A Bird's Eye View, by Frank Palermo

Sustainable Transportation: The Challenge and Opportunity

A Bird's Eye View, by Frank Palermo, Director Cities and Environment Unit, Dalhousie University

Transportation, how we move across the distance that separates us and invest in the links that will connect us, defines who we are. It affects access to services, touches on individual health, has environmental consequences, reflects our sense of social justice and influences our economic outlook. It is a key determinant of future urban and rural prosperity in Nova Scotia.

We are living in a moment of upheaval and change. Technology now connects us to each other and to ideas and markets around the world. All around us, an emerging environmental awareness is creating a new sensibility about what we consume, the real cost of energy, our connection to the land, the food we eat as well as the awesome beauty and fragility of our landscapes, coastlines and communities.

The moment holds promise which is not reflected in current circumstances or some rather dire predictions for Nova Scotia's future. The decline of small communities is not inevitable. Nor is the tension between urban and rural parts of the Province. Nor is the singular dependence on the automobile. Predictions simply reinforce the fact that something has to change. The dominance of the car has created a settlement pattern and a culture which separates uses, consumes energy and land, affects air quality and health and imposes enormous costs on the provision of public infrastructure. In this context, a shift to more sustainable infrastructure, values and behavior is not a choice. It is also not a problem, but an opportunity for us to shape our own future. As Northrup Fry observed: "The future is not predicted, it's invented."

This Sustainable Transportation Strategy is the first step. It is significant because it was developed with a broad cross section of the community. The strategy and the moment are both important: not because new money is being committed to sustainable transportation; after all there is only a modest promise. And not because a new team, an advisory group, a commission, a centre or four networks are created. Its more fundamental contribution is in establishing a clear approach. It's worth fighting for because it builds on local imagination, ingenuity and resourcefulness. It's critical because it does not allow dim projections based on yesterday to determine what will happen tomorrow.

The approach is based on 4 quite extraordinary and inspiring elements:

  • A perspective which is short and long. The focus is on immediate and incremental action which informs, and is informed by, a broad and evolving long term direction. The emphasis is on learning by doing.
  • A position that values and supports both small and large, local and province wide initiatives. The approach brings together different modes of travel and connects neighboring communities which can then be strategically linked into a provincial active transportation route (a blue route) and a fast transit corridor (maybe a green spine). Together with a reconceived road system this holds the promise of creating a new network of sustainable 21st century infrastructure.
  • A new attitude, organizational structure and agenda that works across existing boundaries. However difficult, there is a recognition that change requires thinking, support and action across geographic, urban and rural, departmental and special interest boundaries.
  • An understanding that for any strategy to be accepted and make a difference on the ground, it needs to be community-based. It needs to engage, come from, be appropriated by and inspire the community.

The approach is short and long, small and large, across boundaries and community based. These ideas hold the promise that together in an open and collaborative process, with hard work and support, we can begin to increase mobility choices. We can begin to think and act beyond prescribed boundaries. We can learn by doing. We can shape our own future. Now the challenge, the only real limit, is the reach of our collective imagination.