To create a realistic pathway to a low-carbon regional transportation system, science—not activism—needs to lead the way forward.
IT HAD LONG BEEN MY UNDERSTANDING that cycling—all on its own—would become a significant part of the solution for reducing local transportation emissions. However, when I used the Capital Regional District’s most recent comprehensive travel survey to estimate the relative amount of work done by each form of transportation at the regional level, I was flabbergasted to find that cycling accounts for such a tiny share: 1.5 percent in 2011.
The amount of work done by each transportation mode can only be compared when you consider the total distance travelled each day by CRD residents using each type of transport. Replacing the work done by fossil-fuelled automobiles is essential if we’re going to reduce emissions. But how much of that work can be replaced by humans exerting themselves by cycling or walking instead of driving?
More than is currently the case in our region, no doubt. But when we consider how to shift enough of the work done by automobiles to more energy efficient modes of transportation, like walking, cycling, and transit, the magnitude of the challenge facing us becomes clear. There has to be a huge shift in how people move around, quickly. Why time is such a critical part of the equation should be obvious, and the Trudeau government’s announcement late last year of a mid-century emissions goal establishes the rate of descent for making reductions. The perplexing question is: What do we shift to?
Cycling and walking are part of the solution, but there needs to be a massive shift of the work done by cars to public transit. If other places that have already made this change are any indication of what Victoria will choose to do, the role of cycling and walking will largely be for making the first short leg of a trip made by public transit. While we’re seeing local governments create isolated pockets of inordinately expensive improvements for cycling, there’s little evidence that the region is on the verge of making sensible (let alone massive) investments in public transit.
I pointed this out in the last edition in “Mayor Helps’ 1.5 percent solution,” which was subtitled, “Local government’s response to reducing transportation emissions may be wishful thinking. Or foolish.”
New two-way protected cycling corridor in Downtown Victoria
Responding at a local level to the existential threat posed by climate change, rising sea level and ocean acidification—all caused by carbon emissions—will be a transformative, Herculean task that requires constant, difficult conversation about the path we should be on. If we Earthlings don’t do this work—including the conversations—we’re cooked.
What is the task facing us? According to the CRD, 55 percent of emissions generated in the region come from fossil-fuelled vehicles. Unless there is a significant and quick decline in their use, the planet will be at increasing risk of runaway warming. We simply can’t take a long-term approach to this shift. How rapidly do we need to act?
The Trudeau government’s overall emissions goal is to lower them by 80 percent (compared with 2005 levels) by 2050. As yet, no targets have been set for individual economic sectors, but it’s reasonable to assume that the transportation sector’s contribution would have to be on the order of 80 percent, give or take a few percentage points. To be on the most gradual descent that would get Canada to that goal, transportation emissions, and those from other sectors, would need to be reduced by about 34 percent over the next 12 years.
Canada’s mid-century emissions target, announced in late 2016, means an overall emissions reduction of 34 percent by 2030—12 years from now.
To put that time frame into perspective, consider that the City of Victoria started the process to replace the Johnson Street Bridge in 2008. It will, hopefully, open for traffic in 2018, ten years later. The amount of time left before 2030 is only a little longer than the City of Victoria needed to build a 156-metre-long bridge.
What would this rapid transformation mean for drivers of fossil-fuelled cars in Victoria? Collectively, over the next 12 years, we will have to either drive 34 percent less distance each day, get new vehicles that use, on average, 34 percent less fuel, shift 34 percent of our travel to non-fossil-fuel modes of transportation, or employ a strategy that combines some or all of these.
What is the CRD’s plan for responding to the goals announced by the Trudeau government in late 2016? In its already-outdated 2014 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the CRD noted: “Long-term transportation planning efforts and investments are therefore needed to help reduce GHG emissions and adapt to a changing climate—both requirements are fundamental principles to all of the themes elaborated in this RTP. This means focusing on integrating land use and transportation planning to support sustainable transportation choices and reduce trip distances.”
The CRD’s short-term plan is to double ridership on public transit by 2030 and build more cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.
Will this suffice to meet our national emission reduction target? The short answer is a definite “No.” I’ll show you the arithmetic for that conclusion later on.
In “Mayor Helps’ 1.5 percent solution” I used the CRD’s most recent and most comprehensive survey of the region’s transportation system, done in 2011. It showed that autos accounted for 88 percent of the distance travelled in the CRD each day. By comparison, public transit accounted for 7.1 percent, walking 1.7 percent, and bicycles 1.5 percent. I questioned whether the CRD’s plan would be able to significantly shift the share of the work being done by the various modes of transportation enough to significantly reduce emissions.
These numbers baffled cycling advocates, who were more familiar with “mode share” to describe cycling’s contribution to our transportation needs. Mode share is a way of comparing the number of individual trips made by each form of transportation in a day. Using mode share, both a 3-kilometre trip on a bicycle and a 10-kilometre drive in a car are given equal weight. Although the CRD’s 2011 information shows bicycling had a mode share of 2.8 percent in the region, in certain places and for certain trip purposes, such as commuting to work in the City of Victoria, cycling’s mode share can be considerably higher. The Victoria area isn’t much different from Vancouver, where cycling accounts for about 1 percent of total distance travelled. Notably, Metro Vancouver’s equivalent of the travel study done by the CRD includes such information, whereas the CRD does not.
Share of total distance travelled by each mode of travel (Source: 2011 Metro Vancouver Regional Trip Diary Survey Analysis Report)
Presenting basic information about the work done by components of transportation systems in this way might be discouraging to cyclists. However, when the primary consideration is reduction of emissions, “mode share” provides no useful information. As laid out in the CRD’s emissions reduction plan, the task will be to shift some fossil-fuelled auto use to a combination of transit, cycling and walking. Only by including the distance travelled, which reflects all the current realities about where people live, study, work and play and how far they have to travel each day to accomplish what they need to do, can we gauge how much energy needs to be shifted from autos to other modes. To put it as plainly as possible, a 34 percent reduction in emissions would require, after factoring in small increases in fuel efficiency and a small shift to electric vehicles, a shift of about 25 percent of the distance travelled in fossil-fuelled autos to non-fossil-fuelled modes over the next 12 years. I’ll elaborate on this later.
AS MENTIONED ABOVE, my use of “total distance travelled” to compare the current energy contribution of different modes baffled cycling advocates. Former City of Victoria councillor John Luton, who has played a lead role in promoting cycling infrastructure project