Get smart on gas prices

Aah, summer in Edmonton. Patios are open, the sun is shining and thousands of Edmontonians are cycling and walking throughout the city. Of course, hundreds of thousands are dealing with those two other sure signs of the season: construction-induced gridlock and high gas prices.

If you’re a car-dependent Edmontonian—which, according to Statistics Canada, is 78 per cent of us—the May long weekend is an annual shock to the wallet which promises to continue all summer long. Checking historical gas prices in the city reveals the obvious: the affordability of driving is only getting worse.

So the May 16 speech by transportation expert Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute to a packed room of Edmonton municipal planners, transportation engineers, transit representatives, public health professionals, and a handful of city councillors came at an auspicious time.

Litman presented a compelling argument that isolated measures to ameliorate elements of our car-dependent transportation woes—encouraging people to buy hybrids in response to high gas prices or widening roads to ease traffic congestion, for example—are simply inadequate half-measures. 

What is needed, Litman argued, is an integrated approach that views urban sustainability as the intersection of environmental, social and economic objectives to move from a planning model that views mobility—mostly by car—as its primary objective to one that puts accessibility at the centre of how we develop the city. What that means is shifting focus to building walkable, smart-growth communities with features such as higher density, transportation diversity, traffic calming measures and “urban villages” that offer neighbourhoods an appropriate mix of activities without the need to get into a car. Only through such an integrated approach, according to Litman, can we adequately address interconnected issues such as congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, transportation affordability, public health and community economic development.

Shifting the way we conceptualize cities is obviously a tall order, and will require almost-unheard-of coordination between different departments, sectors and jurisdictions. The good news is that the barriers to realizing such a vision are not technical ones, but conceptual and political ones, meaning they can be overcome. And with every frustrated driver sitting in summer gridlock staring at a sign reading “Regular: $1.25,” we move a step closer to making it all possible. V

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