. Leslie, I think you've hit on a vital point – cultural expectations and attitudes do need to shift. Even with good design, and smart urban planning, none of it will fly without these things being accepted as a new cultural paradigm by the mainstream. We have to make public transit use, clean energy, and reduced carbon footprints into daily realities, rather than as news stories, or (if you will) blog posts.

    In order for that to happen, I believe that the unification of agendas that I talked about – groups of people with knowledge, money, and power coming together, putting that influence to work, and making things happen – is the best place to start. If anyone's going to make things easier for everyone to make lifestyle changes, its these folks.

    Thanks for comments!

  3. Thanks a lot, Jen.

    In terms of engaging with Transit to make things better, one easy way to do that around these parts is to sign up as an online advisor for the TransLink Listens program.

    Basically, TransLink Listens is a series of online surveys that you fill out, that gets sent to you periodically. The surveys seek your opinions about how to make things better, and gives you a chance to express your satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with their services. And what better time to be involved than I Love Transit week?

    Cheers for comments!

  4. We need an attitude shift in our culture. Too often, car users and pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users are divided artificially into separate and opposing camps. Most of us are all of these things, at different times. It would be nice to see integrated transit planning that includes all these things, while placing greatest emphasis on the three latter transit modes and facilitating getting people out of their cars.

    People will get out of their cars if we make it easy and efficient for them. We’re not there yet, for the most part.

  5. 22nd, New Westminster, Columbia, Sapperton, Braid – are you counting Lougheed Station? Isn't that in Burnaby? What am I missing? I've said there are "five" in a poem… Thought that was worth mentioning in "NEW WESTMINSTER IS . . ."…

    Thank you.

  6. Hey Franci,

    I guess I was counting Lougheed Stn. Still, even if you don't count it, that's a lot of stations, right?

    Cheers for comments! 🙂

  7. Yes, New Westminster is a long, narrow (small) city. I like to "brag" about 5 Skytrain stations.

  8. I believe Transit is also experimenting with free WiFi on the SkyTrain. I think that will increase the desire to take transit for many people.

    As for me, I prefer to not have to park, nor to be the one to drive. Reading a book or watching a movie instead makes the arrival at my final destination an unwelcomed end to my enjoyment of the commute.

  9. Hi Harry, thanks for comments.

    The Wifi idea is great one, and one that has come up in conversation quite a bit. You hang out with car-less bloggers, and that's what happens. I hope they find a way to do that. It's a great value-add to taking transit, and the more examples of this put into action the better.

    And yes, I do most of my reading between destinations. Reading books on the train is my answer to meditation, I think. It allows me to unplug, and decompress from my day, rather than having to watch out for other cars, and be stuck in traffic.

    Thanks again for comments!

  10. You must have loved watching the Jetsons, with your people-movers to the lobby of your work. Sorry, no fold up flying cars either Elroy.

    Reality check, why are people needing to move so far to get where they need to go. I saw an add for housing and it quoted 'a mere 90 minutes to dwntwn Vcr'.

    That would be a 3 hr daily commute so you can live in there marketing scheme of the perfect life.

    It used to be people lived very near where they worked because the mode of travel was horse, boat or foot. The Automobile and public transit is a very recent development of our new hydrocarbon based economy.

    The roman empire's fuel was cabbage and war.

    I don't see any similarities, other then the war part.

    N.W.

  11. Hi Norman,

    I think you bring up a good point about the act of commuting in relation to where people live and work. Clearly, working closer to where one lives would be an ideal situation. But, jobs are in major cities, and living close to commercial areas where those jobs are found is an expensive prospect, which is an even more significant reality check for most people, frankly. In a recovering economy, it makes sense to me to enable a population to be able to access any area of a metropolitan region easily, and inexpensively, without assuming car ownership.

    As for my comparison to the Roman Empire, I suppose I'm agreeing with you in a sense that times have changed, and we as a civilization have to change with them.

    Thanks for comments! 🙂

  12. This is a response to Rob,

    They used to publish commuting statistics in the GVRD, from like richmond to vancouver – 75000

    vancouver to richmond – 25000

    New West to richmond – 15000

    etc etc etc

    I don't see those stats published anymore. I wonder why….

    People are moving from one city to get to another city to work.

    You should read Mathew Claxtons (sic) piece in this Saturdays record about our carbon usage. He published another piece a few months ago that I harshly critiqued for his lack of knowledge. He's catching on now to the situation we have made for ourselves.

    Just remember all things "man made" eventually fail. Glass shatters, cars break down, governments fall, civilizations collapse. At some point in time our "western society" will also face this eventuality. It's ironic in some ways that the 3rd world, who survives on the least will come out relatively unscathed.

    The worlds city planners arn't really planning on the billions and trillions of people coming after us. They only plan 5 or 10 years ahead. Projecting to far ahead has many uncertainties !

    Uncertainty like if people will still be around !

    N.W.

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