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Motorists ignore smog alerts - Toronto Sun

May 24, 2010
Antonella Artuso
Queen's Park Bureau Chief
Toronto Sun

Toronto’s love affair with the car even survives smog days.

A Toronto Sun review of highway traffic patterns around the Greater Toronto Area — which accounts for vacations, lane closures and accidents — reveals that the vast majority of drivers are ignoring the call to walk, cycle or hop on public transit when the skies over the city turn a sickly yellowish brown.

All along Hwy. 401 and the Gardiner Expressway, cars and trucks added to the poor air quality despite official pleas to find a better way.

While TTC ridership was up, the increase was so small it could have been pedestrians or cyclists seeking a break from the heat and haze.

Daily ridership swings of 50,000 are not unusual, depending on the weather.

Josh Laughren, a spokesman for World Wildlife Fund Canada, said a new survey of Canadians uncovers the depth of people’s passion for their vehicles.

“More people said they would give up sex than would give up their car. Canadians are actually twice as likely to give up sex than driving, according to their answers to the survey,” he said. “So it’s an indication of the relationship that we have with our car.”

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment issues smog alerts when poor air quality is expected within the following three days. A smog advisory indicates that elevated pollution levels will likely occur within 24 hours.

It was this time last year that Toronto saw its first smog advisory — May 21 — and three more smog days followed on Aug. 15-17. The previous year, the GTA experienced 13 days when the air was bad enough to pose a health risk.

Even healthy people can be affected by smog, a nasty chemical soup cooked up primarily of ground-level ozone and particulate matter. But seniors, children and people with heart or lung problems are particularly vulnerable to degraded air quality which can leave them experiencing pain, shortness of breath and eye-and-nose irritation.

A Toronto Public Health study released in 2007 concluded that traffic pollution leads to 440 premature deaths, 1,200 additional acute bronchitis episodes for children and 1,700 hospitalizations every year in the city.

As the level of air pollution increases, hospitals tend to record more emergency visits and admissions.
Facing mounting air quality advisories, the City of Windsor decided to offer free transit on smog days in 2003.

Penny Williams, general manager of Transit Windsor, said the public response was immediate.

“We found that the ridership went up 41%,” Williams said.

Transit use stayed at an elevated level for the remainder of the year.

The $60,000 cost of the pilot project was split between the city and the federal government.

When the one-time funds dried up, the popular freebie was put on blocks.

“We really liked the program ... and I wish we could do it again but we just don’t have the money,” she said.

Williams said the free transit experiment might not work as well in Toronto because the TTC is already near capacity.

TTC chairman Adam Giambrone said the system collects the equivalent of about $3 million daily in fare revenue with about 52% of riders holding a Metropass. It takes in about $1.5 million a day in direct fares.

“The best way to get people on transit is to offer better service,” Giambrone said. “Driving is more expensive than using the TTC. Smog days is an opportunity to talk about the alternatives.”

Rather than tease people out of their cars for one day, Giambrone said the goal is to get people to build their lives around using public transit.

“I almost bought a car but never got around to it — I was leaning towards an Intrepid,” Giambrone said.

“The reason I never got around to it is I never needed it.”

To encourage other young people to make the same decision, the TTC will offer students in college and university access to the new high school pass this September.

“It’s easier to keep people on transit than to take them out of their car,” Giambrone said. “Once you get a car, you almost have to justify using it.”

Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), said he suspects the reason why many motorists drive to work — even when the air is smoggy — is because they feel there’s no other choice.

For the most part, rapid transit is not available to residents who live outside of downtown Toronto.

That’s why the Transit City light-rail transit plan, as originally envisioned by the TTC, is so important to get people unbuckled from their cars, he said.

In the short term, Hartmann believes free TTC during smog alerts would be a great incentive.

“Obviously, there’s no laws that say on the smog day you shall not drive,” he said.

A more senior level of government, such as the province, should pick up the tab for transit riders on smog days, Hartmann said.

Toronto property taxpayers are already covering the full operating cost of the TTC and the system can’t afford to give away the service for free, he said.

Laughren said passenger vehicles in Canada are responsible for about 13% of greenhouse gas emissions, so even small changes in driving habits can help improve air quality

WWF-Canada is launching “Pin It For The Planet” May 31-June 6, a week where drivers will be encouraged to pin their keys to their shirt and find ways to get around without a car. Organizers are hoping the campaign might convince motorists to take transit to work or walk to do some of their shopping.

“The whole point is that we’re asking people to drive less for that week so that they can assess where they need their car and they don’t,” he said. “We have a perception that cars are really the best thing for us and giving them up entails big sacrifice.”

As published: http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2010/05/24/14063461.html

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