Introduction from Laura Sacks, Regional Organizer for BC Interior and North
I am so inspired by Solita's positive and can-do energy. We met as part of a group looking at an active transportation corridor between Nelson and Castlegar, BC – which started as a spin off from a networking meeting with the West Kootenay Climate Hub. We went from it being a "dream" to recently getting a grant for a feasibility study, thanks in a big part to Solita's effusive encouragement to "go for it" under a tight deadline! Solita is part of the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition, which is one of the West Kootenay Climate Hub’s 23 partner organizations. Our climate hub hosts a series of webinars featuring hub partners and initiatives, and you can find Solita talking about that vision here.
I was the West Kootenay Climate Hub representative at the recent meeting she mentions in her blog. The invitation to join that meeting evolved from relationship building with staff at the Regional District, letting them know that citizens care and want to help make change happen.
Last week, I had the privilege to attend a meeting with The RDCK Climate Action Working Group. The RDCK (Regional District of Central Kootenay) is the local government serving a population of approximately 60,000 in the Central Kootenays. The RDCK is looking for ways to improve transportation options while reducing carbon pollution. The RDCK understands that they are limited by their scope of services to transit only yet, they are fully aware that this service only addresses a fraction of transportation needs in the area.
Currently, transportation accounts for more than half of all carbon pollution in the West Kootenays. Transportation includes passenger vehicles, transit, active transportation, and commercial hauling. Carbon emissions need to be reduced swiftly and significantly if we are to meet any climate action targets.
The RDCK invited various stakeholders to this brainstorming session to help determine how best to support the implementation of more sustainable transport options. At the table sat community and urban planners, representatives from recreation and tourism industries, car share organizations, transit managers, climate action groups, city managers, citizens at large and myself, on behalf of the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition.
RDCK staff prepared and presented a comprehensive presentation outlining the current state of transportation in our region including some interesting data regarding public transit. Problems were clearly illustrated in informative graphics and questions from our group were answered thoughtfully and thoroughly. From there we broke down into smaller groups to get to know each other better and find out more about each group’s specific transportation needs and interests.
Finally, we were asked to offer ideas to help fill these needs. Each idea was written down on a white board. Then we were each asked to pick three of these ideas and refine them further with possible solutions. We wrote them on sticky notes that were then attached to the white board with their corresponding ideas. From there, three main themes started to appear.
The first theme to appear was building more equity into our transportation system. Although passenger vehicles are given priority in transportation, in reality it is a privilege that many do not have access to. Sometimes these limitations are health issues or age but often they are financial. We all pay for this type of transportation through our taxes even if you never drive. Little thought is given to public or active transit yet, this is how many get to work or medical appointments despite the limited service. In addition to this, passenger vehicles are the main source of toxic emission in the West Kootenays and we must find ways to reduce them. We all agreed that we need to work on making a multi-model transport system that addresses these problems.
Another theme that came up was a proposal to take stock of existing infrastructure and utilize it more effectively, to make better use of what we already have. The two main solutions resulting from this investigation, that a majority of our group agreed on, were to expand the scope and service of both community halls and school bus fleets.
Community halls would make great transport hubs. Most are already conveniently and centrally located within various communities with good transport access along main corridors. Since the buildings already exist and are built to accommodate larger, public groups, it would be cost effective to simply add amenities within these structures. Not only could they become transport hubs but would also aid in community connectivity while helping address equity problems.Community halls could install public washrooms with showers open 24/7, secure bicycle parking, cafes with warming or cooling centers during extreme weather events, community kitchens for local food preservation and food distribution and even bunk rooms for those who lose a home to fires, floods or are experiencing homelessness. These bunk rooms could be operated at hostels for tourists creating additional revenue potential. By making community halls transport hubs we are also making them into centers better connecting everyone living in our neighbourhoods. With regular traffic accessing them they would increase safety as well. Community members running them should paid creating new jobs.
School buses were identified as another underutilized asset in our communities. When not transporting children, the buses mostly sit idle outside of school hours and throughout the summer months. These buses could be put to better use transporting employees to shift work, helping to eliminate the need for parking at events and festivals by hiring for shuttle service or rented by smaller groups to get to appointments outside of regular transit service hours. These school buses are built for driving on rougher roads than typical transit and are more affordable. It was even suggested that perhaps parents and other neighbours living along regular bus routes could simply access rides on school buses during regular hours with the kids. The buses are rarely full and additional adults onboard improve safety for students that experience regular bullying. Perhaps these buses could also service college students trying to get to the different campuses around the Kootenays. Again, expanding the use of school buses also creates the opportunity for more jobs as more drivers will be needed.
I am a firm believer that finding sustainable solutions for transportation is the key to addressing climate change. Driving private passenger vehicles affords us a privilege that we probably don’t deserve. It allows us to consume more. Consider how much you can purchase and transport compared to a bicycle or even walking. It allows us to move that consumption farther and farther distances creating greater reliance on this type of travel. It perpetuates inequality, creates all sorts of land use problems, and allows us to continue to exploit environmental resources that we should probably not even have access to. Finally, we do it alone. It does nothing to build community. In fact, it creates disconnection, fuels rage and an overwhelming sense of entitlement. I believe that if we create an equitable multi-model transport system we would all be healthier and happier. Transportation affects every aspect of our lives. Everything is connected and transport is a big piece in this puzzle.
Together, collectively, we can solve these problems. I really appreciate that the RDCK recognizes how limiting our transport system is at this time and their willingness to find out how they might be able to facilitate or support change in our region. It was both inspiring and hopeful to be problem solving with such a diverse group of stakeholders and discovering that we all had come up with similar solutions. Communication was key here.
We also got to learn a lot more about how our local government functions. The RDCK is mandated to use our tax base to operate services such as transit, land use planning and park maintenance but not much outside that scope. This means they have little authority to dictate how community halls are operated, build active transport infrastructure or fund car share programs for example. But, if we, as residents, ask for the right policy changes we can change that. Currently, RDCK is only allowed to offer transit service. It’s possible to ask the RDCK to expand their scope to an active transport service which would encompass a much broader list of transport options. This could include buses as well as bicycles, ebikes, car shares, low speed passenger vehicles, passenger rail and even the operation of stations or transit hubs as suggested for community halls and the building and maintenance of pathways.
We did exactly that! A member from the West Kootenay Climate Hub drafted a letter to our director in RDCK Area I:
“I was at a meeting yesterday focussed on improving low carbon transportation in the region. One thing that came up is that transit is one of the RDCK’s “service” categories, rather than transportation in general. Clearly having transportation as a service would allow better integration of active transportation into a more holistic transportation system.
My request to you is to ask the Community Sustainable Living Advisory Committee (CSLAC) to conduct a service case review about shifting services from transit to transportation.”
To our delight, the director replied immediately with a positive response and will be requesting that the following motion be placed on next CSLAC meeting agenda:
"To investigate the feasibility of establishing an RDCK Active Transportation Service to increase and improve transportation options beyond existing transit services to improve the accessibility, comfort and safety of active transportation with a specific goal of doubling the number of trips taken with active transportation by 2030."
As an ad hoc group of concerned citizens, we are grateful for this opportunity to be able to influence our local government in a way that we can take meaningful action towards a better future for all of us. I will keep you posted with updates as we work on improving active transport in our region. We encourage everyone to get involved and stay informed. The climate crisis requires that we work together. Our meeting with the RDCK was a great example of how this can happen and what we can accomplish. We’re not done yet but we’re well on our way.
It's imperative to pay attention to politics. I know that all the meetings and protocols are tedious and boring but, this is our only opportunity to make sure our tax dollars are spent on things we need. We CAN change policy to make it easier to be involved. We don't have to accept stats quo. We do, however, have to work together, listen to each other and approach all new ideas with an open mind. The polarization of critical issues across Canada is very alarming. I encourage you to ask more questions and consider how we can find ways to understand the struggles of others and open up new doors for the benefit of all.
In 2021, I was elected to the board of the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition as the new Vice President. We hit the ground running setting goals, applying for grants and creating committees to spread the work around. Our highways committee (aka The Dream Team) applied for a $50K grant from the federal Active Transport Fund to conduct a feasibility study on a separated pathway between Nelson and Castlegar. We were successful! The study will commence this fall and we will need to conduct significant public engagement. I encourage you to follow the West Kootenay Cycling Coalition Facebook page to stay up to date and be involved.
Solita is an eco retailer also an eco-retreat developer who is based on the homelands of the ngaytskstx tum-xula7xw (Sinixt), ʔaqⱡsmaknik (Ktunaxa) and Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan) peoples, also known as the West Kootenays in British Columbia. She is also passionate about living the most sustainable life possible. Solita is concerned about climate change and believes that reducing our consumption and being more self-sufficient are real solutions to this existential problem. She hopes that her modern day, rural trading post and retreat will be a sustainable model for others to follow.