Opinion - Maggy Burns & Anika Riopel: Nova Scotia is stuck in traffic. Public transit is the solution

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on April 8, 2023.

No one likes to be stuck in traffic.

But that’s where we are in Nova Scotia. We’re stuck in old patterns: building bigger roads and parking lots and making driving the only realistic option for getting around.

More people driving is leading to more traffic and congestion, problems that will only compound as the province’s population potentially doubles between now and 2060.

Without a viable alternative to driving, Nova Scotians are figuratively and metaphorically stuck, idling through climate change, cost of living and health-care crises.

Luckily, there’s a well-established, cost-effective solution – public transit, the overlooked and underloved essential service. Along with walking, rolling and cycling for shorter trips, reliable and convenient public transit would reduce traffic, help meet our climate commitments, and make communities more accessible, welcoming and healthy.

However, we are currently moving in the wrong direction.

The current crisis: A public transit death spiral

Across the province, we are losing transit operators faster than we can replace them – and our transit systems are crumbling. A recent CBC News story highlighted that HRM has budgeted 1,057 jobs for 2023, but there are currently about 930 drivers working – not enough to offer current services.

“Better wages and workplace safety are the keys to hiring and keeping more staff,” said Shane O’Leary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local. “We had more people resign last year than they hired. So the retention is not there."

The problems aren’t just in cities.

"Work in rural transit is often a labour of love. The problem is that it shouldn't be,” said Renata Tweedy from Sou'West Nova Transit. "It's a hard balance to strike when it seems like the only path to paying a living wage is to pass those costs on to clients and risk pricing them out of a vital service. We need an increase in funding to pay living wages and to meet inflation costs."

For decades, local governments and grassroots organizations across Canada have carried the financial burden of transit’s increasingly expensive operating costs, while keeping fares affordable to lower-income riders.

During the pandemic the federal government offered supports to many essential services, including transit, that were at risk of collapsing. But as that pandemic funding rolls back, transit is left in worse shape than ever. In many places, ridership is only now starting to return to pre-pandemic levels – meaning that fare revenue, which covers just a portion of operating costs, is still down. Operating costs are up due to inflation, and drivers are burnt out and underpaid.

Currently the starting wage for drivers across Nova Scotia is only slightly above the $14.50 an hour minimum wage. In HRM, it’s $21.55 an hour – below a living wage ($23.50 an hour) and hardly enticing for such a demanding position. These should be good green jobs, but split shifts, forced overtime, and low pay are causing drivers to retire early or resign.

This broken system cannot continue without federal and provincial governments stepping up.

Not investing enough in the future of mass transportation harms us all – even those who don’t take transit. If buses don’t run frequently or go to all the places people need, they simply won’t attract the ridership needed to get cars off the road and reduce traffic. If we can’t attract and retain drivers, buses will sit idle at a critical time in climate action.

Improve it and they will ride

Public transit is becoming more essential with every climate wake-up call. We need an injection of cash to train more drivers, expand routes and improve service province-wide. We shouldn’t just stabilize transit but point it in the right direction.

Now is the time, before our transit systems collapse completely.

Public transit at the intersection of climate, fairness

Personal vehicles account for around 10 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions, and almost 18 per cent of Nova Scotia’s emissions. Encouraging more people to take public transportation represents the most effective way to reduce emissions.

This isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s also about affordability and equity. A driver's license, personal vehicle, gas, maintenance and parking costs are cost-prohibitive for many Nova Scotians. A well-functioning transit system would give everyone fair access to opportunity.

The Ecology Action Centre is calling on all levels of government to invest in the future of mass transportation. We are calling on the federal government to begin its $3 billion per year Permanent Public Transit Fund in 2024/25, rather than 2026/2027. We are also calling on the province to increase transit funds immediately and commit to providing the funds that communities need to access federal funding opportunities.

This is an opportunity for governments to make a choice that will have dramatic benefits well into the future.

Next time you are stuck in traffic, remember that the best (and cheapest) way to get out of that jam is to get more drivers onto transit. Then tell that to your elected representatives.

Maggy Burns is the executive director of the Ecology Action Centre (EAC). Anika Riopel is the sustainable transportation co-ordinator of the EAC. In 2021, the EAC celebrated 50 years of environmental action and advocacy.

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