Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
The Stratford chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women is adding its voice to the discussion about how to improve public transportation across Southwestern Ontario.
The voluntary, non-profit organization of women graduates has launched a website, www.gettingthere.ca, and developed a PowerPoint presentation entitled "You Can't Get There from Here" that both speak to the need for an integrated network of services where communities are linked to meet the increasingly diverse needs of the population. The group hopes share its information with other community organizations that, like the CFUW, has connections throughout the region and can adds its voice to a growing list of stakeholders calling on governments to rethink their transportation strategies.
The issue has been at the forefront since VIA Rail reduced its commuter service through the area by one train last year after federal funding was reduced by $34.7 million. Before that Stratford lost its Greyhound bus service.
"When we started to look at this issue at just the the local level, we realized it's a much bigger problem than just Stratford commuter trains. It's a nation-wide problem," says Stratford CFUW president Katharine Gunnel Gavin.
"Everyone we talk to has a transportation problem," fellow CFUW member, Sheila Clarke, adds. "It's a problem that's affecting everyone across age groups, economic demographics, across political parties."
The group says the cuts in service have affected everyone from the people who have chosen to live in Stratford and commute to work, to post-secondary students, to seniors with out-of-town medical appointments and who want to visit family.
"There's also a large demographic of young people who do not want a car, and they are very serious about that," Clarke notes. "They see it as an environmental statement and an economic statement. They want to use public transportation."
Clarke and her group point to France as an example of a country that has successfully adopted a regional approach to transportation. There each region identified its needs and how they could be met, then worked with the central government to create an efficient system that has experienced increased ridership and after an initial financial investment.
"It's beginning to turn a small profit, which is unheard of in public transportation," Clark notes. "It's almost considered like water and education. It's a service that's provided because it's a part of developing a civilized country and community."
Clarke says the local CFUW chapter, which has a long history of advocacy work including a successful campaign for increased rail service through Stratford nearly 10 years ago, is taking a positive and apolitical approach to the issue rather than dwell on past decisions.
"We feel that there's no point in listing endless recriminations and mistakes, or perceived moves that have been disadvantages," she adds. "We need to get together and start forming some approaches that are creative, positive, and are looking forward."
The CFUW is not alone.
Municipal leaders with the Southwest Economic Alliance recently unveiled a five point action plan aimed at stopping further cuts and introducing regional transportation planning and investment.
The group is calling for a renewed commitment to passenger rail service across Canada, and will convene a regional transportation summit in the fall to draw attention to limited passenger transportation options in Southwestern Ontario.
SWEA is also is asking the provincial government to immediately address regional passenger transportation issues beyond the Greater Toronto Area, including the establishment of an all-party committee of the Ontario legislature to study regional transportation needs.
While increased commuter rail service and somehow linking in with Go Transit – whether by expanding into Stratford or providing a separate bus service to Go Transit in Kitchener – have been commonly identified as at least partial solutions, many people living in Huron and Perth counties struggle due to the large geographical area to access the services and programs they need close to home.
The United Way Perth-Huron formed a transportation task force last year, and, with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, recently hired a worker on a two-year contract to investigate the difficulties that exist. Transportation is continuously identified as one of the top challenges by people who rely on the services of a United Way-supported organization.
"We don't even know how many vans, buses, and taxis we have in Huron and Perth," local United Way executive director, Ryan Erb, notes. "So we have to do that level of research to find out how we can leverage the assets that already exist, and then we can start making solutions from there."
Erb says something as simple as a ride sharing website for companies and organizations, which the United Way is looking at implementing in the future, could reduce transportation costs and enhance accessibility.
"Our goal is to make sure everyone in our community has the best access to the services, recreational opportunities, and social opportunities, because we know it's all of that makes a healthy vibrant community," he adds. "There are all kinds of ideas we have when looking at transpiration systems from other communities where they've solved this problem better than us."