Don't Punish Commuters

A reader argues that banning driving on smog days is not practical without a viable alternative.

By Letter to the Editor
Published July 05, 2006

Dear Editor,

I just finished reading Ryan McGreal's great article on air pollution in Hamilton [published (pdf) on Monday, July 3, 2006, in the Hamilton Spectator, p. A15, and also published in the Hammerblog].

I agree with most of his statements; however, I find it difficult to imagine how I would get to work in Mississauga on the pollution days he notes.

I meet with a co-worker at the Highway Six parking lot and we proceed in together to Mississauga. Using McGreal's suggestion I might be able to get as far as Dundas then I would be done, while still not within reach of my work.

I believe that this shows something of the myopic tendencies in many persons' writing on this subject. I assume that Mr. McGreal works in Hamilton, and probably from home, no doubt?

How, may I ask, do I get to work today, not in the undefined "future"? do I take the 3 to 3.5 hours (each way) of current public transit to work, or do I wait for a "better" system to be devised?

Paul Dixon

Ryan McGreal responds:

Thank you for your reasoned letter. You make some valid points, and I'd like to respond to them.

1) I do work in Hamilton (not at home), but I ride a bike to work year-round. I have turned down opportunities in other cities because my *net* pay (income minus the price of a second car, wear and tear, gasoline, insurance, and time spent driving, no to mention the effect on my health of replacing daily physical activity with yet more sedentary driving in addition to my sedentary job) would be worse than what I make here.

2) I agree completely that there should be other ways to commute. Highways are publicly subsidized far in excess of commuter rail, and I believe this distorts the market for transportation by encouraging - and ultimatley forcing - everyone to own a car or two if they want to go anywhere.

3) As a corrolary to 2), I would argue that a better transport system will never be developed until the costs - in particular the direct and measurable health costs - of the present system are exposed and confronted. Today, a child in hospital on oxygen is an externality; no one has to take responsibility. Banning non-essential driving on severe smog days is a wake-up call to politicans and the public alike that the way we're doing things has to change.

With the political will, we could probably have a great rail system in place in about a year. Most of the physical plant is already laid, so it's largely a matter of putting rolling stock on the rails. Is one year of sporadic disruptions worth preventing hundreds of premature deaths every year thereafter?

Paul Dixon responds:

I also agree that it is critical to have a true "mass" transit system not the half way there system we have now. Until we have it regrettably I can earn significantly more in Mississauga rather than Hamilton, I am therefore basically your opposite. I cannot see where banning me from working makes any sense at all, who will pay my bills, perhaps Hamilton taxpayers?

There is also the issue of highways when they run smoothly, without interruption they are much less polluting, therefore we need to developed rail in conjunction with highways to ensure that we don't strangle ourselves.

In summary banning myself and the thousands of people working in the GTA from getting to work is not a solution, merely a punishment for using our cars.

We welcome feedback from our readers and invite you to send a letter to the editor. Please read our submissions policy for details.


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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 18, 2006 at 08:06:22

I read this when it was first published and something bothered me about it, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The other day it came to me and it was this concept of "punishment". Paul talks about being punished for his decision to commute to Mississauga to earn more money and yet live more cheaply.

The other side of this question is "Why is it acceptable for Paul to punish everyone else for his decisions?".

When deciding where to live and work, there are three main factors to consider.

1) Job satisfaction (how much you earn, how much you enjoy it, etc...). 2) Cost of living (real estate prices, neighbourhood community, etc...) 3) Cost of getting between the two (time involved, gas prices, fuel economy, environmental consequences, etc...).

What we have seen in the past is that number 3 is reduced almost exclusively to the financial and temporal costs, but never the environmental consequences. Somehow those environmental consequences need to be factored into the costs of the commute.

Once that is done, the true costs of each of the three decision factors will be obvious, not just the ones that affect an individual directly.

Brandon Hamilton

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted July 18, 2006 at 09:13:20

I think that's exactly the point Brandon. The letter writer is looking at the issue from a purely selfish point of view. He makes a strong argument - one that is probably valid enough to ensure that commuters will never be 'punished' and kept off the roads on smog days. But he seems to be viewing the act of driving as his right, his privilege. It's not. This planet of ours is getting pretty full up and we all need to understand the impact of our actions, and take responsibility for them. Stop feeling sorry for ourselves and panicking about - God forbid - missing a day's pay, and stop looking for the government to show us the way.

When we fail to change our bad habits it's OUR fault and no-one else's. Doing things the same way because the alternatives are 'not fair' is not going to help anyone.

Good discussion.



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By Msrk (anonymous) | Posted July 19, 2006 at 16:46:41

Some people can't afford to miss a day's pay Ben.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted July 20, 2006 at 08:01:30

Hi Msrk ('Mark', I'm assuming...?),

You would hope that employers, who would also, of course, be heavily impacted by driving bans, would look for a way to keep their employees working. Telecommuting for instance. If the driving ban was enforced employers could at least plan for it, and find a way to connect their workers from home.

I know this doesn't work for all jobs but with change comes sacrifice. If commuters are not prepared to make the sacrifice then who?

There has been some discussion in the TO papers this week about free TTC travel on smog days, like they do in San Fran. Another great idea. Apparently this will never fly because the system is chronicly underfunded (over to you McGuinty, Harper...)

There was also some disucussion (by the Greens I think) about a government endorsed Pledge to Canadians. The pledge would enforce our right to clean air, clean water etc.

I'm pleased to see lots of ideas coming through on this subject. What doesn't help is when people block these ideas without a) acknowledging the absolute necessity of doing SOMETHING, and b)offering an alternative solution.

Let's keep the discussion going folks!


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By zanis_e_v (registered) | Posted August 04, 2006 at 03:19:48

Great discussion (and great blog!) Two points I want to add: 1. As alluded to by other comments, rather than trying to decide on non-essential trips, just toll highways and access to the city centre. On smog days a 'smog premium' could be added to the regular toll. People can then decide for themselves how essential their trip is. Continuous tolling would do much to encourage mass transit/biking/not commuting.

  1. Consider de-monopolising and privatising mass transit. I think our current public transit companies are hold-overs from the days of streetcar routes (a kind of natural monopoly). Buses, vans, and cars are so cheap and flexible that providing mass transit privately would be easy (travelling in Africa has proven this to me). Privately provided mass transit I am absolutely sure would be economical and, more importantly, convenient.
  • Zanis

PS> I do not own a car

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