Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘urban transportation’

Green Wheels: Car-sharing Comes to Halifax

Monday, December 15th, 2008

December 14, 2008

“People ask me if I don’t feel worried about starting a business just at the beginning of a recession,” says Pam Cooley. “I tell them No, because I think this business is really going to help people get through the recession, so I think it’s going to do very well.”

Pam is president and co-owner of CarShareHFX, which opened up in Halifax earlier this month. The other owner is general manager Peter Zimmer. In essence, their service gives you the use of a car whenever you need one – but without the cost and hassle of owning one. More than 40,000 Canadians already belong to car-sharing services, and the number is growing rapidly.

Small wonder. On average, North Americans spend 19% of their incomes on their cars. As our belts tighten, more and more people are reducing their use of cars – living near their work, telecommuting, car-pooling, using public transit, cycling and walking. But for toting groceries or visiting the suburbs, cars remain almost indispensable.

Enter the car-sharing programs. With CarShareHFX, members pay a flat annual fee – about $250 – and an hourly rental ($10 an hour to use a car in peak periods, $3 in the small hours of the night). That’s it. The fees cover everything – gas, insurance, maintenance, even a MacPass for crossing the bridges – and are charged monthly to your credit card.

The cars – Hondas, Kias and Toyotas, including the hybrid Prius – all have automatic transmissions, air conditioning, child seat anchors, stereo systems, an emergency kit and 24/7 roadside assistance. As CarShareHFX grows, Pam and Peter hope to add bio-fuelled vehicles, prestige cars and sports cars as well as workhorses cargo vans and pickups.

To use the service, the member reserves the car online or by telephone. Cars are located in seven central locations now – six on the peninsula of Halifax, one in downtown Dartmouth, with more to come as membership grows. At the appointed time, the member goes to the shared car and places a little electronic “fob” over a transceiver inside the car window. The door unlocks. The ignition key is inside, tied on a lanyard so it won’t be accidentally taken away. Vroom. Go.

Most people, says Pam, find that they spend about as much on their car-sharing membership as they used to spend on their car insurance alone. Using a car only when they really need one, they drive far fewer miles in a year – and the one car, with its one parking place, can serve about 20 drivers. The effect on congestion, parking and emissions can be spectacular. CommunAuto, Montreal’s car-share service – the first one in North America – reckons that 250 cars in its fleet take 3500 cars off the road..

In fact, car-sharing has become so mainstream that green property developers in cities like Ottawa are including car-share memberships in the amenities of their condos, and providing space for car-share vehicles to park right inside the building. Some foresee a day when the developer’s obligation to provide parking will be sharply reduced for buildings which incorporate car-sharing in their design.

Car-sharing also has significant advantages for businesses of all sizes. For larger companies, it preserves the organization’s capital while giving employees guaranteed access to a fleet of vehicles, with every trip logged and tracked in detail. Home businesses can also husband their capital while impressing their clients by arriving at meetings in a sparkling new car.

Capital Health and the Nova Scotia Community College are already members of CarShareHFX. The province is also interested, and for the government which passed the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, car-sharing should be a no-brainer. Likewise with the Halifax Regional Municipality. In Philadelphia, says Pam Cooley, 55,000 people car-share – and the biggest member is the city.

But the concept will work far beyond the big city – as it does, for instance, in Nelson, BC, pop. 9300.

“Eventually, we’d also like to provide the service in smaller Maritime towns, and even in rural areas,” says Peter Zimmer. It’s quite feasible, says Pam Cooley. The key factors are simply “enthusiasm and demand.”

Nurture the planet and save money, too. Does it get much better than that?

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The Liberation of Halifax

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 31, 2008

“The Mayor of Halifax has very little actual power,” explained the Mayor of Halifax. “But he can use his office to bring people together, he can speak out on issues that matter, and he can lead by example.”

The year was 1968, exactly 40 years ago. The Mayor’s name was Allan O’Brien, and my profile of him was my first national magazine article, in the long-vanished Star Weekly. I quote O’Brien from memory, but I know the substance is correct, because I subsequently came to know him quite well. He was a splendid representative of Halifax, a deep-rooted Nova Scotian with a global vision and a powerful view of his city’s role in the world. He was a national vice-president of the NDP, a dedicated advocate for social justice and a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam war. Was it appropriate for the Mayor of Halifax to speak out on such matters?

“We’re all very concerned about our own local issues, as we should be,” he said. “But I don’t regard that as an excuse for ignoring the plight of our neighbours – anywhere in the world.”

O’Brien sprang to mind recently when I read a speech by Brian Flemming to the fledgling organization called Citizens for Halifax (www.citizensforhalifax.ca). I don’t believe that the old City of Halifax was ever again led by a politician of O’Brien’s stature – and Flemming’s analysis of municipal politics today suggests that its clumsy successor never will be either.

As Flemming makes clear, Halifax Regional Municipality – let’s be blunt – is a disaster. I liked John Savage and I honour his memory, but his amalgamation of numerous smaller municipal units to form HRM and CBRM was a breathtakingly dumb idea. As Flemming notes, Nova Scotia politics is dominated by rural Nova Scotia, which is deeply suspicious of the capital. By including all of Halifax County in HRM, Savage ensured that the same dysfunction now exists within HRM itself – and compounded the problems by instituting an unwieldy 23-member council of which only four members are from the genuinely urban peninsula of Halifax, and none are elected at large.

The result is a city council in which the city has no voice. Decisions about pivotal urban issues are taken by rural councillors obsessed, says Flemming, with “potholes in Ecum Secum or Hubbards.” Among the great achievements of this camel of a council is the passage, after endless hours of debate, of an unenforceable cat-control by-law to set alongside the unenforceable dog-control by-law.

This is scandalous. Small though it is, Halifax is a world city. Its history is about cataclysmic conflicts, the clash of empires, international trade, culture and communication. Halifax is leafy and hard-edged, salty and intimate, bustling with students and artists and movers and shakers, small enough to be convenient, large enough to provide a genuine urban lifestyle. Its leadership needs to combine local pride with global vision, treasuring the city’s heritage while embracing its future as a model of sustainability and innovation.

Instead, it’s obsessed with cat control.

Flemming offers no prescriptions for structural changes in HRM, but it’s obvious that we need somehow to separate the truly urban districts ringing Halifax Harbour from the outer reaches of what was once Halifax County. HRM is a shotgun marriage that serves neither population well. In the meantime, Flemming has some useful suggestions to make about one of the major issues affecting the city, namely transportation.

Flemming chaired the Canada Transportation Act Review Panel of 2001, and he contends that core of the transportation system is still the road network. He suggests numerous useful improvements in road transportation – a tiered, closed-in highway along the railway cutting into the South End, a third Halifax Harbour crossing (possibly a tunnel), a bridge across the Northwest Arm, possibly the relocation of the two container piers to the Shearwater lands in Dartmouth.

His most important suggestion is the creation of an HRM Transportation Authority to plan and co-ordinate transportation in the municipality. The Authority would be governed by an independent board of directors, including representatives from such heavy users of the roads as truckers and commuters. Flemming would also give the Authority the power to support viable alternatives to roads, including fast ferries from Bedford and Purcell’s Cove, light commuter rail service to Bedford and Sackville, bike paths and busses.

Such an Authority would benefit every part of HRM. The province would have to create it, but it’s hard to imagine why any provincial politician would oppose it. Even more important, it might be a first step in liberating the capital from the paralysis that now grips it, a vivid example of the foresight and vision that a great little city so desperately needs.

Citizens for Halifax, this would be a great place to start.

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