Transit: it’s easier than we think

In the last issue of Halifax Magazine, I wrote about why Nova Scotia needs transit that regularly serves the whole province (“You can’t get there from here”). I promised that this month, I’d talk about how we can get it. I’m ruing that commitment now, though. This is going to be a tough one to stretch out over 700 words: we just do it.

This is the sort of thing we like to pretend is super-complicated and requires endless study and planning. It isn’t.

Transit service that runs efficiently and links rural areas and urban cores exists all over the world. This doesn’t require Nova Scotia’s brightest minds to spend years in labs, furiously scrawling on whiteboards. Look at just about any Western European country, and you’ll find easily exportable models for accessible transit serving commuters, students, retirees, and visitors all equally well.

Obviously, any model requires tailoring to fit Nova Scotia’s geography, demographics, and needs. In my last couple of editorials, I’ve written about things I saw and liked on recent trips to Europe, things I think we should do too. Such columns usually draw the same response: “That’s fine for Europe, but Nova Scotia is different.”

If Nova Scotia is really different, it’s only in our fear of ideas like this. It’s not like one day the continents stopped drifting and Europe just sprang into existence with fully formed transit systems. They’re the result of careful planning, fine-tuning, and listening to citizens’ needs. I don’t know exactly where Nova Scotia’s transit should run, or how often, but that’s OK: there are experts who plan networks like this for a living. There’s nothing to stop us from learning from them.

“So OK wise ass, if it’s as easy as just doing it, how do we pay for it?”

I’m glad you asked. The greatest trick successive pro-austerity politicians have played is convincing Nova Scotians that this province can’t provide the basic services they need and deserve. The thinking is: we’re awash in debt, we have no money: you should appreciate what you have and certainly not expect more.

That’s an excellent tactic to keep citizens from getting too demanding, and remind them to be grateful for every crumb the government throws them.

It’s also nonsense. No matter what Nova Scotia’s finances really look like, we have money to throw at projects that are politically popular.

Nova Scotia has $160 million to help a private developer build a convention centre in downtown Halifax. Nova Scotia has apparently-endless millions to subsidize a privately-operated and woefully under-used Yarmouth-Maine ferry ($23 million last year alone). In the spring, the McNeil government promised to spend $390 million over seven years to twin highways.

We can always afford the things the politicians in power want. If we decided that province-spanning transit was a priority, government would find money for it.

Nova Scotia’s transit wouldn’t be jammed right away. It takes time to chip away at our deeply entrenched car culture. People need to see that transit can be accessible, fast, cheap, and reliable. And when they do, all of Nova Scotia will benefit.

Workforces will be more mobile. The thousands of Nova Scotians who work in low-paying jobs will stop working to support their cars, and be able to invest their money in improving their lives.

Retirees and seniors will enjoy more freedom. The environment will benefit, roads will see less wear and tear. Rural communities will be more attractive destinations for visitors and locals alike. There’s simply no downside to a well-designed transit system.

We can do it, and we should.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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