Energy self-sufficiency for New Brunswick, Part Four: transforming transportation

Published Tuesday, September 1, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

When it comes to energy self-sufficiency for NB, perhaps there is no more daunting sector than transportation.  Here’s an overview of the challenges and potential solutions.

The challenge

Virtually everything that moves people or freight in NB runs on fossil fuel – all of it imported.  Nearly a third of our total emissions come from planes, trains, trucks, ships, pipelines and personal vehicles – most from the latter.  

When it comes to de-carbonizing transportation and making NB energy self-sufficient, unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution.  But there is silver buckshot: a suite of actions, policies and technologies that, applied collectively and with commitment, will take us a long way in the direction we need to go.

First, reduce

In plant science, ‘luxury consumption’ refers to a plant absorbing more of a nutrient from the soil than it needs.  It could be said that we – all Western societies – have evolved into ‘luxury consumption’ of transportation.  We drive and fly more than ever.  We consume more products than ever that come from further than ever.

So perhaps a good first step would be to appraise our personal ‘transportation footprint’ – especially our motor vehicle use.  Is every drive we take really important and necessary?  Could many errands be combined into one trip?  Are there other options that don’t involve driving, like cycling or walking?  What about carpooling or using public transportation, especially on our daily commute?

And for other elements of that transportation footprint: could we videoconference instead of fly?  Do we really need strawberries in January, or all that merchandise brought in from China?

With commitment and focus on reduction and efficiency, there’s little doubt that NB could greatly reduce its emissions from transportation and its need for expensive imported fossil fuel.  A few well-placed incentives and policies could help give us that needed commitment and focus.

Policies

Amazing things can happen when the right thing to do is also the easiest or cheapest thing to do.  Here are a few suggestions for our leaders to help tilt things in that direction: 

  • Carpooling:  establish a full network of well-placed carpool parking lots along our highways.  Support the development of a province-wide, user-friendly secure ridesharing website like Saint John’s www.ShareYourRide.ca, to make it easy for commuters traveling in the same direction at the same time to connect.  Add a capacity for one-time rideshares like grocery runs, appointments or trips to and from campus.  
  • Public transit: support the development of improved networks and schedules.  Install lockable bike racks at bus stops.  Support the development of more suburban express services like Saint John’s Comex, and intercity commuter buses (IE Fredericton – Saint John).  Integrate carpool lots with transit systems and schedules.
  • Human-powered transportation: improve trail networks; add bike lanes and bike racks; enhance safety by giving bikes priority at intersections; promote the establishment of bike sharing systems like Montreal’s Bixi
  • Incentives and disincentives: gradually increase parking rates to nudge drivers toward alternatives.  Realign vehicle registration fees to discourage inefficient vehicles and promote efficient ones. 

Pay for all of the above by adding a few cents to the price of gas.

Technology

Electric vehicles, both cars and trucks, will be the ultimate solution to getting NB’s transportation system off of imported fossil fuel – provided the electricity to charge them comes from homegrown, non-emitting sources.  Incentives such as those offered in Ontario and BC could hasten their arrival, as would investments in more charging stations – perhaps in partnership with electric vehicle manufacturers.

There's no denying that achieving energy self-sufficiency in transportation will be a huge challenge.  It will take time, commitment, investment and education.  But the end results – sustainability, energy independence and greater self-reliance for NB – make it a goal worth pursuing.