In Part One of a new series on building a post-car Canada, Charlotte Dalwood outlines the individual and social costs of car culture for rural Canadians. The solution? A national bus service to connect Canada’s rural and urban centres.
Canada’s towns and cities are built for cars, not people. And nowhere is this truer than in the rural parts of Canada’s Western provinces.
There, you need a car to do pretty much everything.
But while farmers may need trucks to do their jobs, they shouldn’t need them to get their kids to school or themselves to the grocery store. And car-less women fleeing domestic violence should be as able to access emergency shelters as their car-owning counterparts, regardless of where in this country they live.
Which means investing in a national program of intra and inter-city mass transit.
What Greyhound left behind
For nearly a century, if you wanted to take a bus between Canadian cities big and small, you took a Greyhound.
I can remember, as a child, taking the bus from Calgary, Alta.—population 1.37 million—to Castlegar, B.C.—population 8,000—to visit family in the West Kootenays. At about 12 hours long, the trip wasn’t faster than flying; but it certainly was cheaper.
I’m not the only Canadian with Greyhound memories. At London, Ont.’s Western University, searching for Greyhound tickets at the end of the semester has been described as “an annual tradition”.
Indeed, for many seniors, students, and other people of modest means who lack personal vehicles, a Greyhound ticket was historically the only affordable way to travel across Canada.
That all changed in 2018 when the private bus company shuttered operations in northern Ontario and the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In May of that year, the company closed its routes in northern British Columbia.
The company’s withdrawal from Western Canada left a huge transportation gap that hasn’t been filled in the years since. Of the 360 stops Greyhound operated in 2018, 300 constituted the only inter-city bus service in town.
A patchwork of private and public bus routes has developed, particularly in British Columbia, to fill in the transportation gaps Greyhound’s departure left behind. But often at considerable cost to riders. At $76 in 2018, the price of a bus ticket between Calgary and Edmonton on the Red Arrow bus service was more than double what Greyhound charged. And a number of small towns remain without bus service at all. There’s still no way to get from Hanna, Alta. or Alsask, Sask. to Calgary via bus.
You need a car.
Car culture hurts rural Canadians
By now, the downsides of our collective obsession with cars is well-documented. Less well known is how car culture impacts specifically rural communities. That’s because very little research has been done on rural transit and mobility; and what little research exists predominantly focuses on places like British Columbia and Ontario. But we can extrapolate from what we know about the harms of car culture, generally, to draw conclusions about how car culture hurts rural Canadians, specifically.
Take the matter of costs.
Cars are famously expensive to purchase and maintain. One estimate put the monthly cost of owning a 2017 Honda Civic in Ontario at close to $1,000 per month, or just under $12,000 per year. Indeed, the lifetime cost of a small car sits at around $850,000 (before other costs, like parking, are factored in).
That makes car ownership one of the largest personal expenses a person can take on. Which is a particular problem for those living below the poverty line.
While the poverty rate in rural Canada fell from 10.1 per cent in 2015 to 5.6 per cent in 2020, it remains the case that rural residents make far less on average than their urban counterparts. Roughly a third of Saskatchewan’s population is rural. Of those living outside the province’s 10 census metropolitan areas, 22.6 per cent live in poverty; the only census metropolitan area with a higher poverty rate is Prince Albert. In neighbouring Alberta, the lowest incomes are generally seen in rural and remote parts of the province.
Because, in rural communities, car ownership is functionally mandatory, it acts as a regressive tax. People in both rural and urban communities must pay to own and maintain their cars, but people in rural communities end up paying a larger percentage of their income to do so because they generally have less income in the first place.
To be sure, not all of a car’s lifetime cost is borne by the car’s driver. Car culture imposes social costs on the Canadian public, too: costs such as “carbon emissions from burning petrol and diesel, congestion, noise, deaths and injuries from crashes, road damage, and costs to health systems from sloth”. Yet the public subsidizes car ownership considerably through investments in parking, streets and highways. Something like 41 per cent of a car’s lifetime cost is borne by the public—including those who do not drive—through taxes.
Not everyone in rural places owns a car, difficult though it is to get by in this day and age without one. Yet even the car-less must subsidize drivers and driving. And as a society, we have come to expect this. Publicly funded roads and highways and parking lots are everywhere; but we don’t expect public transit to be similarly ubiquitous. In other words, those without cars must pay into a system that rewards drivers—without any expectation that that system will also assist them with their transportation needs.
This is an intersectional problem because the persons who most relied on transportation services like Greyhound tended overwhelmingly to be disadvantaged groups like First Nations, women of colour, and other otherwise marginalized populations. Rather than lifting them out of geographic isolation, the lack of societal investment in rural mass transit leaves them abandoned—all the while demanding that they pay for their neighbours’ car addiction.
That’s an economic problem, to be sure. It leaves the people who need it most without easy access to the work and educational opportunities that are concentrated in larger urban centres.
But it’s a social problem, too. Homeless and domestic violence agencies long relied on Greyhound routes to shuttle people from rural communities like Revelstoke, B.C., and Brandon, MB, to shelters elsewhere. Now that option is either severely curtailed or, in some cases, gone altogether—leaving people to choose more dangerous transportation options like hitchhiking at the exact moment when they’re at their most vulnerable.
A national bus service doesn’t mean eliminating cars
Combatting car culture doesn’t mean eliminating cars entirely. There’s still a place for personal vehicles in Canada’s towns and cities. But it does mean relegating cars to being one transportation option among many: A people-centred society, after all, is one in which people come first, not their cars.
What that looks like, in practice, is sustained government investment in sidewalks, bike lanes, and, perhaps most of all, accessible public transit.
The problem, of course, is that rural mass transportation isn’t profitable. That’s why Greyhound left Western Canada in the first place. There simply isn’t the population density necessary to make operating bus routes there a money-making enterprise.
But while that might be an issue for private industry, it shouldn’t be one for governments. That’s because government spending at both the provincial and the federal levels should operate on the presumption that the goal is not to make as much money as possible but, rather, to generate the most social good possible. A service that loses money but helps people is, in other words, a worthwhile endeavour.
And because governments have the power, through taxes, to distribute the costs of a service across the population as a whole (something they happily do when it comes to car ownership), they are able to operate these services without needing to recoup their investment at the point-of-access. That’s why a national bus service connecting rural and urban Canada is a project best left to Canada’s governments, not to the private sector or to a patchwork of local transportation initiatives.
People everywhere need safe and affordable options to travel within and between Canada’s towns and cities. It’s time the provincial and federal governments stepped in to provide them.
Where we’re going from here
In the months ahead, this column will be exploring rural and urban transportation with an eye towards proposing solutions to move Canada towards a post-car world. We’ll be exploring in more depth the individual and public costs of our collective obsession with private car ownership. And we’ll be looking at opportunities to counter that obsession with publicly funded transportation alternatives.