Transit and the “War on Cars”

Does being pro-transit mean you support a “War on Cars”?

Too often discussions about improving transit deteriorate into accusations of exactly that. Converting vehicle lanes to transit-only lanes, limiting parking to support transit ridership or spending more money on transit infrastructure than on roads almost inevitably triggers the response that these actions constitute a “War on Cars.” Is this really the case though?

To be honest, some pro-transit groups do take a hostile view towards drivers. Some transit advocates view people that drive cars as lazy, destructive and generally unconcerned about the world around them. At TransitCamp, that is not how we view things. We do not see those who choose to drive as being negligent or lazy or evil. We see drivers simply as people making the best choice they can about how to get where they want to go. We do not believe that making people feel guilty about driving will get them to take transit. Instead, as is often the case, transit simply does not work for them in their situation. The goal shouldn’t be to force people to take transit, but to improve the transit system so it works better for as many people as possible.

Transit isn’t going to work for everyone, even with a great transit system. Some people will  need to make trips that are too difficult to serve with transit, such as to low density areas far away from other development. Other people may just never want to take transit at all. Others still may need to use a vehicle for other things, such as carrying equipment or as part of a job that requires them to visit multiple sites every day. Transit is not going to work for these people. But that does not mean it cannot be made to work for a lot of others in our city. Simply because not everyone can take transit, does not mean that more people can’t, or that it isn’t a useful service to have.

What we all recognize is that transit benefits many people in a city, including those that never take transit. In fact, some of our members never even take transit at all. For those using it, transit can ease the stress of congestion, save time, save money (a vehicle typically costs between $8000 and $12000 per year to own, operate and maintain) and improve safety (transit riders are 200 times safer than those driving private automobiles). For non-transit riders, transit reduces congestion as well as the burden on parking spaces. For the city as a whole, transit reduces pollution, attracts labour, and makes it generally easier to get around.

However, we are not naive to think that there are not conflicts between cars and transit, especially when it comes to building infrastructure, allocating road space or prioritizing signals.

For us, the real debate is not about transit vs cars, but what is the most efficient use of resources. When it comes to allocating space, often transit should have priority for the simple fact that transit is more efficient on space. That is, more people can travel along a single lane on transit than they can driving private automobiles. When we advocate for things such as making cars wait for transit at a traffic signal, it is not because we think transit riders are better than car drivers, it is because a bus carries around 60 passengers and an LRT over 600. We just think 600 people on a train are a greater priority than the 30 or 50 or even 200 waiting at a light for a train to cross.

The same goes for converting traffic lanes to bus lanes. Sure it may seem like the road isn’t being used as efficiently as before, but you have to remember that each bus represents about 60 cars. While a freeway carries about 1 800 people per lane per hour (ideally a minimum of 2 seconds between each car), bus lanes can achieve about 4 800 people per lane per hour (assuming 80 people per bus and 1 minute between buses, some systems exceed this substantially because buses are closer together) and heavy rail transit (subways and metros) can carry up to 40 000 (roughly 1500 people per train with 2 minutes between each train). That is 20 times more than a freeway lane. The reason is that people on a train sit or stand right next to each other, while drivers have an entire car and a lot of space around them. The 7th avenue Transit Mall carries around 18 000 people per hour per direction at maximum capacity (completely full trains). Imagine how many extra vehicle lanes we would require if we didn’t have the train.

So remember, the next time you hear someone mention that transit improvements unfairly favour transit riders, just respond that transit improvements really just favour lots of people over a few people. It isn’t a “War on Cars” it is a War for Efficiency.

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One thought on “Transit and the “War on Cars”

  1. Before I replied, I read the blog post a few times and gave it some good hearty thought.

    I agree, that any advocacy organization is most effective and affective when is doesn’t focus on dividing communities or pitting citizens against citizens. In fact, I believe that any organization or individual who takes that approach is not building community; but rather, destroying it. This approach reeks of ideology and not a sensible appreciation of the complex reality that stands between where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.
    There is nothing noble in winning at the cost of our community as a whole. Phrases such as “The War on ” are not a vision of achieving mutual benefit or sustainability, but rather a dramatic CNN style approach to dumbing down what is a complex social, political, and operational issue.

    I appreciate that Transit Camp does not seek to be an actor in the “War on…” dialogue. The credibility I apply to Transit Camp is given based on the smart people, pragmatic opinions, and practical ideas that Transit Camp seeks to provide.

    An organization like Transit Camp does not make a difference by lobbying a body like Calgary City Council to divert funding from roads to transit. It makes a difference by listening to transit users and non-transit users to understand why they use or don’t use public transit. Transit Camp best serves Calgarians by focusing on practical improvements that, while not complicated or revolutionary, focus on making small yet impactful changes to how transit is and can be provided.

    Ideology will not make the practical improvements possible, which is why ideology should not be part of Transit Camp. Practical improvements are possible by first listening, planning, and then acting. Don’t focus on revolutionizing transit; focus on making what we already have better. Many small changes can combine to make a substantial shift in an operation. This is how transit can be changed in a way that is long-term and respectful of input from users and non-users.

    Transit Camp is an asset to Calgary, along with other organizations like CivicCamp, the Chamber of Commerce, and many other organizations because they listen, first. Ideology makes us listen to ourselves first, which is not effective when building communities and the capacity to change systems.

    Transit Camp serves Calgarians as long as it listens to Calgarians, including those who disagree (even unconstructively). Keep listening, and Transit Camp will continue achieving.

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