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I Love Transit Week 2010: Rob Jones on transit as a hallmark of civilization

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SkyTrain at New Westminster Station; a robust transit system is the sign of a real city (Image courtesy of Richard Eriksson). One of the reasons I moved to New West was for its transit system. I have two Skytrain stations (out of six in total here in New West) and four buses to choose from to get me home from downtown Vancouver, and the surrounding area. That enables my choice of a carless lifestyle - and choice is what modern living is all about.

It’s I Love Transit Week [2] from July 12-16 — because even though there’s things we don’t like about transit, there’s much we do like! All week I’ll be sharing essays, stories, and more to celebrate transit. Come to I Love Transit Night on Thursday July 15 too – full details here [3]!

The following essay is by Rob Jones, a resounding champion of transit and a contributor to Tenth to the Fraser [4], which is a blog about life in New Westminster.

Listen: A robust transit system is one of the hallmarks of civilization.

One of the things that the Ancient Romans gave to the Western world is a widespread way to get around the whole of their empire.   Even then, one of the ways to draw their civilization together lay in a transit system to match the times, to suit the cultural paradigms and economic realities of the day, and to grow with a shifting population. They knew that it is the way to the future.

In the ancient world, it meant roads.  And today, it means an affordable, accessible public transit system that runs on clean energy, and stands as a force to change the world for the better.

What?  Change the world for the better?  Isn’t that overstating things just a bit?

No.

I don’t think it is, actually.

Now, it must be said that I’ve written about the need for public transit systems before elsewhere, particularly in public transit as a green building strategy [5].  And sure, if more of us used public transit, there would be less automobile traffic, and therefore less carbon monoxide in the air, and less need to bore holes in the earth and risk our oceans and other natural habitats to keep those cars on the road.

Nothing against car travel in general, mind.  But, what if we didn’t need it?  What if our priorities informed by a new vision of the future allowed us to consider petroleum dependence and mandatory multiple automobile ownership to be the remnants of a century gone by?  When I said that one of the hallmarks of civilization was a transit system to suit the cultural paradigms and economic realities of the day, and to grow with a shifting population, this is what I meant.

OK, so here’s something to consider.  We need to think about how to re-define what it means to live in cities, and in suburbs too, in this 21st Century of ours.  Simply put, I think we should leave traffic jams, enormous invisible clouds of exhaust fumes from millions of individual cars, and vast stretches of parking lots to hold those cars out of it as much as is humanly possible.

And again, as much as  automobile traffic isn’t intrinsically bad per se, what if we could allow people to move all around their cities without cars, from more points of entry? What if we could do it more efficiently, with less overall cost, with less pollution, and with less dependence on fossil fuels which is becoming a dead end in the sustainable energy stakes?

Here’s something else.

What would happen if public and private sectors got together on this; companies, urban planners, community leaders, elected officials, academics, engineers, and more? What if these people enabled tracks and transportation hubs that could deliver you into the lobby of your building itself, because buildings, stations, and tracks have been entirely integrated into city planning? What if the money you spend on gas and insurance for your car could be split, with some of it supporting that system, and the rest supporting a better holiday, a home improvement project, or greater contributions to your child’s education fund with what’s left over?

Here’s what it comes down to.

When I was a kid, the 21st Century, which was the Future at the time, was imagined as a consumerist’s heaven, with food in pill form, robot maids (which I’d still love, if any scientist eggheads are reading this) and appliances that could grill the perfect steak just by asking it nicely.  But, that was a vision imagined in a time where this was what people were thinking most about, to wit; affordable, labour-saving goods.

It was post World War Two during the fabled ‘Baby Boom [6]‘.  It was a boom period where consumer goods were concerned, too – like automobiles, folks –  which were rolling off assembly lines.  At that time, everyone could afford them, unlike during the Great Depression.  And unlike now, in an age of increasing gas prices, and at a time of massive environmental damage related to unchecked industry.

The Future as it was imagined was a 20th Century vision of what the 21st Century would be. But, now we’re actually here in the 21st Century. And now that outmoded vision of the future has to change.  Thinking about new ways to travel to our jobs, to see our families, to shop, to go on vacations, and to feed economies which are sustainable are the new flying car, folks.

Investment in the emerging technology in sustainable energy, and in turn made practical by a transit system that can support cities and suburbs that are planned around them are the keys to a new vision for what defines this epoch in history. To not invest in public transit is simply behind the times.

The Ancient Romans gave the Western world roads. And it changed the world.  We’ve come a long way since all roads led to Rome.  Let’s treat our public transit as a necessity, and maybe the road we’re on will lead us into a future we can count on for better communities, better cities, better lives.

5 Songs About Transit

Trans-Europe Express – Kraftwerk [7]
IGY – Donald Fagen [8]
Riding on the Metro – Berlin [9]
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – The Jam [10]
The Day We Caught The Train – Ocean Colour Scene [11]

Thanks Rob! Here’s an extended bio that he kindly provided to accompany his piece:

Rob Jones is an online marketer, blogger, and social media practitioner for online building materials company BuildDirect, writing about building materials and home improvement, as well as a green blog on which the theme of transit comes up often. He is a grateful contributor to hyper-local New Westminster blog, Tenth to the Fraser [4]. He writes a personal blog, The Delete Bin [12] because he is an incurable pop music and jazz nut. Rob is also a contributor to LifeAsAHuman.com [13].

Rob lives in New Westminster without a car. He works in Vancouver, and has a four-year old daughter who lives with her mother in North Delta. A reliable and extensive transit system is extremely important to him on a practical level, as well as on a philosophical one.

And for everyone out there: do you think transit is a hallmark of civilization? What role should transit play as we continue to build our cities and towns?