COLUMN: Canada the nation could follow Finnish ways of transit

Finland is an efficient industrial country, tuned in to the Electronic Revolution. For Finns, access to the internet is a legal right.

This dial-a-bus system carries people swiftly and comfortably. It moves them just as fast as they could travel by owning and driving cars – for much less money. It responds on short notice, with brief waiting-times. It’s an experiment in Helsinki, Finland.

Finnish engineers believe their electronically-organized fleet of small buses on variable Demand Responsive Transit routes can displace many private cars and make a profit.

“The number of daily journeys made using the service could be in the hundreds of thousands within a decade,” says a Helsinki publicity message.

“This would substantially reduce congestion from the use of private cars and need for large-scale road investments.”

Finland is an efficient industrial country, tuned in to the Electronic Revolution. For Finns, access to the internet is a legal right. Finland’s national and local governments are networked together.

Could Canada follow Finland’s example in sharpening the usefulness of transit and extending its reach? The answer depends on another question: Is Canada a nation or just a loose jumble of provinces? We may find out before the next federal election, scheduled for October 19, 2015.

That answer will have a life-changing impact on urban and outlying semi-rural neighbourhoods from Halifax to Langford. It could run as follows:

“Yes, Canada is behaving like a nation in working to improve healthcare and transit.”

An unkind critic might say Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees Canada as a mere collection of provinces. He ignores pleas for national co-ordination of transit, healthcare and several other matters. (Pipelines that would pump Alberta oilsand slurry to B.C., are different. He allows them “national benefit” status. On this file he has done a magical turnaround.)

The provinces took a short-cut past the PM’s passive neglect when they joined together for national healthcare action that includes steps toward a pharmacare plan designed to bring down the cost of medicines by $10 billion a year through mass purchasing, and make low-priced drugs available to all Canadians.

The provincial-territorial health report, “From Innovation to Action,” identifies ways the healthcare system can both save money and reduce death and suffering: for example, care that safeguards foot-ulcer diabetics from having their legs amputated, and the team practice that enables paramedics to treat some ills on two Nova Scotia islands in collaboration with an off-island doctor.

The PM probably will short-change the provinces in healthcare funding negotiations in year 2014. Could they reach his heart with money-saving health-care efficiencies? Maybe.

Olivia Chow’s proposed national transit strategy could do for bus, dial-a-bus and rail what Roy Romanow’s enquiry and the co-operation of the provinces have done and can do for healthcare.

Action-talk focused on transit could show mainstream support for gingered-up public service. It could tell transit success stories and explain a few ways to make success happen, such as Helsinki dial-a-bus and a Vancouver Island enterprise linking demand-responsive buses to an economically-strengthened railway.

Interest groups from unions to corporations are on board for a national transit strategy.

Chow is Jack Layton’s widow and MP for Trinity-Spadina, Toronto. Her proposal, outlined in a private member’s bill, includes a national conference that will seek ways to put money in the hands of cities for inventive, people-friendly, cost-saving transit.

 

Such issues as transit and healthcare give the lie to outdated pundit-talk about the “free-enterprise vote” versus the “socialist vote.” The real struggle in the next federal election will be between problem-solvers and those who insist that all is well and deny political-economic shortfalls. I’m betting on the problem-solvers.

 

 

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