07/14/2011 09:03 EDT | Updated 09/13/2011 05:12 EDT

Public Transit in Canada: A Bigger Idea

As policy makers across our country grapple with the new reality of having to find significant carbon 'savings' throughout the daily economic life cycle of Canadians, public transit has suddenly become a major "cause célèbre." Despite the serious budget crunches and very limited system expansion plans in most of our cities, everyone now seems to be talking about how to get more commuters out of their cars and into buses and subways.

In Toronto these past few months, there has been a great deal of chatter about refurbishing subway stations, squeezing more people into newer and roomier subway trains, improving the customer experience and introducing 'smart' payment cards. Similar conversations are taking place in every major Canadian city and the ultimate objective is the same everywhere: make transit a more popular, accessible and natural choice for all urban dwellers.

We're obviously playing serious catch-up here. Canadian cities, much like those of our American neighbours, were not necessarily envisioned, designed or taxed with mass transit at their core. While in most of the rest of the world private automobiles and urban road systems have always been expected to play a support role to mass transit systems, North American cities were designed in exactly the opposite way. Cars led; buses and trains simply helped.

So the carbon crunch and the sudden change in expectations and priorities across our major cities now represent a serious new challenge for our urban administrators. How do we shift millions of Canadians from cars to transit if we don't have the spare capacity or the spare funds to quickly expand capacity? How do we improve the commuter experience as we try to squeeze even more people onto the same platforms and trains? And how do we accomplish all this without draining public funds even faster than we're doing it today?

To their credit, city administrators across the country are discovering and pulling on all sorts of interesting levers. They're finding ways to attract private sector capital through innovative partnerships, they're uncovering operational efficiencies by modernizing payment systems and equipment and they're working hard to contain labour costs and disruptions.

But, when you think about it, those are all just incremental solutions -- and while each of them can make a modest difference and help squeeze a few more smiling passengers onto buses or save a few more pennies, none can truly change our commuting landscape.

The only big lever, the one that can really change our country's relationship with its transit infrastructure is us. Yes, us!

Our daily lifestyles, our commuting patterns, our transit-shopping choices -- those all represent great opportunities for transit planners because the smallest shift in the behaviour of millions can make a huge difference for a mass transit system.

Imagine all the extra revenue for transit providers if one million more Canadians started taking transit to do their weekend shopping, instead of driving to the mall? Or the massive capacity relief (and room for extra revenue) if one million more Canadians commuted to and from work during non-peak hours? Or the operational savings if one million more Canadians found a better way to buy tickets or passes, instead of lining up at a ticket booth?

The best way to influence the behaviour of millions is through simple, targeted incentives -- especially when, as a nation, we are known to be among the world's biggest followers of loyalty and incentive programs.

In a tiny experiment last year, the Toronto Transit Commission offered its monthly pass customers a small incentive if they bought in advance a whole year's worth of monthly passes (giving the TTC the double benefit of more predictable revenues and less pressure at their ticket booths at the end of each month); the results were absolutely spectacular -- their sales went up by 57 per cent!

In a similar experiment a few months ago, the transit authority in Montreal began to offer its customers a small incentive if they simply purchased their monthly pass off-peak and off-line (from a participating retailer, instead of the transit ticket booths); once again the response was incredible.

Bigger ideas are often simple and affordable. Instead of resigning ourselves to the traditional view that it will take a lot of money and time to change our car-dependent cities, let's just think creatively. We have more than enough to work with, already.