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Planning for activity

Fergus-Elora News Express editorial

Active transportation is being promoted by many as the way of the future, a means to ending the sloth that seems to be clogging our society as heavily as the fat clogging the bodies of our obese kids.

It’s become the latest thing in community planning – trails, parks, and greenspace are no longer just afterthoughts, they’re vital parts of any major development.

But we need to start making much greater changes to society if “active transportation” is going to be anything more than just a sideline, however impressive plans like Wellington County’s new active transportation plan are.

The network of trails, footpaths, paved shoulders and bike lanes proposed in the plan links the county’s major urban areas, and ties Wellington trails in with others in surrounding areas.

But at a total projected cost of $23.7 million, it’s a hefty cost for something that at this point will get minimal use, perhaps only as a recreation choice.

For the past 60 years or so, we’ve developed a society based on car travel. In the 1940s and 1950s, cars brought freedom – no longer did people have to stay in the communities they were born in, working at the corner store or the town factory.

As cars became the preferred mode of transportation, public transit died out – despite people working and playing further and further from home. The great passenger rail systems that spanned the province in the early part of the 20th century had all but vanished by the 1970s. Bus service dwindled and vanished too. Only in the largest cities is mass public transit on a frequent schedule financially viable – and even there, it seems to barely survive.

Cars were also instrumental in killing off a host of retail and service options that would have been familiar to our more pedestrian-based ancestors: the community movie theatre, the country general store, the corner market, the downtown grocery store. No one needs to walk to the market at the corner now, when they can drive to any number of vast grocery stores.

We’ve become a society of drivers. We think nothing of commuting an hour to work, of driving another half-hour after work to go to dinner or shopping, of driving across town to pick up cigarettes or a coffee. Fast food restaurants do a big percentage of their business on “drive-thru” – we’ve replaced the traditional gathering around the kitchen table with pulling into Tims on the way to hockey practice.

Is that attitude going to change anytime soon?

There has been a good trail between Fergus and Elora for years now. How many people use it to get to work or go shopping? We’ve had a decent, paved road system for years too, but how many people cycle to work in Kitchener and Cambridge?

We could say that the reason we’re only now getting around to considering paved shoulders and bike lanes on county roads is that there really hasn’t been much demand for them. If hundreds of people were commuting by bicycle around Wellington County regularly, you’d think they would have been lobbying for this years ago.

It’s simply become impossible – or at least extremely difficult – for most people to live without a car, particularly in rural areas.

Active transportation is a great idea and a necessary small step toward creating a more active society. But to become the pedestrian and cyclist society these plans envision, we’re also going to have to turn away from much of the car-oriented progress we’ve made in the last half-century, creating a new, community-oriented society where services, recreation, shopping and employment are within short walking or cycling distance.

Barring some major upheaval, that’s not something we can expect within the next 20 – or even 50 – years.

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