Dear Mayor Watson and City Councillors,
A public conversation is happening in Ottawa about how our streets can be made safe for all. Last month, hundreds took part in a silent bike ride following the tragic death of a cyclist on Laurier Avenue, in front of City Hall. People are speaking up in the mainstream media, on social media and in messages to you, their representatives. It’s clear that many in our community want change.
Two important motions to protect everyone who uses our streets are coming to Council on June 12. The first calls for Council to adopt a strong Vision Zero policy and make immediate changes to protect vulnerable road users. The second asks Council to dedicate the $57-million federal gas tax transfer to making our cycling network safe.
We ask that you pass both motions in full and begin the urgent work needed to make our streets safe for all. It’s a matter of public health.
A strong Vision Zero policy, properly funded, would improve the health of our community in several ways.
Many municipalities in Canada and around the world have already adopted Vision Zero— an ethical approach to transportation that makes safety the top priority. Under Vision Zero, no deaths or serious injuries are acceptable, and the transportation system is designed to prevent them.
Bringing Ottawa’s streets up to the Vision Zero standard would save lives and prevent life-changing injuries that result from collisions. No one should be at risk of death or serious injury on our streets.
But the health benefits wouldn’t stop there. A Vision Zero approach would also encourage the active modes of transportation that make us, our communities and our environments healthier.
An investment in Vision Zero streets is an investment in the health of our children and youth. The expert statement in the 2018 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth—the most comprehensive assessment of child and youth physical activity in Canada—notes that active children and youth are healthier, with improved heart, bone and muscle health, as well as a lower incidence of type 2 diabetes. These experts also point to evidence that active children and youth think better, learn better, and have better emotional, psychological and social well-being.
Sadly, the Report Card revealed a grade of D− for active transportation among children and youth in Canada—much worse than the global average of C. Only 21% of 5- to 19-year-olds in Canada typically use active modes of transportation to get to and from school. The numbers for Ottawa aren’t any more encouraging: the Ottawa Community Wellbeing Report 2018 noted that only 25% of 12- to 17-year-olds in our city get the recommended amount of physical activity each day—the equivalent of a D− grade.
What would happen to these numbers if Vision Zero routes for children and youth to walk and bike to schools, community and recreation centres, parks, and other places, were a priority?
The shift to Vision Zero will require significant financial resources. It is a necessary investment in public health and safety with a substantial return. The Ottawa Cycling Plan, for example, cites an estimate from Ottawa Public Health that a 5% increase in the city’s cycling mode share can result in an annual benefit of $16 million. We need much more of this kind of broad analysis to inform spending at all levels of government.
The shift to Vision Zero will also require long-term, forward thinking and leadership (“vision”!). We ask you to lead now by passing the two safe streets motions in full on June 12. The result will be a safer and healthier city.
Richard Annett, Executive Director, Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre
Naini Cloutier, Executive Director, Somerset West Community Health Centre
David Gibson, Executive Director, Sandy Hill Community Health Centre
Simone Thibault, Executive Director, Centretown Community Health Centre
Mark Tremblay, Director, Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute; Professor and Scientist, Department of Pediatrics, University of Ottawa; President, Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance
Michelle Perry, Member-at-Large, Board of Directors, Healthy Transportation Coalition
So, OC Transpo staff have responded with a memo in response to Councilor Mckenney's question regarding trialing electric transit buses in Ottawa. The memo reads like a typical government document written by a bureaucracy looking for every way they can to justify the status quo (in this case, a 100% diesel bus fleet). OC Transpo says they'll watch what other cities are doing and maybe get around to trialing a few buses in 2025. Meanwhile, 14 global cities (including Montreal) have committed to not buy any more diesel buses after 2025 (before OC Transpo even gets around to trying one out!). In Canada leading cities are well into trying out electric buses. These include Toronto (60 electric buses), Edmonton (50 electric buses), Montreal (40 electric buses). Where is Ottawa? For more info check out www.sustainable-bus.com
OC Transpo acknowledges that their buses generate 44% of all the City's corporate emissions but that fact and the recent declaration of a climate emergency doesn't seem to be enough to motivate them to do anything about this for 5 or more years. In fact over the 2018-2020 period OC Transpo is buying 300 brand new diesel buses. They say, bringing the LRT into service is good enough for now.
This memo goes on to trot out a litany of reasons why trialing electric buses would be complicated. Do we try out a bus with big batteries or small batteries?, how would we find space in our garage for the charging infrastructure? we need to train new mechanics, what if the electricity supply to the garage doesn't have enough charging capacity? (hmm no problem running 34 electric trains to the garage though!). They're more expensive so we'd have to study whether we'd save enough money in reduced diesel vs the cost of electricity. In short, this is too much for us to try and deal with right now.
Completely missing from this memo is any acknowledgement of the well known and well understood benefits of electric buses or of their rate of adoption by other transit agencies. The electricity costs per km of travel are easily 1/3 of the diesel costs per km of travel. Electric vehicles are quieter, smoother and more pleasant to ride in, dramatically less polluting, and simpler to maintain. One of the biggest challenges to electric vehicles, the limited range and extra time required to recharge (vs refilling a diesel tank) are much less of a factor for transit buses because the number of kms they need to travel in a day are nearly constant and well known and they can be recharged again each night. Transit buses are very high mileage vehicles with a predictable mileage per day usage pattern -- the perfect scenario for electric vehicles vs fossil fuel powered vehicles.
Maybe the biggest mistake was that OC Transpo was asked about a trial of such buses. What we need is just to get on with starting to migrate the bus fleet to electric. There are 385,000 electric buses in operation worldwide. This is a technology that is well beyond the trial stage. It's time to get on with it.