Active transportation facilities: What works and what doesn’t when the snow comes

As someone who likes winter, I am obviously hoping for an April snowstorm. At the same time, I will concede that the winter cycling season is starting to wind down. Bearing that in mind, I decided to write about some of my observations from this winter concerning how well different types of active transportation facilities work for making practical trips once the snow has arrived.

My family and I are not religiously committed to winter cycling, and there is no question that we use our car considerably more between December and March than between April and November. At the same time, with some planning, the right equipment and the right clothing we’ve found that there are a considerable number of trips that are still well within reason to make by bike in the winter. Walking remains a reasonable option much of the time for short trips, and sometimes even skiing or snowshoeing can be useful and fun ways to travel.

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We do, for example, continue to make a number of local journeys where we live here in Chelsea, Quebec such as to local shops, to cross-country ski trailheads, to bus stops (where, conveniently we can load our bikes onto local Transcollines buses), and to our daughter Leena’s daycare. Another fairly common practice is to put our bikes on our car, drive to somewhere reasonably convenient in the city, and then take our bikes from there to get to work and other destinations.

Over the winter, I made a point of considering the conditions provided by different types of infrastructure and took some pictures. I also spoke with people directly involved with winter maintenance of these types of facilities. It became clear that no matter how hard the dedicated maintenance crews work (and they do work very hard in challenging conditions), if the infrastructure it not designed with winter in mind it often makes the provision of good conditions almost impossible.

Overall, the main conclusions from my admittedly small exercise are as follows:

  1. Physical separation from the roadway provides more comfort for AT

Whether you are walking or cycling, facilities that physically separate you from traffic (by virtue of a curb or other grade separation, a physical barrier, adequate space, or some combination) have a much higher probability of providing comfortable conditions once snow is a factor. Furthermore, physical separation often means that there is some room for snow to be stored between the roadway and the active transportation facility. This makes the job of snow removal easier for maintenance, and sometimes provides an additional buffer between pedestrians or cyclists and the roadway.

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On Old Chelsea Road the wide permanently protected multi-use path provided very good conditions for cycling (front of our cargo bike visible here on a trip to daycare) and walking this winter. My daughter’s daycare group (2-3 year olds) at Maison Montessori de Chelsea regularly walked along here to go to the library.

 

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On Scott Road in Chelsea, the combination of a wide and well-maintained  permanently protected multi-use path with a concrete divider (left side of picture, mostly covered in snow) provided good conditions for either walking or cycling, virtually all the time.

 

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On Kingsmere Road in Chelsea, a painted bike lane (protected by removable plastic delineators – often called bollards in the summer) begins to disappear as winter arrives.

 

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Meech Lake Road between Kingsmere Road and Gatineau Park parking lot #8. Buried under this snow is a bike lane that is separated from the vehicle lane by a double white line.

 

  1. Putting cycling lanes and walking areas at the same level facilitates snow removal

Facilities that put cycling lanes and walking areas at the same grade as each other (while keeping both separate from traffic) are evidently easier for maintenance crews to clear and are therefore more likely to provide good conditions after a snowfall. Examples of these types of facilities are permanently protected multi-use paths (already described) and  cycle tracks with adjacent sidewalks.

If pedestrian and cycling surfaces are at the same height, one pass with the right equipment does the job for both. Well-maintained multi-use recreational paths also work very well for the same reason. In my experience so far, well-maintained separated better conditions for either walking or cycling than any other kind of facility during the winter months. In addition to simplicity in maintenance, the overall greater width helps when snow inevitably narrows whatever corridor is available.

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A cycle track with adjacent sidewalk on Laurier Avenue in Ottawa before snow has arrived.

 

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The new cycle track with adjacent sidewalk on the brand new Main Street “Complete Street” in Ottawa provides good conditions after an early snowfall.

 

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By contrast, this traditional bike lane next to a sidewalk on Old Chelsea Road disappeared for most of the winter. These are much harder to maintain, and in consequence, rarely are.

 

  1. Pedestrian-scale lighting makes winter active transportation more appealing

 One additional challenge to winter active transportation beyond snow, ice, and cold weather is darkness. Where we live here in the Ottawa region, it gets dark between about 4 and 5:00 during the winter months, meaning that a large number of people who use active transportation for commuting will necessarily be out in the darkness. You can certainly light yourself up like a Christmas tree and simultaneously improve your own view with the wide variety of powerful lighting systems on the market today. At the same time,  there is no question that active transportation is generally more appealing when the facilities are well-lit and provide a welcoming and safe-feeling environment.

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A multi-use pathway in Hull, Quebec with pedestrian-scale lighting that makes for pleasant walking on a winter evening.

 

Personally, I am convinced that it makes sense to design active transportation infrastructure with winter in mind. Whether for walking or cycling, taking the time to think about how a given design will work when snow is a consideration and planning accordingly will provide better and safer conditions. This is better for the people who walk and bike already, and also in terms of attracting the considerable number of people who will inevitably walk and bike more if better conditions exist. Furthermore, facilities designed to work well in the winter (with their extra space and permanent physical separation) have clear advantages during the rest of the year as well.

Particularly during the winter months, I think drivers also prefer to have walkers and cyclists given their own separate space so that they don’t have to worry about things like whether or not it is safe to pass.

One final note, this time on winter cycling specifically. People will frequently state categorically that nobody bikes in the winter, and then suggest that investing in appropriate infrastructure isn’t worth it. I would argue that the fact that few people ride bikes in the winter is importantly the result of the generally poor winter riding conditions found in most North American jurisdictions, and not of winter cycling being inherently unappealing. Oulu, Finland, for example, has winter weather that Canadians would be proud of, with more days of snow cover than Winnipeg. It also has about 4 times as many cyclists out in the winter as Ottawa has in the summer. Not surprisingly, Oulu’s success can be considerably attributed to very good infrastructure and very high standards for winter maintenance. If you are interested, a good overview of  winter cycling in Oulu from a Canadian perspective is provided here by Anders Swanson:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/12/ice-cycles-northerly-world-cities-winter-bicycle-revolution

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The SJAM Winter Trail: About health, happiness, and sustainability

You can read about the SJAM here and here. The project involves the winter maintenance of a long stretch of the multi-use recreational path (with several additional loops) along the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway (which runs west from the edge of downtown Ottawa) for winter activity. Most people will likely think of it as a cross-country ski trail (and there is no doubt that it will be great for that) but the grooming will create both normal ski tracks and a wide compact surface that can be used for snowshoeing, walking, and winter cycling.

The SJAM is unique and exciting in several ways. It is completely free of charge, highly accessible to large numbers of people, and provides an opportunity for winter physical activity in a scenic recreational corridor that is underused in winter. Finally, it can also be used for practical and healthy transportation.

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The fact that Canada has a major physical inactivity problem that contributes to huge losses in terms of both quality of life and money does not receive a lot of attention. The number of children and youth who meet our nationally endorsed physical activity targets is 7 per cent. They spend twice as much time in front of screens as they do running around having fun. The number of adults who meet these targets is not much better, at about 15 per cent. In addition to the obvious and important associated quality of life concerns, the economic cost of this problem for Canada has been calculated to be $6.8 billion per year.

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One good way to make help increase physical activity levels is to make appealing opportunities for activity more easily available. The SJAM clearly accomplishes this. It is very close to important residential and business areas and will be accessible by both the Trillium and Confederation light rail lines.  Importantly, it doesn’t cost any money and people can use it whenever and (more or less) however they want. This clearly represents efficient use of a highly valuable and beautiful public asset that would otherwise see very little human traffic during winter months.

Finally, the SJAM provides unique potential to promote practical, active and sustainable transportation in winter. The route follows what is a major cycle commuter route in the summer, and links neighbourhoods west of downtown to each other and the city’s core. Furthermore, the Trillium line connection adds a large number of people from further neighbourhoods who could potentially take advantage. Skiing and cycling to work or other amenities downtown and along the route are real possibilities with the SJAM. At the moment, about 70 per cent of commuting in Ottawa happens by car. When you consider the associated pollution, inactivity, isolation and congestion, it’s fairly obvious that creating more opportunities for people to leave their cars at home makes sense.

The fact that the SJAM runs on a practical and scenic route that is completely separate from traffic means that it is exactly the kind of facility that appears most favourable to increasing winter active transportation. Oulu, Finland, for example, has what is arguably the highest rate of winter cycling in the world. In fact, Oulu has about 3 times more cyclists in the winter (which is very cold and snowy like ours) than Ottawa has in the summer. While Oulu’s success is the result of a variety of factors, part of the explanation is that its extensive cycling network is generally separate from traffic and maintained during the winter months. Evidently Ottawa has a large number of multi-use pathways that would be ideal for winter commuting that so far are mostly not maintained.

For all of the above reasons, while the SJAM project is highly worthwhile as a standalone project, it also represents a very useful model for additional efforts of this type both in Ottawa and beyond. I am looking forward to witnessing what is bound to be a very successful winter for the SJAM.

Congestion charging: It makes sense

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I was recently invited to contribute an opinion-based article to Public Sector Digest magazine. .

The original article is available with a subscription at Public Sector Digest:

https://www.publicsectordigest.com/articles/view/1588

With their permission, I am also posting it here:

PUBLIC SECTOR DIGEST | MAY 2016

Encouraging Sustainable Transportation: The Promise of Congestion Charging

Emphasizing walking, cycling and public transit over individual automobile
use represents an intelligent policy choice for cities, with obvious
benefits including those related to quality of life and health for
citizens, environmental protection, and importantly, economic efficiency.

At the most basic level, cities that are less dominated by cars are more attractive and enjoyable places to be, making them more likely to draw the talented and motivated people and organizations that help to drive a city’s economic and cultural growth. More specifically, getting people out of cars and improving conditions for alternative modes can contribute significantly to efforts aimed at mitigating traffic congestion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other types of damaging air pollution, improving traffic safety, and encouraging health-enhancing physical activity.

Furthermore, encouraging sustainable transportation carries significant potential for economic benefits. According to the C.D. Howe institute, for example, traffic congestion alone may cost the Greater Toronto Area more than $11 billion dollars per year <1>.  Meanwhile, investment in high quality public transit services generally supports economic development <2> and the building of walking and cycling infrastructure has been repeatedly demonstrated to be well worth the investment <3>.

Making the shift away from automobile-focused city design and planning in a North American context will require cities to overcome some very important obstacles. One of these is the lack of revenue sources that reliably and predictably provide funds for investment in sustainable transportation. Given the structure of the Canadian tax system (with its heavy reliance on property tax at the municipal level), municipalities have limited means to generate revenue relative to their overall responsibilities, including local transportation.The challenge of funding major public transit projects illustrates this problem. Generally,these require financial contributions from several levels of government, the securing of which therefore necessitates the resolution of a number of important political challenges.It is not surprising then, that public transit projects in Canada are often implemented on the basis of particular one-time agreements that make it difficult to appropriately plan and consistently develop public transit networks over time. Meanwhile, given that individual road projects such as widenings and extensions are generally cheaper and therefore easier to justify, automobile-focused road networks have a tendency to consistently expand.

One potentially promising method to create revenue that could be used for sustainable
transportation investment is congestion pricing. Briefly, this entails automatically charging drivers when they enter or leave designated zones (typically downtown) within a city. In addition to revenue generation, congestion pricing provides economic incentive for citizens to both reduce their automobile use and to choose sustainable alternatives.

Congestion pricing has demonstrated considerable success in cities such as Stockholm,
Sweden <4>. Upon permanent implementation in 2007 (following an earlier six-month trial in 2006) the total volume of traffic crossing the congestion pricing boundary decreased by more than 20 per cent relative to the original level. Traffic volumes have not increased since then, which is particularly impressive when one considers that the city’s population,economy and number of cars have all grown during the same period. Additional benefits in Stockholm include shortened travel times, reduced vehicle emissions, and (in combination with enhanced service), increased use of public transit. Furthermore, a study carried out based on the trial period indicated that the congestion pricing system resulted in a yearly net social surplus (social benefits calculated in economic terms) that would pay for the initial investment costs in roughly four years <5>.

While well-designed congestion pricing systems clearly have strong advantages for cities,
gaining public support appears to represent a considerable challenge, particularly in jurisdictions where car driving is dominant. The Stockholm example, however, should be considered encouraging. Before the implementation of the initial congestion pricing trial, only about one third of residents favored the idea. Support increased to over 50 per cent shortly after the trial began, and has since grown to more than 70 per cent <6>.

As cities strive to reduce the negative effects of automobile traffic, congestion pricing represents a unique opportunity to not only generate revenue, but to provide an effective incentive to drive less. While the implementation of congestion pricing is subject to important political challenges, the example of Stockholm indicates that residents who have experienced it may well grow to be supportive.

References:

1 Dachis, Benjamin. Cars, Congestion and Costs: A New Approach to Evaluating Government Infrastructure Investment.
C.D. Howe Institute Commentary No. 385. July 2013. Economic Growth and Innovation. Available at:
https://www.cdhowe.org/sites/default/files/attachments/research_papers/mixed/Commentary_385_0.pdf.
2 Litman, Todd. Rail Transit in America. A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits. Victoria Transport Policy Institute,
2015. Available at: http://www.vtpi.org/railben.pdf.
3 For example see: Martens, Sarah. Costs and Benefits of Cycling in Helsinki. Website: Eltis. The Urban Mobility
Observatory: http://www.eltis.org/discover/news/costs-and-benefits-cycling-helsinki-finland-0. Link to actual
study (Finnish only): http://www.hel.fi/hel2/ksv/julkaisut/los_2014-5.pdf. For a further example see Litman,
Todd. Economic Value of Walkability. Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2015. Available at:
http://www.vtpi.org/walkability.pdf.
4 For more details concerning the overall effects of congestion pricing in Stockholm, see: Eliasson, Jonas. The
Stockholm congestion charges: an overview. Centre for Transport Studies, Stockholm. 2014. Available at:
http://www.transportportal.se/swopec/CTS2014-7.pdf.
5 Eliasson, Jonas. Cost-benefit analysis of the Stockholm congestion charging system. Available at:
http://www.eltis.org/sites/eltis/files/case-studies/documents/stockholmcongestioncbaeliassonn0_8.pdf
6 The Stockholm congestion charges: an overview. Centre for Transport Studies, Stockholm. 2014. Available at:
http://www.transportportal.se/swopec/CTS2014-7.pdf.

Sharing the road

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Sign on Notch Road

Over the past 2 years I have been regularly taking my daughter Leena to her daycare by bike. The route I use includes stretches of both Notch Road and Mine Road where I live here in Chelsea, Quebec. These roads represent the only reasonably direct way to get from where I live to the Hautes Plaines area where Leena’s daycare is.

If I think about it critically, most drivers seem to behave reasonably when they have to pass us. Almost every day, however, there is at least one person who chooses to make a dangerous, disrespectful, and ill-considered move. The actions of these drivers put numerous people at totally unnecessary risk, including themselves. The most typical of these is to pass us when there is either oncoming traffic clearly visible, or when they are rounding a blind corner that makes it impossible to see if there is oncoming traffic (both of which are also clearly illegal according to the Quebec Highway Safety Code). The widths of the roads in question, combined with the lack of paved shoulders, mean that there is simply not enough room for cars to be passing cyclists safely when there is oncoming traffic. It goes more or less without saying that they are also driving well over the posted speed limit of 50 km/hr.

Typically, the result is that oncoming cars are forced to swerve onto the shoulder or hit the brakes with force, while we are passed far too closely to feel remotely safe. The following video is an attempt at capturing some relevant examples from my family’s daily travels.

Overall, this kind of driving results in an environment that is generally hostile for anyone not driving a car. That is a shame when you consider that everyone (think about kids and other people that don’t even have the option of driving, for example)  should have the basic right to safety on the road, and that more cycling and walking mean a whole number of good things for communities, with improved mobility, better health, less pollution and less traffic congestion being among the most obvious.

An important question is what to do about it. Fortunately, there are fairly well-established methods for improving these types of situations. The most obvious is to re-design roadways to encourage safer driving and to create safer conditions for cyclists and other non-motorized users. Features of roadways that improve safety include traffic calming, reduced speed limits, as well as dedicated and well maintained infrastructure for walking and cycling. Driver education (for all road users, cyclists included) and enforcement help too.

At another level, anything that can be done at a social level to create a higher level of mutual respect for all users of roadways also make sense. We can for example write letters, talk to our neighbours, start marketing campaigns, and report our concerns to relevant authorities like the police and municipal government.

To the credit of the Municipality of Chelsea, a number of important projects to improve safety have been implemented recently, and several more are in development. In fact, the Municipality is currently planning important upgrades to Mine, Notch and Kingsmere Roads over the next two years.  Yes, some of these measures require financial commitments that are not always easy to secure, especially in the short term. On the other hand, they have been demonstrated to save people’s lives, prevent injury, improve health, and reduce environmental damage.

Overall, unsafe conditions for people who walk and bike are not givens that have to be accepted. There are clear and well-established ways of improving safety and ultimately saving people’s lives. There also do not seem to be  any clear and logically defensible reasons not to implement them.

Copenhagen Road

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I spent most of last week in Copenhagen at a thought provoking academic conference called Sport in the City: Urbanity, Mobility, and Social Change, which was the 13th conference of the European Association for Sociology of Sport.

Among the most interesting topics from my point of view was the idea of the “active city”. While I am sure the definition of an active city is the subject of much debate, I took it to mean a city in which it is easy and motivating for everyone to be physically active, whether this activity be organized sport, informal play, or just getting from one place to another without an engine to help you.

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Outdoor climbing facility at the University of Copenhagen

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3 minutes after walking past the climbing wall I found a skate park

My overall impression from the research I learned about was that the most promising types of facilities in terms of actually helping people to be physically active are ones that are not particularly specialized. A public park that might  include walking/jogging trails, an outdoor gym, a skateboard park, soccer fields, and a playground would constitute an example of the kind of public space that is most effective for physical activity. It can be used for all kinds of people for all kinds of activities at all times of day completely free of charge. It doesn’t take much to realize that parks like this, especially ones that you can get to by walking, bike riding or public transit, are likely to do more for general well-being in a city than, for example, a hockey rink in a far flung suburb surrounded by an enormous parking lot.

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This walking/cycling path runs through a long narrow urban park referred to as “the wedge”

It was fitting that the conference was in Copenhagen. My exploration indicated that there was an incredibly impressive amount of high quality public space, much of it of a kind that could be used in active ways by so many different types of people. Of course, it goes more or less without saying that the preferred mode of getting around is cycling, which inevitably contributes pretty substantially to overall physical activity levels. For the record, roughly 63% of commuting trips to work/school originating from within City of Copenhagen are made by bike.

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Bike lanes are supposed to be wide enough to ride side by side

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It is not really that surprising that people like riding bikes when they get this much curb-protected space and their own turn lanes and traffic signals

While there are inevitably a variety of reasons for this success, the simple explanation is that Copenhagen has made a long term commitment to treating cycling as serious mode of transportation and has been willing to invest in facilities that make people of all ages and abilities feel safe.  From my point of view, there is ultimately not much preventing us from making a similar commitment here other than a current lack of public and political will. If more people could experience places like Copenhagen, even if just for a day, we might be able to improve our odds a bit.

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Average bike traffic

 

 

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Nothing of interest here…just normal bike parking.

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Typical of walking through the apartments of Osterbro

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A good way to do some important bike counting research

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Another nice place to rest, maybe with an open-faced herring sandwich

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Family fun (and fitness)

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It’s hard to take a picture without bikes getting in the way

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It’s like a religion or something

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Time to wind it down with some ice cream

A letter to the Low Down on the value of active transportion

I wrote the following letter to the Low Down, which is the famous newspaper of the Gatineau hills. The objective was mainly to  thank the Municipality of Chelsea for its recent investments things like bike lanes, recreational paths and sidewalks, and to encourage more of the same in coming years.

The text (as published in the Low Down on January 13) is as follows:

I appreciate the Low Down’s coverage of this year’s Chelsea budget. I think Chelsea residents can be pleased with decisions to continue investing in infrastructure and programs that support and encourage active and sustainable forms of practical transportation like walking, cycling, and public transit.

With the completion of the infrastructure work on Scott and Old Chelsea roads following the water and sewer projects, conditions for walking and cycling are immeasurably better. We are now significantly more free to leave to leave our cars at home when visiting local businesses and services. It’s now safer for kids to walk and bike to places like school and the Meredith Centre. Furthermore, the Transcollines public transit service makes it more feasible to get to the city and around our region without always having to rely on private vehicles.

Chelsea’s budget for 2016 includes amounts for studies related to implementation of paths for active transportation along Mine, Notch, and Kingsmere roads in 2017 and 2018, indicating that the municipality is committed to expanding its active transportation network over the long term. This will make non-motorized choices increasingly available to a growing number of people. From my point of view, the sooner this happens, the better off Chelsea will be.

Over roughly the last 10 years – first as a health policy analyst for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and now as a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa – I have become familiar with the scientific literature that clearly supports investment in active and sustainable transportation for very strong reasons.

One can reasonably expect these investments to lead to significant increases in physical activity, which is the fourth most important health risk factor worldwide. In Canada, over 85 per cent of adults and 93 per cent of children fail to meet the amounts currently recommended. Getting people out of private vehicles is a global objective given the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. From a social point of view, physical activity is associated with a variety of positive effects with respect to mental health, and it is clear that communities that get more people out from behind the driver’s seat are more fun, vibrant, and sociable places to be.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit is in the area of basic safety and mobility, particularly for the most vulnerable users including children and those with impairments. Dedicated infrastructure and associated traffic calming help to provide a level of basic safety and reasonable freedom of mobility for people on their feet or on their bikes, some of who are unable to drive (such as kids).

Investments in active transportation are associated with significant economic benefits. The City of Helsinki completed a study indicating that each euro invested in cycling facilities could deliver as many as eight euros in long-term health savings.

Choosing to invest in active and sustainable transportation is an intelligent and forward-looking looking choice and council deserves our support in adopting these measures.

New Possibilities with Transcollines Public Transit

This summer, Chelsea’s new public transit service, Transcollines (http://transcollines.ca/home/), made its debut here in Chelsea and the rest of the MRC des Collines. This is a great development from a number of perspectives. Among other things, it means that there are simply more options for getting around Chelsea and to adjacent municipalities. It also means that more residents have the option of living a less car-dependent, and therefore more sustainable and healthy lifestyle.

It also opens up some interesting possibilities for outdoor activity because you can do things like take a bus from Chelsea to Wakefield, for example, and then ski, run, or even bike (yes….you can bring your bike with you on the bus!) back.

One trip that I experimented with this summer and definitely enjoyed was running from our house in Old Chelsea down to our daughter Leena’s daycare (near Cité-des Jeunes/Hautes Plaines) and then taking the bus back with her. This is a good routine for us on either Wednesday or Friday when Megan and I both work at home. All in all this trip was great for several reasons.

  1. We didn’t have to use a car to get Leena to or from daycare. In the morning, Megan took her there by bike and rode back to our house. That means there was one less car driving around Chelsea, which means less pollution, less noise, and less traffic congestion.
  2. Both of us got some exercise as part of daycare pick up/drop off making it very time efficient. For us this is good because of course want to be in shape for ski racing season and we are definitely pressed for time right now. For other people it might just mean they get a bit more physical activity and are therefore happier and healthier than they otherwise would be.
  3. It meant that I got to do a very nice point-to-point style run through Gatineau Park that I wouldn’t have been able to do before.

All in all, I am really happy that Chelsea and the rest of the MRC des Collines has improved public transit options, and I am looking forward to using it in wide variety of ways.

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