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Rural transportation as social right and economic investment

Rural transportation as social right and economic investment

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“Need a lift?” Anyone living – or growing up – in the Kawartha Lakes knows this question well. In fact, it is part of our daily life and local culture.

But transportation is most often seen as only a “big city” service. Nothing could be further from the truth. Public transportation actually means more in our rural communities.

Rural transportation as social right and economic investment
Columnist Mike Perry.

As Transport Canada notes, we in smaller and rural communities need solutions to increase options to keep up mobile, in order to maintain economic and environmental health but also to ensure we have fair access to employment, education and medical services.

Access to reliable, affordable, public transportation connects people in rural communities with family, activities, jobs, businesses, education, training, groceries and healthcare. Transportation is key to our quality of life here in rural Ontario; supporting our families and activities and helping our social lives.

The research is clear that rural transportation is good for the local economy. Rural transit systems have been shown to offer significant employment benefits and increasing local productivity.  Rural areas with public transit have more economic growth than those that do not have access to transportation.

U.S. studies found return on public investment rates from 3:1 to more than 9:1 and in one case found that every dollar spent on rural, public transportation generated $1.90 in economic activity. The costs of maintaining cars and the impacts of pollution are also reduced by public transportation, especially in larger rural areas where so much driving is required.

Here locally, the Lindsay and District and Fenelon Falls Chambers of Commerce support the new three-point Expanded Rural Transportation Plan for the City of Kawartha Lakes. This is a plan drafted by local residents. The plan is based upon a lot of research, ideas being used other communities across the province, and extensive consultation with the public, including survey data, expert advice and even a “rural transportation summit” held in Fenelon Falls last summer.

The three-point, detailed plan is fully costed and proposes:

  1. expanding the shuttle bus run daily between Fleming College in Lindsay and Peterborough so it can be used by students, workers and for medical appointment alike;
  2. running a bus (known as “White Lightning”) offered by a private sector provider supported by the Chambers of Commerce and local businesses for people to shop locally; and
  3. bringing back the Kawartha Rides transit system of daily, mini-bus routes City-wide.

When the Kawartha Rides pilot program was cancelled in 2015, survey data showed that a third of riders were using the system for employment and that a whopping 60 per cent of residents surveyed by the City said that rural transportation should be a publicly funded service even if it meant a tax increase.

In southern Ontario, Norfolk County runs a similar transportation system, a small bus that does daily laps of its communities. Key to its success has been a long-term commitment from Council to public transportation as a social right and economic investment; not a ‘pilot’ program. The Norfolk model is a great lesson for success as local advertisers don’t just buy signs for the side of the bus, they can buy an entire “stop” or a weekend to promote their products on board.

One Norfolk restaurant bought a weekend and put a bartender on board to serve mocktails all weekend. Clearly, rural transportation can promote community spirit and be a lot of fun. We are only limited by our imaginations. Almost 50 per cent of the riders of the Ride Norfolk are employed either full- or part-time. Close to 80 per cent of riders use the bus for shopping, with 50 per cent for medical appoints, 34 per cent for employment and 34 per cent for visiting family and friends. The shuttle is funded mainly by fares and advertising and the provincial gas tax, with the municipality contributing about $100,000 annually. At last report, the Norfolk bus was generating $1.09 on each dollar invested.

The new, resident-drafted plan for Kawartha Lakes has a role for everyone — residents, students, government, the private sector, labour, service organizations, and Council —  and is truly a community solution to the really, really, hard issue of rural transportation.

The plan is now in the implementation stage. It’s all hands on deck. Volunteers are needed to help plan the details. Call 705.934.2704 or email Jessica (ac.th1544385003fnk@t1544385003onkj1544385003) to get involved.

Public transportation is a good investment for rural communities. All aboard!

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Mike Perry is the president of the Lindsay and District Chamber of Commerce. He also serves as the executive director of the City of Kawartha Lakes Family Health Team.

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