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How the pandemic is affecting transportation: concerns, challenges… and solutions!

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 By Jessie Pelchat

The current crisis has raised numerous transportation issues. Équiterre is working hard to keep up the pressure on the government and and to offer concrete solutions to build on the progress that has been made in sustainable mobility.

How can we transform the negative news into positive news, and how can we make the most of improvements in certain modes of transport to make our systems more resilient? Here are a few ideas that I’d like to share with you.

The good news
Human-powered transportation is more popular than ever!

Let’s start with the good news: if there’s one area of progress we can build on in the current context, it’s holding onto all those who have rediscovered an appreciation for biking, walking and jogging!

Équiterre’s solution:

One way to do this is to keep up the pressure on authorities to convert roadways into active transportation infrastructure (pedestrian malls, biking paths). A number of municipalities have already announced a range of initiatives and projects to do just that!

If you haven’t already, get your bike out and tuned up! Let’s give the authorities all the more reason to keep going in this direction.

Bad news for the climate
Gas prices in freefall

We know that the price of gasoline is inextricably linked to the type of vehicle that people buy and the mileage they’ll put on that vehicle. The lower the price of gas, the more people buy big gas-guzzlers… and the more miles we put on them.

This trend was already apparent when gas was $1.20 a litre here (a fairly low price when compared to European countries, for example), so when gas plunged to below 90 cents recently, it raised the likelihood that the sales of gas-guzzlers (and the miles put on them) will continue to rise once social distancing rules have been lifted.

Équiterre’s solution:

We are reflecting on how the drop in the price of gasoline and the extension of this period of low prices will impact Quebec’s achievement of its sustainable mobility targets and, of course, on the government interventions necessary to correct this impact.

A daunting challenge
Transportation electrification potentially affected

Could the low price of gas also adversely impact sales of electric vehicles? It’s a question that must be asked. For personal vehicles, it will be necessary to maintain purchase rebates so that electric vehicles remain competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles in the years to come. However, because this is an expensive program, we’re offering solutions to make it more cost-effective.

Équiterre’s solution:

Équiterre believes that creating a self-supporting fund built on a feebate system would be both effective and ambitious. The principle is straightforward: when purchasing a vehicle, Quebecers would be incentivized (through a rebate) to choose a zero emission vehicle (ZEV). The rebate would be paid for by charging a transportation electrification fee to owners of gas-guzzlers. It would amount to a revenue-neutral, self-supporting fund with no adverse impact on the economy.

A development we’re watching
Save the automobile industry? Not at any cost!

The 2008 economic crisis has taught us many things, and we would do well to reexamine these lessons from the not-too-distant past to avoid making the same mistakes. Why not make any assistance to the automobile sector conditional upon achieving our climate objectives or aiding in the transition to clean energy?

Some context: the Canadian automotive sector has been on the decline for over 20 years, due mainly to the relocation of our manufacturing facilities to Mexico and the United States. In addition, Canada has been dragging its feet in the transition to electric vehicles. Put it all together and you see why the industry has become weaker. Recent studies show that the transition to electric vehicle manufacturing is among the solutions to ensure that our automobile sector prospers and maintains its place in the global marketplace.

Also worth noting: 80% of the vehicles manufactured in a country end up being sold in that country, simply because of the costs to transport the vehicles. To encourage automobile manufacturers to build electric vehicles in Canada, the best thing to do is to stimulate domestic demand for these vehicles.

Équiterre’s solution:

We are working with partners around the country to encourage the federal and provincial governments to put in place ambitious policies to fast-track electrification of light and heavy-duty vehicles. These measures are aimed at stimulating manufacturers’ supply of, and consumer demand for, electric vehicles.

A source of concern
Public transit threatened

Because of the public health crisis, public transit ridership has plunged from 50 to 95% in most of the world’s major cities. Transit authorities are operating in crisis management mode as their revenues have melted away. Moreover, they are having to incur additional expenses to disinfect their fleets of buses, subways and trains and to meet physical distancing requirements.

We are therefore justifiably concerned about transit ridership in a post-COVID-19 world. The fear of sharing physical space with others, as justifiable as it is, will be a major challenge confronting this sector for months and even years after confinement restrictions are lifted.

My main worry – and I hope I’m wrong – is that a fear of public transit will take hold among the population, and we will witness a rise in vehicle sales and use by those who used to take the bus or metro.

Équiterre’s solution:

Our demands are simple.

First, offer transit authorities emergency aid so they can survive over the short term and continue to serve the public, while ensuring proper health conditions for all users, but especially essential workers.

Second, billions of dollars will be pumped into the economy as part of recovery efforts, making this the perfect time to launch various public transit infrastructure projects and maintain our roadways, rather than expanding road capacity.

A few statistics…

Transit infrastructure projects create more jobs than investments in other types of transportation. A study on the effects of the post-2008 economic stimulus package in the US showed that investment in public transit created 31% more jobs per dollar invested than did road and bridge building. That’s something!

You could say, then, that investing in public transit means investing in our local economy.

Something we’re keeping an eye on…
The red-hot home delivery sector

E-commerce and home deliveries were increasing before the pandemic, but demand has exploded in recent weeks. The current context could very well cement these consumption behaviours among many people, which will generate its share of adverse impacts, but also might turn out well for local commerce too.

Équiterre’s solution:

We are assessing how best to weigh in on this issue, in partnership with other environmental groups. For us, the big question is how to foster and support local businesses while reducing the impacts of merchandise transportation on the environment, public health and quality of life.