A number of people this past week have commented on the picture of me and my bicycle that was on the front page of last Saturday's paper. Considering that the article was about Car-Free Day, which was this past Wednesday (September 22), it was somewhat ironic that the picture was taken in front of another councillor's gas-guzzling truck, which he regularly uses to go the five blocks from his workplace to city hall.
How I ended up in the paper was a result of the reporter calling me to ask if I would be riding the bus to city hall on Wednesday, which was something that had been proposed by the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. They had sent all members of council a free bus pass for that day, suggesting that we could all ride together to city hall for a photo op. I told the reporter that it was closer for me to walk to city hall than to walk to the nearest bus stop, and that I didn't see the point of pretending to ride the bus to get there. I suggested that improving conditions for other options, such as walking or biking, would be a more effective way of discouraging car use - the reporter asked if I would mind riding my bike down to the Herald office for a picture, and what you saw in the paper was the result. I don't want to give the impression that I ride my bike to meetings at city hall - council meetings require business attire, and suits and biking don't mix. But I do walk if the weather is good, or if I'm not coming to the meeting from somewhere else.
For the actual event on Car-Free Day, three of the four members of council who did take this opportunity drove their vehicles to city hall, then walked up to the $600,000 bus transfer station on 14th Street and Central that's still under construction, then rode the bus four blocks back to city hall. Councillor Miller was the only one who actually took the bus from her home in Ward 1, thus achieving the original intent of the idea. For the others, it was more of an illusion.
I do agree with the intent behind such days as Car-Free Day - these are opportunities to look at what we can do to encourage people to reduce their environmental impact by finding greener ways of doing things. That's one of the reasons that Andrea and I have chosen to live in the mid-town area - she has always been able to walk to work, and does. We can also easily walk to the library, to our church, and to the Co-op for groceries, and it's comforting to know that should we be left without a vehicle for whatever reason, we won't be stranded.
But I don't think that city council is doing a very good job of trying to encourage people to find alternative ways of getting around town. Instead of encouraging bicycle use by providing bicycle lanes, we try to figure out what signage and penalties will stop people from riding on sidewalks downtown. We're very good about providing lots of car parking for our city hall employees, but the bicycle rack at city hall only has space for three or four bikes, and it's not very secure. I know that the couple of people who bike to work take their bikes inside the building to ensure that they're still there at the end of the day. Contrast that with the Forest Centre just across the street - it has a large bike rack out front for visitors, in full view of the security guard, but it also has a locked bicycle storage area in its basement parkade for the use of employees who bike to work, and showers and change rooms as well, so that you can change out of your biking clothes. The Forest Centre also has preferential parking spots for people who car pool or drive high efficiency vehicles - check the signage at city hall to see who gets preferential parking, and trust me, neither of those people is part of a car pool.
As far as encouraging use of public transit, we haven't offered city hall employees any incentives to use the bus. A slight subsidy of bus pass costs might convince some to take the bus to work, then perhaps they might look at remaining downtown over the lunch hour as well - if we put back the benches that used to be around the fountain in front of city hall, that might encourage people to have their lunches outside, making that area appear to be more than just a place to walk through quickly.
I'm hopeful that the slight extension in bus hours will encourage more SIAST students to take the bus, but we probably could have done more. For example, I'm not aware of any overtures that were made to the people at SIAST to see if there was the possibility for a bus pass partnership, such has been done with the students at the U of S - Saskatoon Transit saw their ridership increase significantly after a bus pass was included in the registration cost for U of S students - a win for the transit system, and a win for the university, which saw a reduction in its parking problems.
And we haven't done a very good job of encouraging people to live close enough to downtown that car use isn't required. We invest a great deal of money in developing areas that are far from the downtown, but don't spend much on maintaining the infrastructure or the services in the area surrounding the downtown core. And while it's a predictable refrain that we need to do "something" about the downtown, to make it more attractive so that people will want to be there, we don't do much beyond pots of petunias set out in regimented lines in front of city hall.
We need to realize that it takes a great deal of thought and effort, looking at a variety of options and possibilities, to change people's habits. And our job as members of council goes far beyond posing for pictures which suggest that we're doing the right thing - it means figuring out what we can do that will actually influence change, and taking concrete steps to do so.
"Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching." - Jim Stovall